Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sucked-empty Parties Going from Dull to Silly

Many observers had hoped that the eagerly anticipated Merkel-Steinmeier TV debate last Sunday would insert some freshness into the campaign, and at first it looked like it would. But it now turns out that instead, the battle for the Bundestag has just turned from dull to silly. And even though some observers might consider this progress, less cynical analysts are rubbing their eyes: what's happening?

It all started when Müntefering and Steinmeier, in an eager attempt to break out of the SPD's big strategic dilemma (i.e. the fact that the Social Democrats, given the polls numbers, are so far unable to explain how they intended to realistically win the chancellory for the SPD), publicly announced that a coalition of SPD, Greens, and the Free Democrats would now be their coalition of choice. Not only was this an unexpected twist -- it bordered on the ridiculous.

The SPD's main target in this campaign has so far has been the FDP. Steinmeier and his troops have tirelessly been trying to depict the FDP as being the very "neo-liberal" perpetrators whose ideologies have triggered the international financial crisis and who, if in power, would cripple the German welfare state and destroy social cohesion ("sozialer Kahlschlag"). But suddenly, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Müntefering and Steinmeier were musing about a three-way coalition including the Free Democrats, claiming that Westerwelle's party could cultivate a much stronger pro-business profile there than it could in a coalition with Merkel's CDU. What?

This last-minute attempt to recalibrate the SPD's campaign strategy, as understandable as it might be, illustrates the party's total desperation in the run-up to these elections. As the poll numbers fail to move upwards for the SPD (thereby shattering all hopes for a 2005-style eleventh-hour rally), the party is now embracing whatever phantastic short-term tactical manoeuvre promises some instant relief. To top it all off, on the same day, the SPD's popular finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, said in a video interview that the SPD should fight for a continuation of the grand coalition as it was the lesser risk for his party compared to losing power altogether. Even though there is some important truth in this, it was of course undermining Steinmeier's candidacy, and thus Steinbrück was forced to correct himself a few hours later. The damage was done, of course. Everybody was confused.

But also the CDU/CSU has provided its share of pre-election silliness. Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian CSU's strongman, announced yesterday that his party would soon present its own post-election "100-day-program" for economic growth -- without the CDU. The CDU had previously rejected Seehofer's idea to set up such a program together, claiming that it would irritate voters shortly ahead of election day.

To show such disharmony between the sister parties is of course highly unprofessional and potentially damaging. However, it illustrates the growing uneasiness within the CSU (and even parts of the CDU) about Merkel's content-free campaign. The deliberate strategy to neither attack nor provide too much substance is increasingly perceived as being too risky by conservatives. The move also shows how eagerly Seehofer is trying to get its Bavarian party back on track as the only viable political force in his home state. The CSU has never shied away from a certain kind of populism in order to cement and consolidate its still impressive power base in this southern German state. But it is of course too late now to credibly present a half-baked quick fix for the economy.

The episode serves as an indicator on how much in disarray the conservative camp in Germany is -- a fact long overshadowed by the publicly celebrated unravelling of the SPD. But it is not only the SPD that had its marrow sucked out of the party's backbone by this unwanted grand coalition. CDU and CSU will also be forced to embark on a thorough soul-search after the elections. As I said before in this blog: this might be a dull pre-election period. But boy, how interesting the post-election period will be!

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