The general elections in Germany, a round up one week before the vote


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


12 September 2005

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Deloy Corinne

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).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

On 25th August the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe rejected the appeal made by MP's Werner Schulz of the Green Party and Jelena Hoffmann of the Social Democrat Party thereby approving the general elections on 18th September next. 3,648 candidates (including seventeen thousand women, i.e. hardly a quarter of the total) belonging to 25 political parties or movements will be standing in this election. Six parties are standing in sixteen Länder: the Social Democrat Party, the Greens, the Liberal Democrat Party (FDP), the Left Party, the National Democrat Party (NPD) and the Marxist Leninist Party (MLPD). The Christian Democrat Union (CDU) is present in fifteen Länder, its partner party the Social Christian Union (CSU) stands in Bavaria. Amongst the other parties only the Green Panthers Party that defends the interests of the elderly will have candidates standing in eleven Länder.

The Televised Duel

The only televised duel between the two main candidates for the Chancellorship, Angela Merkel (CDU-CSU) and Gerhard Schröder (SPD), took place on Sunday 4th September. The latter, who is very much at ease before the cameras, wanted to meet his Christian Democrat rival in the TV studio, an offer that Angela Merkel rejected initially since she is less confident in this type of exercise. With twenty seven guests in attendance two women journalists questioned the two candidates for ninety minutes in a debate that was broadcast by four TV channels (ARD, ZDF, Sat1 and RTL) and watched by 21 million Germans, i.e. one quarter of the population.

As expected the debate was dominated by socio-economic and fiscal questions. The Chancellor defended the reforms of the labour market established by his government that no-one "had had the courage to adopt before and that are now starting to take ‘effect'." He is convinced that he will win the electorate's confidence again and be elected for a third term in office. For her part Angela Merkel accused Gerhard Schröder of not keeping the promises he made about unemployment and the budget (that he had promised to re-stabilise in 2006). She lamented the effect the seven years of rule by the ‘red-green' coalition had had on Germany turning it into ‘Europe's invalid' reminding the audience that in this time the level of unemployment had reached its highest point since the end of the Second World War and that the government deficit had grown to such an extent that the country, that owes much of its economic success to its post 1945 re-construction now has the image of being the European Union's ‘bad boy.'

Gerhard Schröder seems to have made the better performance. According to Infratest Dimap 54% of viewers thought the Chancellor was appealing and convincing versus 33% for Angela Merkel. Over a quarter of viewers in ten (45%) thought Schröder credible (versus 38% for his rival and 48% believed that his arguments were better (versus 35%). Gerhard Schröder was also more convincing than his rival in terms of foreign policy (71%, versus 19%), pensions (51%, versus 37%) and taxation (49%, versus 38%). The CDU-CSU candidate was thought to have spoken better on employment (43% versus 41%). The following day journalists declared Gerhard Schröder the winner of the TV duel and acknowledged that Angela Merkel had performed better than everyone had previously forecast.

Both candidates standing for the Chancellorship will meet again on 12th September for a new TV debate in which the Green leader Joschka Fischer and Liberal Democrat Guido Westerwelle will take part.

The Electoral Campaign

On 27th and 28th August the Christian Democrat Union rallied a thousand of its delegates and ten thousand supporters for a congress in Dortmund, in North Rhine Westphalia that the CDU/CSU conquered on 22nd May last after forty years of SPD rule. Many people came dressed, as did Angela Merkel, in orange, the colour of the CDU/CSU campaign.

Angela Merkel was quietly confident as she inaugurated the congress. Unlike her rival Gerhard Schröder, who is always quite flamboyant, the CDU/CSU candidate cultivates a sober style and based her speech on an extremely rational approach. "Everyone knows that it will be a tightly run race and that each vote counts," she declared, "but we shall succeed." Addressing Edmund Stoiber, the CSU leader, Ms Merkel maintained that "sometimes we do not agree but we always follow the same road." At the CSU congress that took place between 2nd and 4th September in Nuremberg (Bavaria), Angela Merkel was greeted as the candidate for the entire right. "Between the CDU and the CSU, Angela Merkel and myself there is no room for a sheet of paper," said Edmund Stoiber. During the campaign, Stoiber, who has been the CSU chairman since 1999, was re-elected as leader of the party with 93.1% of the vote.

