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Germany - General Elections

General Elections in Germany
a round-up one week before the vote

General Elections in Germany
a round-up one week before the vote

21/09/2009 - D-7

Just one week from the election the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel is still ahead of its main adversary the SPD, represented by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. However in a shifting, uncertain political landscape the game is still open. In 2002 Gerhard Schröder (SPD) narrowly beat Edmund Stoiber (CDU) and in 2005 less than one point (0.9) separated the CDU and the SPD whilst the CDU had enjoyed a comfortable just one month prior to the election.

A lifeless campaign

With a lack of any real debate of ideas or clear promises with regard to vital issues the German electoral campaign has been particularly lifeless. In addition to this the fragmentation of the political arena is such that the re-election of the outgoing "grand coalition" does not seem unlikely. Finally there is no real alternative to the present policy.

"I do not agree with those who criticise the work accomplished by this grand coalition simply because the SPD is part of it. But it is clear that this government has reached the end of the road and that Germany needs a government that is made up of the CDU and the FDP," repeats Angela Merkel. Although she says she wants to govern with the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP), she has until now carefully avoided saying what kind of policy changes this alliance would lead to. She recently thanked the unions for the "the vital role they are playing in the government's recovery plans" and promised "not to interfere with social guarantees such as protection against dismissal or minimum salaries which have been introduced into certain areas," two measures which the Liberals have requested.

"My credo can be coined in a phrase: growth created by employment," repeats the Chancellor. "We have the power" claims the CDU slogan. However the outgoing Chancellor who would like to think she is above the political parties and encouraged by the fact that 2/3 of the Germans would elect her as head of government if the choice could be undertaken by universal suffrage, she has focused the campaign on herself. To prevent any ideological difference emerging she refuses to respond to attacks made by her adversaries. "I always noticed that I received many unhappy letters when I raised my voice. People don't like it," says Angela Merkel who knows better than anyone else that electoral campaigns which are stained with aggression have never benefited those who used them in Germany. "The CDU campaign is extremely judicious. Somehow it places the Chancellor above the parties' disputes. Reducing her to a simple partisan candidate would be an error," stresses Oskar Niedermayer, political analyst at the Free University of Berlin.

However this strategy does not meet unanimous agreement in the CDU. Many question the vague picture maintained by Angela Merkel with regard to her desire for consensus and to the lack of vigour and fighting spirit; many would like the Chancellor to be pugnacious and distinguish herself more from her opponents. Horst Seehofer the Christian Social Union (CSU) leader, the CDU's ally has asked the Chancellor to present her programme and the measures she intends to establish to bring Germany out of the economic crisis. "We must now clearly explain the positive points of an alliance with the FDP. It is now urgent, we must set down our joint programme," he stressed. The CSU is against a relaxing in the law on dismissals, the abolition of minimal wages established in certain sectors and the setting of contributions to health insurance, measures which have been put forward by the Liberals.

FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, accuses the CDU of not fighting a joint battle with his party and says that Angela Merkel, without clearly saying so, wants the re-election of the outgoing grand coalition, a plan that would enable her to govern the country without any real opposition for four additional years. "The CDU is fighting the FDP rather than the SPD, the Greens or Die Linke and it is aiming at the wrong target. I have accepted this situation stoically for weeks and even months, now I have had enough," he said. "If the CDU does not start stating clearly what it aspires to then there it is running the risk that its easy lead in the polls will decline because the electorate will think that it wants to continue the grand coalition," added the FDP General Secretary Dirk Niebel. Finally Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former Foreign Minister (FDP) from 1974 to 1992 indicated that "the uncertainty maintained by the CDU with regard to the partners it wants to govern with explains its poor results in Saarland and Thuringen in the regional elections on 30th August last."

On 13th September Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier faced each other during a 90 minute televised debate that was broadcast by four state and private channels achieving an audience of 20 million. This debate was only the fourth of its kind in the country's history (the first took place during the general election in 2002); this can be explained by the fact that the electorate in Germany votes more for a party than a candidate in the general elections. Like the campaign this duel did not really meet expectations and finally looked more like a conversation between friends than a political combat. "It sounds more like a duo than a duel," declared one of the journalists who hosted the debate. "It felt like the grand coalition in all its glory," stressed FDP leader Guido Westerwelle after the debate.
During this debate Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised the Chancellor for refusing to adopt a minimum salary as asked by the SPD and rejected a project to extend the life of certain nuclear power stations beyond 2020.

Finally Germany is being criticised by its European partners, some of whom are accusing it of having simply defended its own interests in the Opel affair. According to Angela Merkel's wishes the German car manufacturer, a branch of American General Motors will be taken on by Canadian spare parts manufacturer Magna which will be granted 4.5 billion € in state assets. Magna which will hold 55% is planning to destroy 10,500 of the 50,000 jobs the Group has in Europe but it has promised not to close any of the four factories in Germany in which 25,000 people are employed. "If we had not granted additional funding (1.5 billion euros) in the autumn to maintain Opel afloat other Europeans would have had problems. Fair's fair," said the Chancellor on 17th September adding that she was committed to "solving the remaining issues fairly across Europe."

