22/09/2002 - Analysis
It has been custom in Germany since 1949 for no government to be driven from power at the end of its first term in office. Will the German electorate keep to this on September 22nd or will they decide to change majority just like the Portuguese, Dutch and the French by going over from the Left to the Right? Today only four out of the fifteen EU countries - Greece, the UK, Sweden and Germany are governed by Social Democrats. Although in all probability the Swedes will re-elect Göran Persson's government on 15th September, the situation in Germany is far from decided. Gerhard Schröder's SPD were forecast victors at the beginning of the year by the opinion polls but over the months the intention to vote fell to lie 10 points behind the CDU of rival Christian Democrat Edmund Stoiber. This difference has now been reduced slightly as the campaign draws to a close.
The German Political System
General elections take place in Germany every four years using a personalised proportional system. During the election the voter has two votes to cast, one to elect a candidate from his constituency and the other to elect a party from a list of candidates on a Land-level (today Germany is divided into 16 Länder). The percentage of the second votes defines the number of seats granted proportionally to the different parties who have to win 5% of the votes cast to be represented in the Bundestag, the lower house in German Parliament.
In 1949 after the War there were 11 political groups in the Bundestag, but by 1957 their number had dropped to 4 and in 1961 and 1983 there were just three (SPD, CDU-CSU and FDP). The situation changed in 1983 when the Greens managed to achieve more than 5% and then in 1998 when the PDS – ex East German Socialist Party made their debut.
The fall of the two main parties (CDU and SPD) has logically coincided with the decline of the institutions in which they found their strength : in the SPD's case, the Unions (11.8 million workers were union members in Germany in 1991 in comparison with 7.8 million in 2000) and in the CDU's case, the Church.
It should also be noted that during general elections the Germans generally vote more for a party rather than a personality. The distinction is important since although the Social Democrat Party (SPD) lies far behind the Christian Democrat Union (CDU-CSU) in all the opinion polls today, Gerhard Schröder has until now enjoyed better personal popularity than Edmund Stoiber. The German system therefore will force Schröder to find the means for his party to draw advantage from his own personal popularity in order to have any hope in winning the elections. « Personalisation is greater in the minds of the electoral strategists than in that of electorate. They still judge according to major problems such as employment, healthcare policies and diplomacy. The degree of appeal is not sufficient. The suggestions made by the parties capable of forming a government remain essential» says Michael Greven, teacher at the Political Science Institute of the University of Hamburg.
At present five political groups are represented in the Bundestag that comprises 656 members:
- Social Democrat Party (SPD), majority group to the left,
- The Christian Democrat Union and the Social Christian Union (CDU-CSU), situated to the right on the political scale is the other major party. (the CSU is only to be found in Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber's stronghold)
-Alliance 90-The Greens (B'90-Die Grünen), formed when Alliance 1990, a citizens' rights movement from the former East Germany and the Ecologist party joined forces in 1993,
- The Liberal Democrat Party (FDP), a party that previously took part in all coalition governments with the CDU-CSU but in a more distant past with the SPD.
- The Party for Democratic Socialism (PSD), the communist party who took over from the Unified Socialist Party (SED) of the former East Germany.
The German Parliament also has an upper House, the Bundesrat, comprising members of the governments of the 16 Länder. Each Land has at least three representatives there; the Länder that have more than 2 million inhabitants have 4 representatives, those with more than 6 million have 5 and finally those with over 7 million have 6 representatives. The Bundesrat has 69 members at present..
The Election Stakes
In these German general elections two men with very different styles and histories are vying for the post of Chancellor.
On the right the 60 year-old CSU leader, Edmund Stoiber has been Minister-President of Bavaria since 1993, one of the most prosperous in Germany (second lowest unemployment level in the country, 5.5%) whose programme comprises two priorities: to encourage the innovative power of the middle classes and to develop school and university teaching. The CDU-CSU candidate enjoys the image of man attached to traditional values and is opposed to the homosexual marriage contract voted in by the Left. He is very much in favour of a re-launch of the Franco-German relationship about which he spoke at length with the French President Jacques Chirac in July.
On the Left, the 58 year-old social democrat Gerhard Schröder, who has been christened the Media Chancellor, came to power in 1998 after 16 years of CDU rule with the campaign slogan "Renewal and Solidarity".
However the Chancellor has failed in the main mission he set himself for his four year mandate – that is to decrease unemployment. "If I do not manage to reduce unemployment, then I do not deserve to be re-elected" he declared after his election in 1998; a promise that Edmund Stoiber keeps reminding him of now. Indeed in September 1998 there were 4.1 million Germans without employment, a figure that Gerhard Schröder promised to reduce to 3.5 million during his term in office. Four years later the situation has not improved since the number of unemployed has again just gone over the symbolic figure of 4 million – 4.04 million to be precise ie 9.9% of the active population.
Germany, a country with both export and industrial power, is very much dependent on its foreign trade and was even more sensitive to the Russian and Japanese crises, the slowing of the American economy (10% of Germany's exports are to the States) and even the instability in Latin America, than its neighbours. But these economic reasons do not explain everything. Today the crisis effecting the famous Rhine model is structural (co-management, co-operation between all economic players, companies, employees, company heads and unionists elaborated by the State – a guarantee of balance and redistribution). After the war it ensured Germany's economic expansion. Re-launch on demand has not facilitated the solving of the economic crisis the country is undergoing. Reunification, that was more problematic and slower than planned, only confirmed the problems inherent in the system. The Germans now have their backs to the wall and have to invent a new model for society.