Employment and the future of the family are the two priorities that Angela Merkel wanted to highlight during this congress. Maintaining that "Germany needed a change," and qualifying the red-green coalition results of the last seven years as disastrous she said that, "we lose thousands of jobs every day. Every year forty thousand companies go out of business. Every hour the Federal Republic falls into debt by a further six million euros. A million children have to survive with government aid," thereby establishing a very sombre picture of the country condition. The Christian Democrat candidate did not hesitate to compare the task ahead, if she wins, equal to that of Konrad Adenauer in 1949, the year the Federal Republic of Germany was founded. "Then it was a question of rebuilding our country, in 2005 we must renovate it. We must come out of the deep crisis in which we find ourselves. But I believe that the country is ready for new policy. The government I shall lead adopt a firm desire to bring a revival to our country."

She also pointed out that she wanted to increase VAT from 16% to 18% in order to lower unemployment contributions from 6.5% to 4.5%, a measure that the Liberal Democrat Party (FDP), the CDU/CSU ally in these general elections, is opposed to. The raising of the VAT rate is to finance the lowering of labour costs that are considered by the CDU as one of the main obstacles to employment and competitiveness. In addition to this Peter Müller, forecast to be the next Economy Minister if the CDU wins on 18th September, maintained in an interview that it was "not illusory long term to reach an unemployment rate below 5%," an objective that he does not think will be achieved in one four years term of office.

The congress concluded as all of the CDU candidate's meetings do to the sounds of "Angie" the famous Rolling Stones song that has become the unofficial anthem in the CDU/CSU campaign – Angie being the nickname given by supporters to the one they hope will one day become the first woman (and the youngest) Chancellor.

On 29th August Angela Merkel appointed, Heinrich von Pierer, a CSU member and chairman of the Siemens groups for twelve years, as president of the Council for Innovation and Growth that she hopes to create if her party wins the general elections. This council brings together heads of companies and economists who will be responsible for proposing means to support employment and improve the country's competitiveness in the area of export. "We cannot win the competition in Europe and the world for cheaper jobs. And we don't want that either. This means that we must be better than the cheaper countries, we need innovative growth," declared Angel Merkel. Heinrich von Pierer believes that Germany should innovate to maintain or improve its position in traditional areas of competence i.e. car manufacturing, machine tools, aeronautics and even the optic's industry.

On 1st September the liberal parties, the CDU/CSU and the FDP signed a joint declaration entitled, "Germany needs change" in which they list the common priorities of their future government. The German right is divided however on the reform of taxation. In an interview on 29th August in the weekly Der Spiegel, the former constitutional judge and professor in fiscal law at the University of Heidelberg, Paul Kirchhof, member of the team of experts (Kompetenzteam) allied to Angela Merkel, says that he is in favour of establishing an average rate of taxation of 25% for all citizens whose incomes are over 20,000 euro per year; this would involve two levels (15% for incomes of over eight thousand euros and 20% for an income level that still has to be defined). Paul Kirchhof would like to abolish all existing fiscal benefits: "Long term my aim is to create a fiscal system in which citizens and companies are taxed at the same rate and where the level of income has no role to play." Angela Merkel for her part says she favours a 12% taxation rate on incomes from an annual eight thousand euros upwards (instead of the present 15%) and a maximum taxation rate of 39% (instead of 42%) for incomes over 40,000 euros. The CDU candidate would also like to bring company tax, at present at 25% down to 22%

The Social Democrat Party brought its 500 delegates together for an extraordinary congress in Berlin on 31st August. Before an audience of party executives Gerhard Schröder denounced the type of society the Christian Democrats want to build, "a society of cold, grasping capitalism, void of solidarity, in a word, inhuman that will destroy Germany's internal peace (...) a society with an East-West divide, where there will be less winners and more losers. A society that means saying goodbye to the social market economy that has brought success to our country."

