Germans vote today while the rest of Europe holds its breath

This is today’s coverage of the German elections in the Cypriot newspaper Phileleftheros.

The Greek text was written by Xenia Tourki and was based -inter alia- on interviews I conducted with Professor Christiane Lemke, current Max Weber Chair in German and European Studies at NYU, and Professor Claus Offe, Professor of Political Sociology at Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. I have translated the text from Greek to English, but I have used the original answers that the German professors gave in English, as opposed to re-translating the Greek text back into English.


The question is whether Berlin’s austerity course will change

It was a calm election campaign where no particular theme dominated the discourse

Germany holds its elections today and all European attention is turned towards it. There have been very few elections where so much interest and so much anxiety was involved – not by the German themselves but by other citizens across Europe. Whether the German politicians admit it or not, these elections are crucial as they will perhaps define the future of the European Union. In spite of this, in the last few days some of the most reputable newspapers in Germany have stopped writing much about the election because it is not such an interesting topic. All surveys show that the Christian Democrats (CDU), the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, will have a comfortable victory. The question still pending is whom will Angela Merkel form a coalition with, and how likely is it that the new German parliament will agree on measures tht will resolve the eurozone crisis.

Surveys conducted in the past week showed that the CDU get more than 39% in voters’ intention. Their current partners in the coalition government, the Free Democrats (FDP), get a 5%, which is the threshold necessary to enter the parliament. The Social Democrats remain at 25%, the Greens fall to 13% and the Left Party gets around 7%. The Alternative for Germany (ADF) is not expected to enter the new parliament.

Speaking to our newspaper, Christiane Lemke, Professor of Political Science at New York University, argued that the election campaign has overall been calm with no one single theme dominating the public discourse. This is why the governing coalition was able to rally its supporters, emphasizing on the development and competitiveness of the German economy. On the other hand, the opposition focused its campaign on social equality, but was unable to convince more than 27% of the voters.

According to Christiane Lemke, opinion polls showed that jobs and the economy in general were the most important themes in the election campaign, followed by social security and energy prices. She added: “Surprisingly, the eurozone crisis was hardly mentioned and European politics played only a marginal role in the campaign.”

Angela Merkel emerged as the central figure in the election campaign, and the high popularity she enjoys vindicate her party for basing its election campaign on her persona. But where does this high popularity come from? Christiane Lemke pointed out that Angela Merkel is highly popular as chancellor because the majority of Germans feel that she represents continuity: “The political style of her governance was one of moderation and pragmatism. She is perceived as a politician of integrity and moderation. Despite of criticism on the left and on the right, for example, she has overall received high approval for her handling of the Eurozone crisis. During this election campaign she has carefully avoided to touch on controversial themes and she has made no major mistakes in the campaign” said the German professor.

On the other hand, the campaign ran by Peer Steinbrück and the SPD failed to achieve its targets. Peer Steinbrück served as Minister of Finance during Angela Merkel’s first term in office. The fact is that the policies of the two parties are indistinguishable on many issues. What is unfortunate for the candidate of the SPD is that they failed to articulate an alternative and radical discourse even on the themes that they do differ, something that would have allowed him to distinguish himself. In recent years, the SPD has shifted from the left to the center. But in the center it did not find the space that would allow it to show something different and original.

In the worst position of all stand the Liberals who, seeing that they will be left outside of the parliament, are trying to “steal” votes from the Christian Democrats. In this struggle for survival, they have resorted to every means available in order to gather as many votes as possible. In some constituencies they came into contact with the local organizations of the CDU in order to support each other and exchange votes. But if this is done on a large scale, it is likely that Angela Merkel will actually achieve a smaller percentage than the one appearing in opinion polls.

That is why Angela Merkel made sure to give a clear and firm message on this early on. The German chancellor said that the CDU does not give away votes, and that the party cannot afford to lose the support even from a single candidate: “As regards the second vote, maybe my name is not on the ballot, but it is a vote that will help me remain chancellor. I therefore ask for both votes. Only by voting CDU do you get Merkel as a chancellor”, was the clear message she sent to every direction.

The decline of the Greens

Two and a half years after their emergence as one of the dominant parties in the political scene of the country, the Greens seem to have lost their charm and their popularity went downhill. In April 2011, opinion polls were showing that the party had climbed up to 28%, allowing many to dream of a Green chancellor. Since then, many things have changed and the estimates are anything but encouraging. The Greens have fallen below 10% and the dream of a coalition with the Social Democrats has diminished.

As the Spiegel magazine wrote, the Greens began making policy recommendations in areas in which they had no previous experience which seems to have cost them. One of the key demands of the party was to raise taxes on people with high income as well as institute a levy of 1.5% on large properties in order to enhance social justice. And it is true that many followers of the party support these proposals, although they themselves belong to high income earners. But this strategy seems unlikely to attract new fans to the party.