Although the chancellor introduced a policy that intended to bring about reform during his term of office (withdrawal from nuclear power, new nationality laws, immigration laws, fiscal and pensions reform), he did not succeed in reforming the employment market that many economists, as do employers, think is too inflexible. A month ago he realised that it was urgent to suggest concrete solutions to the employment problem and gave Peter Hartz, Human Resources Director of Volkswagen and close to the SPD, the task of establishing a plan to attack unemployment. The report elaborated by the commission of experts was handed over to the Chancellor on 16th August presenting various measures but, because they have to be voted in by law, these measures will not be able to be implemented before the elections. This was a plan of attack that, in all circumstances, came too late.
In terms of employment the solutions suggested by the CDU-CSU candidate can be summarised by the formula : "Three times 40" ie raise social contributions to 40% of the salary, bring the maximum tax rate up to 40% of the income and the share of public spending to 40% of the GNP. These measures would be financed by using a part of the Bundesbank's 2001 profit, ie 7.7 billion Euros. Edmund Stoiber has also announced that he would re-examine his rival's fiscal reform. The CDU's Economic Council has suggested that the European deadline to balance public finances be pushed from 2004 to 2006 and to use the time gained to lower taxes.
In addition to this, and for the first time in Germany, the family comprises one of the major themes of the electoral campaign since the ageing population is a worry for all political players. The SPD plans to offer every school-leaver a job or training, to increase family allowances progressively from 154 to 200 euros per child per month, to reduce taxes for those who are raising their children alone, to create educational infrastructures for the youngest (Germany suffers from a lack of nursery facilities) and to open all-day schooling in 10,000 establishments by 2006 (German children only go to school in the morning). The SPD would dedicate 4 billion euros to education which is one of the most mediocre in the industrialised countries according to a recent OECD study. The CDU-CSU candidate has promised to increase allowances for families (a cheque of 600 euros would be given to parents of young children) and those with low wages.
Another first in this electoral campaign: the organisation of televised debates between the two main candidates. The first was held on 25th August on two commercial TV channels (RTL and Sat1), the second will take place on 8th September on a State channel.
The "small" parties
Although in all probability the future Chancellor will be from one of the two major German parties, all of the other political groups are involved in the electoral campaign. The FDP Liberals led by 40 year-old Guido Westerwelle aims to achieve a score of 18% ie three times the score of the 1998 general elections (6.2%) and well beyond its best ever score (12,8% in 1961). Although the FDP's electoral results have improved with each regional election with a remarkable breakthrough during the last regional elections in Saxony-Anhalt in April (13.3% of the vote), the opinion polls do not credit the Liberal group with more than 9% of the intention to vote ie half of the planned objective.
Recently the FDP was rocked by a polemic which smacked of anti-Semitism when, in an article in a magazine for young German revisionists, one of its MP's, Jamal Karsli, criticised the Israeli army for applying "Nazi methods" and Jürgen Möllemann, the party's Vice-President tacitly approved the Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilian and accused the Vice-President of the Central Jewish Council in Germany, Michael Friedman of encouraging anti-Semitism by his behaviour. In particular Jürgen Möllemann declared, "No one has played better into the hands of the anti-Semites – who unfortunately exist in Germany and whom we should fight against - than Ariel Sharon and in Germany Mr Friedman with his intolerant and hateful ways". Guido Westerwelle immediately requested that Jamal Karsli be thrown out of the FDP – that did not happen, since in the end, the party decided to keep the MP within its ranks (Jamal Karsli resigned from the FDP but however retained his parliamentary seat within the Liberal group). The main electoral claims made by the Liberal party involve the lowering of taxes, the simplification of the fiscal system and the end of the bureaucratisation of the Civil Service. The programme also includes reforms for companies, the total or relative privatisation of the retirement, healthcare and unemployment organisations, the construction of specialist schools for the most gifted pupils, the abolition of the National Military Service and the reduction of military personnel.
For their part the Greens have adopted a programme that confirms the break with their movement's original pacifism. Although in the past their basic programme demanded the dissolution of NATO and the abolition of the Germany army the new one proclaims "the legitimate use of force by a State of law and the international right to always be included." Their campaign focuses on their contribution to the reforms during the last term of office (dropping of nuclear power sources, institution of a homosexual marriage contract, ecology tax on energy, reform of the nationality law, law on immigration) when the ecologist party participated in a federal government for the first time. The Greens who are lagging slightly behind new movements such as Attac-Germany have placed globalisation at the heart of their campaign. Although their leader Joschka Fischer is still the most popular political figure in Germany the opinion polls only credit the ecologist party - who have suffered a long series of setbacks during regional elections over the last few years - with 7% of the intention to vote, ie just slightly over the fateful 5% mark and their 1998 score of (6.7%).
Three weeks before the vote the gap between the two main candidates is narrowing in the opinion polls. According to a survey by Emnid between 19th and 22nd August, 39% of those interviewed would vote CDU against 36% for the SPD. In addition to this the most recent poll by Allenbach, the oldest of the German pollsters, credits 40.1% of the intention to vote to the CDU against 32.9% only for the SPD. According to the various pollsters the FDP would win around 10%, the Greens between 6% and 7% and the PDS 5%.
It is difficult to forecast the results of these upcoming general elections. This election will be decisive for the future of our German neighbours and also for the EU of which Germany, the continent's most populous country, comprises one of the historic pillars.
Reminder of election results – 27th September 1998:
Participation : 82,3%
Source German Statistics Institute