Friday, September 25, 2009

Elections? Look at What's Coming Afterwards!

Now that the pre-election period is drawing to a close, let's take a glimpse at what to expect after the big day. As I wrote in this blog earlier, post-election Germany will be a much bigger source of political drama than it is now -- regardless of who is going to win on Sunday. So what will keep the country and the next government occupied?

1. The Budget Squeeze

A handful of leading politicians (among them Finance Minister Steinbrück and Economics Minister Guttenberg) have alluded to it, analysts are saying it all the time, but it still has not permeated the public: Austerity will be the governing principle in the years to come. There will be severe cuts in the government's budget after the elections, and the pains coming from that will be substantial. The trouble shooting during the financial crisis has cost a fortune and the government will be forced to lend money at an unprecedented rate. As roughly one third (this is not a joke!) of the federal budget is in one way or another earmarked for social transfers, this will be the quarry from which most of the drastic savings must come. Other parts of the budget will shrink, too.

Interest groups, trade unions, retired people and students will be up in arms, and the big debate about neo-liberal cold-heartedness and brutality which is supposedly undermining social cohesion will be headline news for some time to come. Some say that in light of this horror scenario, a grand coalition might be the more convenient and less conflict-ridden political constellation for the next four years. Could be, but whether the SPD can survive another round of Agenda 2010-style politics without imploding remains to be seen.

2. Party Re-Alignment

After these elections, Germany will most likely undergo the most profound re-alignment of its party system in recent history. Much of it will happen silently and over a protracted period of time, but some it will make noise alright.

It is the SPD that has the biggest problem. Agenda 2010 and the unloved grand coalition have melted down the ideological core of the party. Unlike the British Labour Party under Tony Blair, the SPD has never fully embraced a third way, and then-chancellor Schröder never put much effort into firmly anchoring the new course in the party. Consequently, real left-wingers branched off and embraced Die Linke or stayed at home and did not vote. After the elections, the SPD will have to pull off the almost impossible: somehow reconciling itself with its left wing and with Die Linke without alienating too many middle-of-the-ground voters. This will make for great political drama, including the inevitable change of personnel. Should the party join another grand coalition, this re-orientation process will only be postponed. Avoiding it will be impossible.

The Greens, who will likely end up in opposition, have a different task to manage: Can the successful fusion of its left-wing, alternative, pacifist core with its not so left-wing, BMW-driving urban professional constituency last? If so, the party has great prospects as the potential king-maker in future coalitions and might even be able to score election results substantially over 15 per cent. The Greens have used their time in the parliamentary opposition over the last four years brilliantly to position themselves well. The next big question will be whether coalitions with the center-right parties are a model for the future. If it is the Greens have turned themselves into a small Volkspartei. If they can complete their travel from eco-movement to "bürgerlich" without risking internal strife Germany is in for some very interesting new political options.

3. Crunch Time in Foreign Policy

I mentioned this third element in my previous blog entry. Huge tasks will be on the plate for whoever governs Germany as of next month. But the German people are fundamentally unaware of the dramatic changes in the international system and the consequences this has for Germany. More will be asked of the country very soon, with Afghanistan and Iran being only the hottest issues. The future of the EU and NATO will be as much part of the package as increased terrorist risks and increasing demands for German assets in the world. All that in a country that is openly lobbying for a permanent seat in the UN security council but finds it difficult to lead on any of these issues.

To sum it all up: the combined force of these upcoming fundamental conflicts will change the country. The lame campaign of 2009 almost looks as if the political players a desperately clinging to the old order of things. They, and everybody else who is now musing about the "miracle of dullness" might be in for a big surprise as of next Monday. Germany will be one of the most interesting political phenomena to watch in the years to come.

PS.: Lest I forget - remember that the next elections are already in the pipeline! Watch out for Northrhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state, to go to the polls on May 9th, 2010.

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