Lessons to be learned of the regional elections

The three Länder (Saxony, Saarland and Thuringen) renewed their regional parliaments on 30th August last. Until then they were governed by the CDU (in coalition with the SPD in Saxony). The Saarland is the realm of Die Linke's leader, Oskar Lafontaine often nicknamed Napoleon of Saarland who governed there from 1985 to 1998. In Thuringen Dieter Althaus, candidate running for re-election is under prosecution for manslaughter. On January 1st 2009 he collided with a woman on a ski-slope and she consequently died.
These elections revealed a weakening on the part of the CDU in the three Länder even though it easily drew ahead in the election. The CDU's decline does not benefit the SPD which has only made progress in Thuringen and has clearly fallen away in Saarland – but it has profited Die Linke which achieved high scores, coming second in Saxony and Thuringen. After the elections Angela Merkel said she had learned from this after witnessing the defeat of one of her close colleagues Dieter Althaus (who resigned from office just a few days after the election); she said that she had understood "how important the social aspect was for people". But the regional elections that revealed the problems the Chancellor might have in winning enough votes to be able to form a coalition with the FDP did not comprise a real poll just one month before the general election on 27th September.

The strategies of the parties running

"The parties are going to have to get used to us" said Gregor Gysi chairman (with Oskar Lafontaine) of Die Linke parliamentary group after the regional elections. Die Linke also recalled its opposition to German military presence in Afghanistan. "Die Linke scorn Germany's international commitments and request the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan and the end of NATO," declared SPD leader Franz Müntefering accusing Oskar Lafontaine of "having let his country down". "There will be no cooperation nationally between the SPD and Die Linke," he repeats.

In no way did the regional election enable the SPD to make a breakthrough. "The SPD's main problem is that people think it has no competence in economics, they think it is incapable of governing," says Manfred Güllner of the pollster Forsa. The SPD candidate for Chancellorship, Frank-Walter Steinmeier continues to pick bones with Angela Merkel. Uncharismatic and lacking electoral experience he has not managed to assert himself as a credible alternative to the present Chancellor as head of government, neither has he enabled his party to win back its traditional electorate who have distanced themselves, notably over the last decade. "I respect her for a skills as a communicator but no one knows what she (the Chancellor) believes in, including her own party. If the majority of the electorate is expecting a debate of ideas we may be able to reverse the situation," stressed Peer Steinbrück, Finance Minister (SPD).
On 5th September the union IG Metal (2.3 million members) organised a pre-electoral rally – without previously advising on how to vote – and this was a first. Although its chairman, Bertold Huber personally supports Frank-Walter Steinmeier he also spares the CDU reserving his criticism for the FDP whom he accuses of "submitting to the law of the market and endangering the social State." The latest unemployment figures (8.3% i.e. 3.4 million unemployed), which have fallen over the last few months were a surprise.

The FDP is attracting voters who are most concerned by the State's growing involvement in the economy. "Those who do not want the socialists and the communists to decide must go and vote and support the middle classes by voting for the FDP," repeats Guido Westerwelle. The Greens are against any reduction in taxes and are suggesting the establishment of a minimum fixed pension for anyone who has worked for at least 33 years and is asking for a moratorium on the construction of coal fired power stations. Although the ecologist party says it is open to discussion with all other parties, Jürgen Trittin, the Green's deputy chairman in the Bundestag (lower chamber of Parliament) stressed that his party is determined to prevent the formation of a CDU-FDP coalition and that it is not planning to join forces with either of these two parties. "We want to prevent the formation of a conservative-liberal government which would mean less money for education, for the fight against global warming and the continuation of the nuclear power programme," he said.

On 6th September a letter addressed to all of the German bishops was read out during mass to encourage Christians to vote on 27th September. "He who does not use his right to vote actively relinquishes the right to influence politics," says the text. The settlement of the financial and social crisis via ethical measures, the protection of a person's dignity at all stages in his/her life and access to a social security system for all are the themes which the archbishops believe voters should bear in mind before putting their slip into the ballot box. Last February the Catholic faction in the CDU, concerned at seeing its most conservative voters turn away from the party reacted badly to criticism of Pope Benedict XVI on the part of the Chancellor, who is a Protestant and the daughter of a pastor. Angela Merkel said how angry she was after the rehabilitation of the fundamentalist bishop Richard Williamson who denies the existence of the Holocaust.

"The five party political constellation will continue after the general elections on 27th September and we can count on shaky, complicated negotiations," declared political analyst Oskar Niedermeyer. Just one week before the election nothing is certain about the result or the coalitions which might be formed after the vote.
According to the latest polls by Forsa on 14th September the CDU is still comfortably ahead in terms of voting intentions with 37% of the vote. It is ahead of the SPD that is due to win 24%, the FDP 12%, the Greens 11% and Die Linke 10%. However nearly four voters in 10 still have to decide just days before the election.
"2 or 3 percentage points in one direction or another and the CDU-FDP coalition dream may not last for long," indicates political analyst Everhard Holtmann.
For the CDU the re-election of the outgoing grand coalition will be synonymous to remaining in power with a weakened partner. This option seems however the only realistic one open to the SPD which does not appear to want to join forces with Die Linke.
As in every general election the Germans were asked about the effect of the vote. Nearly ¾ (73%) of those interviewed, the highest score ever recorded, answered the following question negatively "Will this vote change the country's future?"
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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