"On questions of social equality, peace, freedom and education," the Chancellor maintained that Angela Merkel "did not have the slightest answer to give the electorate." He accused Paul Kirchhof of "treating people like objects" with his proposal to establish a single taxation system independent of individual income. Again he maintained the need for the reforms that he has set in motion "as unpopular and painful as they might be, there is no alternative to these reforms," he declared promoting the first successes of his economic policy; "We are creating employment subject to social contributions, one thousand five hundred per day since April." Although undeniably the Chancellor has failed in reducing the number of unemployed by half as promised on his election in September 2002, economists have welcomed the reforms which they believe should enable a decrease in unemployment but not before 2007, ie much too late for Gerhard Schröder.

The SPD that is behind the CDU in all of the opinion polls is also threatened on the left by the Left Party – Linkspartei – led by Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine. The Chancellor chose not to speak much of the danger this new party represents saying at the start of the campaign that he would not work at all with "this strange group lying on the sidelines of the Left." In August the Social Democrat mayor of Berlin angered Gerhard Schröder by saying that a coalition between the SPD and the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS), similar to the one in his city, was not impossible long term on a Federal level. By calling early general elections 22nd May last the Chancellor undoubtedly counted on the lack of preparation on the part of the SPD dissidents and the extreme left protesters who have rallied within the Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG). In the extremely short lapse of time they had at their disposal the PDS and the WASG have however managed to come together under the banner of the Left Party (Linkspartei) and present lists in all of the Länder, a rapprochement that Gerhard Schröder wanted to avoid at all costs and to which he certainly contributed much in creating.

The Chancellor admitted that "circumstances would have been more favourable in the past," but he pointed out that the number of undecided voters was still high – around one third according to the polls. "The experience of the last elections shows that people always decide very late on and I am counting on the last two weeks. It will be a crucial moment, when people who do not really support any party finally take their decision. Links between parties are increasingly weak and there are still many undecided voters this is why I am optimistic about achieving my objective," he concluded. The President of the Social Democrat Party, Franz Müntefering supported the Chancellor saying that he has often "seen goals scored in the last five minutes." On 7th September Gerhard Schröder said he was "convinced" that the Social Democrat Party could still gain four points in the polls saying that he was aiming for a 38% score by his party on 18th September next.

The media however are sceptical about a possible win by the Social Democrat Party. The daily Die Zeit believes that the Chancellor has the choice between "Victory and Viktoria" i.e. winning on 18th September – since Gerhard Schröder has already refused a grand coalition (CDU-CSU/SPD)- or returning to his family and his daughter Viktoria.

When the CDU/CSU won in 1982 Herbert Wehnelt, the then secretary general of the Social Democrat Party predicted "sixteen years in the desert" to SPD supporters, a prediction that proved to be true. In 2003 Gerhard Schröder, who was then having problems within his own party in putting through his reforms warned that the Social Democrats would need "fifteen years to come back to power," if his policy did not succeed. No one has ever forgotten these words and this worries a good number of SPD executives; this explains the divisions within the party on the attitude to adopt in the face of the possible grand government coalition, CDU-CSU/SPD.