Opinion Polls show grand coalition

What is still open in this election is the partnerships that will be formed according to the percentages each party will get. The current political scene could be subverted since the opinion polls bring ever closer the scenario of a grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, with the Liberals hardly managing to enter parliament. Of course this “partnership” leaves neither of the parties satisfied. However, in recent days both parties seem to have realized that the new state of affairs may well be that they will have to govern together, thus they have both toned it down. Professor Christiane Lemke said that the undecided voters, amounting to 20% of the electorate, still have a big role to play.

According to the German professor, there are three possible scenarios. According to the first scenario, both the Christian Democrats as well as the Liberals will enter the parliament so the coalition will continue as it is today. The second scenario is that the FDP fails to reach the 5% threshold necessary for entering parliament, so the CDU will be forced to look for other partners thus turning to the SPD. This means that Germany will have again a grand coalition. Angela Merkel will continue to be chancellor but she will have to consult with the Social Democrats on all issues. A third scenario brings the center-left to power: although the CDU will come first, it will not be able to form a government if the FDP is left out of the parliament. At the same time, the SPD, the Greens and the Left, will have gathered enough votes to form a coalition and govern. Presently, however, the Social Democratic Party says it has no intention of ruling together with the Left.


The elections will determine the course of action in the eurozone

Claus Offe : The objective of development for the southern periphery of Europe is out of reach

The elections in Germany are very important for the European Union, especially for the southern countries that are suffering under the austerity measures and the respective Memoranda. Many people in Greece, Cyprus and Spain, hope that the current policies implemented by Berlin will change, and austerity will not be the only way they go about resolving the crisis but the same emphasis will be given on development policies that aim at eliminating unemployment. Our special collaborator, Christos Hadjioannou, spoke with Claus Offe, Professor of Political Science at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, on what European countries expect from the new German government. Indeed, the European Union anticipates a policy change. At the same time however, Berlin has been sending the message that this is not going to happen.

While Europeans are not demanding, for it they are still hoping for a change in the German approach. From Athens to Lisbon and from Paris to Rome, governments wish that Berlin will quickly move towards a banking union and adopt an expansionary policy that will help bring growth and combat unemployment in the Eurozone. Professor Claus Offe, provided us with his own assessment on this issue. He believes that Germany will handle the Eurozone crisis in a way that would protect its own interests.

Will the election outcome have far-reaching consequences for the South Europe countries?

That will largely depend upon the South Europe countries themselves and the their ability to make their voice heard at the level of EU institutions. External pressure (and not just that of the financial markets) will be essential  for the course the new German government will take.

The Economy and the Eurozone crisis is the most important issue right now in the EU countries like Greece , Portugal, Cyprus expect that there will be a new policy that emphasizes growth rather than austerity. What is your opinion?

The problem may well be that growth, development, and “full” employment are out of reach for major parts of the southern periphery of Europe, given the global shift growth to other regions. If the EU cannot significantly promote growth and development in the South, what needs to be done is the prevention of further decline of social conditions through European-level fiscal and social policies. Yet the huge volume of redistribution (between member states as well as between social classes)  that this will require has not yet come to the awareness of anyone, least of all German voters.


What can Germany, as the leading country of the EU, do in order to resolve the economic crisis?

Not very much, as far as we can tell today. Yet whatever Germany will do is likely to be driven by self-interest and undertaken in view of the fact that the further decline of the “periphery” (and, most of all, the break-up of the Euro zone) will affect the German export based economy in strongly negative ways.

The far right is being provocative again

The far-right party NDP distributes tickets and condoms

This is not the first time that the far-right exploits an election campaign in order to provoke. This time the right-wing party NDP chose to send virtual tickets to parliamentary candidates with an immigrant background. The “one-way tickets” were marked with the words  “from ‘Germany’ to ‘Home’” and had “immediately” as date of departure.

The tickets were accompanied by a letter that started with the salutation “Hello immigrant” and then offered a brief history of the etymology of the word “immigrant”. In the letter, the far-right Berlin politician Jan Sturm explained that the German word “migrant” comes from the Latin word “migrare” which means “to hike”. “Migrare though also means to migrate. We see in this a practical and useful solution” wrote the NPD politician, essentially requesting the recipients to leave the country.

At the same time the NPD threatened the candidates on the grounds that they are exercizing political influence on the German ethnic group which, “in accordance with the human rights context, could result in criminal prosecution”.
“This letter is a shock to me,” said Fabricio do Canto, a politician from the Pirate Party who was one of the recipients. The German politician of Brazilian origins said that he was concerned for his safety and wondered how they found his address. The candidate of Turkish origin, Cansel Kiziltepe, said she had not received a similar letter, but underlined that she will file a lawsuit against the NPD in case she receives it.

In addition, two weeks ago the youth of NDP sent condoms to “foreigners and some Germans selected”, implicitly urging them to “not procreate”. However, this initiative by the young right-wing turned into a boomerang: in order to distance themselves from the NDP, the company that manufactured the condoms, R&S, decided to donate the money they got to the Amadeu-Antonio foundation, an organization that fights the extreme right. Thus, the NPD ultimately funded one of its greatest enemies.


About Christos Hadjioannou
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