Germany: have politicians lost their tongues?
Speechlessness and evasion mark the run-up to the German elections.
The German elections on 18 September will be occurring in extraordinary circumstances – Chancellor Gerhard Schröder engineered the early poll, by deliberately losing a vote of confidence in his own government (see The government defeats itself, by Sabine Reul). The elections have caught the interest of the German public, not least because all the parties say they want a new beginning for politics. However, the parties show scant inclination to engage in dialogue about what exactly that new beginning might mean. Of course, they have election manifestos – and since these are rarely debated in public, it is worth summarising them here.
Alliance 90/The Greens: The Greens will focus on ecology – proposing to extend their ‘environment tax’ policies, promote even greater use of renewable energies, and retain the ban on genetic engineering. They also support the phasing out of German nuclear power plants; and want to give even more attention to consumer protection measures.
Christian Union (CDU/CSU): The Union parties propose to foster growth and employment by encouraging ‘individual responsibility instead of dependence on the state’ – cutting bureaucracy, curbing job protection and collective bargaining, and lowering income and corporation tax. (They plan to finance the resulting tax shortfall by closing tax loopholes and raising VAT.) They also aim to reduce Germany’s burgeoning government debt to zero by 2013. In contrast to the Greens and SPD, the Union describes phasing out nuclear power as ‘environmentally and technologically disastrous’ (although it doesn’t specify its alternative policy). Like the SPD, the CDU/CSU propose to create a ‘necessary and accountable regulatory system’ for genetic engineering and biotechnology.
Free Democrats (FDP): The FDP calls its election manifesto a ‘programme against fear of the future’. The Liberals propose a more concerted attack on welfare state redistribution, calling for extensive tax cuts and replacement of the present welfare and unemployment insurance systems by a uniform tax-funded ‘Citizens’ Benefit’. They aim to curb trade unions, especially the union representation on company boards that exists under Germany’s extensive ‘codetermination’ system. The FDP also makes a cautious commitment to keeping the option of nuclear power generation open, while promoting renewable energy. Like the SPD and CDU, the Liberals say they want to encourage biotechnologies. They argue that environmental protection should be ‘scientifically substantiated’ and not ‘used as a pretext for regulation’.
Left Party: The joint programme of the Left Party (Linkspartei), the electoral alliance between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Alternative for Social Justice (WASG), headed by Gregor Gysi and Oskar Lafontaine respectively, will be published shortly. But the parties’ provisional manifestos already state the position of this alliance of ex-East German socialists, left-wing trade unionists and former SPD members. The WASG calls for a ‘programme of public investment in the future’ – including cuts in working hours, more public sector jobs and a marked increase in taxes on high-income groups. It also wants to see a resolute conversion to renewable energies and a ‘reduction of all material flows’ (which presumably means curbing both the transport and consumption of goods) – as well as combating ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘rolling back the power of capital’.
The PDS proposes a revamped Keynesian growth policy, focusing on public investments, a new profit- instead of wage-roll-based corporate tax system, and determined redistribution ‘from top to bottom’. In the ailing eastern Germans states (the party’s home base), the PDS wants economic policy to focus on promoting new technologies (as do the FDP, SPD and Union parties). Unlike the more radical Left Party adherents in western Germany, the PDS evidently aims to be the bearer of a respectable ‘alternative economic policy’ – which is no doubt the common denominator between the former SPD finance minister Oskar Lafontaine and the flamboyant Gregor Gysi.
Social Democrats (SPD): The SPD wants to continue Schröder’s welfare state reforms, while retaining ‘a strong state that provides its citizens with the highest possible level of security’. In response to competition from the newly founded Left Party, the SPD proposes to raise taxes on higher incomes (having just cut income taxes during the current legislature). The SDP sees itself as the ‘party of technological progress’. In contrast to its current coalition partner, the Greens, it wants to promote genetic engineering and biotechnology, but still phase out nuclear power.
One might argue that at least the manifestos of the free-market FDP and the Left Party appear to stand for a concrete policy (ie, pro- or anti-market). But in truth even that is to say too much. All these programmes look like tentative wish lists rather than statements of intent based on strong convictions. German party politics has never been as insecure and evasive as in this election. While the SPD appears unable to make up its mind whether to stay the course or shift leftwards, the Union parties can’t stop bickering about whether and how much to cut taxes here and raise them there. German politics seems caught in a state of confusion and defensiveness.
Although the parties’ election programmes contain ample material for heated and thorny argument, they aren’t really discussed or promoted in public. A kind of autistic speechlessness dominates this electoral contest. This is most obvious in the embarrassed responses of the established parties to their new rival on the left. The SPD confines itself to snide observations on the lifestyles of Gysi and Lafontaine. Meanwhile, the Union parties have got excited about a comment made by CSU leader Edmund Stoiber in a Bavarian beer tent, to the effect that eastern Germans can’t be trusted with the vote. The Greens have settled for accusing the Left Party of populism – as if it were illegitimate for politicians to address the public dislike for the current government’s austerity measures.
Is it complacency, fatigue, fear or a lack of trust in their own programmes that is inducing this political torpor? It is probably a combination of all these things. Take the FDP: instead of championing the idea of welfare state downsizing, as one might expect, Liberal leader Guido Westerwelle has spent weeks of valuable electioneering time arguing with his prospective CDU/CSU coalition partners about whether raising VAT looks like a good idea or not.
It seems that the entire election campaign is designed to strengthen the public’s perception that politicians can only talk about trivia. There could be no better way to smother the mood of relief and expectation that temporarily gained ground when Schröder announced his decision to step down and seek early elections. Now politics is being reduced to technocratic number games and mudslinging shows. Though everybody knows Germany needs serious political change, this is not likely to come from the present party machines.
In this situation, it is hard to guess what a new government of whatever complexion is likely to do after 18 September. Everything remains vague, evasive and subject to review. And the biggest question is where the legitimacy of the new government is to come from, if there is no democratic debate about political goals.
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