Saturday, September 26, 2009

Election Day Notes of a Proud Political Junkie

So, this is election day. Finally. Being both a political junkie and the proud product of our post-war West German democracy (even granting myself the occasional bout of that specific, timid patriotism that Germans have developed for themselves and which they still find so difficult to embrace), election day always gives me a slightly elevated feeling of eminence, duty and suspense. I imagine this feeling to be the mini-mini-version of the kick that supposedly gives politicians the adrenaline they live off.

With this peculiar emotion serving as the backdrop, here are my final notes before the results will be rolling in on Sunday night.

1. Yes, it was boring

There have been numerous attempts to counter the common perception that this was a boring campaign. I think they are misguided. The widespread perception that this was a dull campaign wasn't just the product of media framing, as was obviously suggested by some pundit at a conference the other day (see Friday's blog entry by Eric Langenbacher). It was simply the truth.

Political pundits are never bored about any campaign because they don't need any content to get excited. All they need is the daily tactical manoeuvring of parties and candidates, a steady flow of minor scandals, and of course the latest poll numbers. For them (and this includes myself), this campaign was a feast because that was all there was.

However, for the regular Joe in the street who couldn't care less about petty inside-the-beltway-babble, this was indeed the most boring campaign he can remember. It was also the campaign that gave him the least orientation and guidance as to where he should check the ballot this Sunday.

To be sure, there were many attempts to insert some substance into the debate -- tax policies, the minimum wage, nuclear energy, banker bonuses, you name it. But nothing caught any traction. All issues disappeared after just a few days in the limelight (and sometimes even quicker). A curious phenomenon that deserves a few closer looks once all this is over.

2. Merkel's campaign triumph

There is already one winner in this election, and it's Angela Merkel. Her triumph is substantial: she got exactly the kind of campaign she wanted: very little conflict, very little substance, no promises.

It remains to be seen whether this will produce a result she could rightfully call a victory. But her triumph lies in the fact that none of her contenders, neither Steinmeier and the SPD, nor the Greens, the Free Democrats, or the Linkspartei, were able to undermine her strategy. None of them managed to drag her out of her corner and to seriously challenge her presidential pose. "It was all so mediocre", Derek Scally, the Irish Times' very perceptive and clever Berlin correspondent told me during an extended late-morning breakfast session in Kreuzberg on Saturday. "She just got away with it."

But this triumph can very quickly turn into a problem for the chancellor. "If this strategy does not produce the intended result, there is no-one she can blame except herself," Scally said. He's right. A Merkel campaign it was from beginning to end. And Merkel will harvest what she has sown -- one way or the other.

3. Good bye, old republic

The meaninglessness of the campaign and the fact that a second edition of the grand coalition looks increasingly likely are witnesses to the end of Germany as we know it. The boringness might mark the end of the old ideological battles, as Berthold Kohler suggests in Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It certainly marks the end of the old party system which was the hallmark of the Bonn republic. It is evidence of the utter stability of German democracy that this system, built around two Volksparteien, survived for so long after it got transplanted from West Germany into the freshly unified country.

Now, 20 years after the fact, it simply does not serve its main purpose any longer, i.e. the fabrication of clear majorities and stable governments. The post-unification era is over. The new republic will emerge in the upcoming years -- probably rather sooner than later. And the process is already under way. Both the SPD and the CDU will be confronted with disastrous election results. Returns between 25 and 35 per cent are a far stretch from the self-proclaimed aspirations of catch-all parties (and there are no brilliant party ideologist and strategists, such as old CDU's Heiner Geissler or old SPD's Peter Glotz anywhere on the horizon to rise to the occasion and redefine what it means to be Volkspartei.) The other three parties have stabilized themselves at roughly equal levels somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent.

It's now common talk that this will lead to new, formerly unthinkable coalitions, and it's true. But few people realize that this will also change Germany and its political culture beyond recognition. Let's not be nostalgic about the old order of things. It served the nation well. Now something new is on the horizon. We don't know what it will look like. So allow your humble blogger a personal remark on this election day that means so much to him: let's make it an even better Germany than the great one we have lived in over the last decades. So that president Horst Köhler is proven right: Germany's best days are still ahead of her.

PS.: a good first step would be to go out there and vote, everybody!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis, Jan.

    What I would like to know, Jan, is whether there are EVER exciting elections in Germany. As an American who has lived about 1.5 years total in Germany, I have been struck by the differences in our electoral systems. I think that the use of party lists, among other things, leads to less excitement and interest among voters.

    And this was pretty much Merkel's election to lose, as you pointed out. Her success (assuming she wins) is just as much a result of clever strategy as it is a reflection of Steinmeier's lack of finding any compelling reasons for people to vote for him.