For the time being both Chancellorship candidates are rejecting any such possibility – experienced by Germany between 1966-1969, whilst some members of both parties do not hesitate in declaring that it is almost a necessity given the problems Germany has to face. "All of the major reforms that Germany is in need of require the agreement of both parties, especially if it involves changing the Fundamental Law. A grand coalition would enable Germany to move forwards. At heart voters would like the main parties to agree on the reforms," emphasised Jürgen Falter, professor of political science at the University of Mainz, in the French newspaper Libération on 27th May last. Paul Kirchhof, forecast to become Finance Minister if the CDU wins the elections, has said that he would refuse to enter a grand coalition government, "I have no place in a grand coalition. I am in favour of a grand project. If there is a grand coalition my project would have no chance and I would not enter government." Oskar Lafontaine was quick to comment on the possibility of a grand coalition. "Voters understood a long time ago that "black-yellow" (CDU-CSU and FDP) undertakes the same policy as "red-green" (SPD-Greens)".

Another coalition hypothesis has emerged over the last few days entitled "tri-coloured fire" i.e. "red-yellow-green" in which the Liberal Democrat Party would decide to change camp and join the present government coalition. The head of the polling institute Emnid, Klaus-Peter Schöppner said that he believes the only chance for the Social Democrat Party to improve its results in the polls would be to position itself as junior partner in a grand coalition with the CDU-CSU.

The Left Party is continuing its electoral campaign on the theme of anti-liberalism. "All of those who do not want neo-liberalism can only vote for us," declared the leader o the Party for Democratic Socialism, Gregor Gysi during his party's congress on 28th and 29th August in Berlin. The party's programme notably plans for the creation of a minimum income of 400 euros monthly and social insurance that would guarantee an income of 1,900 euros monthly for a family with two children as well as a minimum pension of 800 euros. This programme was adopted almost unanimously by the four hundred delegates in attendance, only two voted against. "This is an historic date," said Oskar Lafontaine in attendance at the congress, commenting on what entry to the Bundestag by a new political force might represent. The former chairman of the Social Democrat Party (1995-1999), standing in North Rhine Westphalia for the Alternative for Employment and Social Justice (WASG) and allied to the PDS under the title of the Left Party in these general elections did not hesitate in embracing fraternally Hans Modrow the last head of government in East Germany (Unified Socialist Party SED) and honorary president of the Party for Democratic Socialism.

Oskar Lafontaine was at the heart of scandal after the publication of photos in the villa where he spent his summer holidays. For his family comprising three people the Left Party candidate rented a house in the Balearic Islands (Spain) that could accommodate up to nine with a swimming pool all for three thousand euros per week. In addition to this the Tagesspiegel revealed that Oskar Lafontaine had demanded from the newspaper that requested his participation in a debate with its readers a return flight by private jet from the islands to Germany, costs estimated at around 17,500 euros. Oskar Lafontaine categorically denied the facts. "I allow myself one luxury": to eat and drink well. I cannot see how that prevents me from fighting for social justice," he declared. Gregor Gysi also defended him maintaining that "someone on the left does not have to be poor, he must be against poverty. He is not a traitor, he has remained the same whilst the Social Democrat Party has ceased being social-democrat," declared the leader of the Party for Democratic Socialism.

The Polls

According to the latest poll published on 7th September and undertaken by Emnid the CDU/CSU is due to win 41% of the vote, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) 34%, the Liberal Democrat Party (FDP) and the Greens 7%, the Left Party (L) 8%. This poll like the one undertaken by Forsa – that forecasts 42% of the vote for the CDU-CSU, 34% for the SPD, 7% for the Greens, 6% for the FDP and 8% for the Left Party (L) – shows an improvement on the part of the SPD that political analysts say is mainly due to Gerhard Schröder's performance during the TV duel on 4th September last.

Since the start of the electoral campaign the Christian Democrat Union has witnessed a decrease in the gap between it and the SDP even though it remains ahead. The Greens and the Liberal Democrat Party remain stable. The Left Party, credited with over 10% of the vote between mid-July and mid-August is now losing ground.

Although the victory of the rightwing opposition in the general elections on 18th September next is now almost certain they are far from guaranteed an absolute majority. If the CDU/CSU and the FDP cannot form a government alone, Angela Merkel might then consider forming a "grand coalition" bringing together the CDU, the Liberal Democrat Party and the Social Democrats.

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