No Landslide in Germany

By Stan Persky | September 24, 2005

If ever an election was designed to produce a landslide, it was Germany’s national contest last week. Didn’t happen. Why not? Glad you asked. All will be explained bye and bye, but first a little background music (maestro, some Nachtmusik, please):

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democratic (SPD)-Green Party governing coalition, in office since 1998 and seeking a third mandate in the beleagured and bogged-down economic engine in the heart of Europe, entered the race some 20 points behind their Christian Democratic (CDU) conservative opponents, headed by Angela Merkel, the East German-born-and-bred scientist who was poised to become Germany’s first woman chancellor.

The facts and figures made Schroeder’s prospects even more dismal. The 4 million unemployed workers he’d inherited upon taking office 7 years ago had swelled to 5 million, some 10-12 per cent of the workforce, with eastern German unemployment running closer to twice that rate. Growth had slowed to about 1 per cent a year, and cities like Berlin have been in recession for the last half-decade. Schroeder’s “reform” plans (more about that in a minute) have yet to yield any significant results. What’s more, every major media outlet in Germany and around much of the world insisted that Germany had to get a new government that would scale back the country’s “generous,” “bloated,” “extravagant” social welfare programs, cut corporate taxes, and make the labour force more “flexible.” (Whenever I hear the term labour “flexibility,” I see images of workers twisted into pretzels.)

A day before the election, even Canada’s Globe and Mail, in a lead editorial, explained “Why Germany needs Merkel as chancellor.” However, since the Globe also admitted that “the country is in the midst of a modest economic revival, profits and investment are up, and Germany’s exports once again lead the world,” it wasn’t entirely clear why the change in government was so desperately needed. In any case, once voters got to the polls, the landslide never happened.

Instead, what was billed as a pivotal election requiring a clear-cut outcome to give Germany the “best chance in many years to reform itself and get back on track,” resulted in a dead heat, a razor-thin plurality for the conservatives, and no party in a position to form an unambiguous governing coalition.

Before we get to why Germans refused the invitation to bring in a no-nonsense get-business-on-track conservative regime, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard and the score. This is slightly complicated, so bear with me. Like Canada, German’s parliament is a multi-party affair that requires delicate compromise and a lot of fancy dancing to form a government. Here are the parties, the team colours, and the scores (percentages in parentheses show the results from the previous 2002 election):

Christian Democratic Union (and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), colour black: 35.2 (down from 38.5 per cent in 2002).

Social Democratic Party, colour red: 34.3 (38.5).

Free Democratic Party, colour yellow: 9.8 (7.4).

Greens, colour green: 8.1 (8.6).

Left Party, colour deep red: 8.7 (0 per cent, since it didn’t exist in 2002).

Thus, no obvious majority combination. The CDU and its natural ally, the neo-liberal capitalist FDP add up to 45 per cent. Not enough for a majority Black-Yellow coalition. The former SPD-Green or Red-Green government pulled 42.4. Not enough. What about including the new Left Party, a Red-Red-Green coalition, since it polled a 51.1 per cent left-of-centre majority? Nice try, but no cigar. That’s because the Left Party is a combination of east Germany’s Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and a new west German movement, most of whose members are former social democrats, disgruntled with the SPD’s retreat from social support policies under Schroeder.

A week later, Germans are attempting to talk their way through a political stalemate. The CDU talked with the Greens in a futile effort to create a Black-Yellow-Green so-called “Jamaica Coalition” (since those are the colours of the flag of Jamaica). The talks lasted a half-hour, and were abandoned as hopeless. One of several remaining possibilities is a “grand coalition” of the SPD and the CDU, with Schroeder retaining the chancellorship for the first half of the term, and the CDU’s Merkel (or her successor) becoming chancellor for the conclusion of the term. But all that is speculative talk, and whatever patchwork solution is reached may not become known for weeks.

More important than the muddleed outcome is What It All Means. The clearest message from the German election and this is a message that hasn’t been mentioned in North American post-election pondering is this: Germans voters said no to the dismantling of society through neo-liberal/neo-conservative economic policies. What’s more, a majority of Germans voted for left-of-centre parties.

Though much of the German media wept in its beer over the “failure” of the election, a lot of Germans considered it a success. First, it means that there will be a political “slowdown,” and lots of people regard a slowdown as preferable to a rush toward dismantling welfare policies in the name of globalization, modernization and “reform” (another weasel word that in practice means lower business taxes and less benefits for workers, the unemployed and the elderly). Germans said they preferred “muddling through” to false clarity. Sounds a bit like “dithering” Canada, no?

Second, the outcome was a clear defeat for Merkel and her policies. Though she declared herself chancellor on election night, a majority of Germans said no not only to a speeded-up dismantling of traditional social democratic society (something that even the CDU has supported most of the time), they also said no to her pledge of cozying up to the U.S. in foreign policy, and her promise to reject Turkey’s application to become a member of the European Union. Merkel’s future in the CDU is now uncertain, since a significant wing of the CDU is sympathetic to some notion of a social market rather than out-and-out Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

Third, if many people are now claiming, perhaps prematurely, that Merkel is finished, Gerhard Schroeder’s political future is equally wobbly. He, too, declared himself the victor on election night, but many SPD voters cast their ballots while holding their noses, since Schroeder’s “moderate” anti-welfare “reforms” were hardly popular, even among his own supporters. His policy that ended long-term unemployment benefits and threw people onto welfare support brought out thousands of protesters on weekly marches last spring. The unpopularity of the “reform” program among SPD supporters is one of rthe major elements that led to the formation of the new Left Party.

Finally, there’s the always-ominous role of the media in all this. Not only the German media, but papers around the world, from the New York Times and International HeraldTribune to even our local Globe and Mail (what is the Globe doing offering recommendations to German voters?) have all fallen into the habit of attaching an adjective to the country’s social system. The German social welfare system is never described as “Germany’s social welfare system” but as Germany’s “generous” welfare system or “bloated” social benefits program, and it’s more than broadly hinted that Germany’s workforce has become coddled, lazy, and unrealistic about the steamroller inevitability of competitive gloablism. Anyway, the workers get too many holidays and it isn’t easy enough to fire them.

Amazingly, the media has largely gotten away with this insinuated editorializing with barely a challenge. Why not describe it as Germany’s “just” social system, or “intelligent” policies or relatively “sane” welfare state? Instead of debating justice and reasonableness, there’s simply been an unquestioned assumption that social benefits must be ditched in the name of prosperity. The New York Times in its post-election editorial blathered on about “critically needed economic reforms like lowering employment costs, making labour markets more flexible aand simplifying the tax code.” Which is pretty much what German voters rejected in last week’s election.

Of course, as Bertolt Brecht once sneered, if the government and the media don’t like the results, maybe they can elect a new people.

Vancouver, Sept. 24, 2005.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in:

More from Stan Persky: