German election: Was ist das?

On the gap between the pre-election predictions and the post-election mess.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Anyone trying to make sense of the German election results through the filter of the British media is likely to come unstuck.

For weeks UK newspapers repeated the predictions, coming from within Germany itself, that said Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union would ‘win by a significant margin’. We were told that Merkel was a new Thatcher, with ‘hardline Thatcherite policies’ (1). The New Statesman said a revolution was brewing in Germany, and that time was up for ‘the 1968 generation of Gerhard Schroeder’; Germans were ready to be led by their ‘improbable heroine’ Merkel, who ‘might just succeed where Schroeder has manifestly failed’ (2).

The ‘revolution’ has come and gone, and there is no new, Thatcherite, Merkel-led Germany, but a mess. Merkel’s CDU won 35.2 per cent of the vote, and Schroeder’s Social Democrats won 34.3 per cent. Not only did Merkel fail to win ‘by a significant majority’, she led her party to one of its worst election results ever. And Schroeder’s SPD party lost four per cent of its vote. Germany is now ‘the land of two Chancellors’, as Merkel and Schroeder vie for influence with the smaller parties in a desperate bid to set up a coalition with just about enough legitimacy to take the reins of power.

The gap between the pre-election predictions and the election itself reveals much about contemporary politics. Across Europe, observers tried to force the German election into old political categories: they described it as a left/right clash, or a birth of German-style Thatcherism, or even a return to the Cold War politics of east v west (Merkel is from the former East Germany, and Schroeder from the West). Yet the results show that politics is far more rootless and unpredictable than in the past. The political landscape is much harder to read, as those who relied on the old maps to make sense of the German election have surely discovered.

Looking back on some of the pre-election commentary, it’s almost as if reporters were writing about a different country in a different decade. In the Observer on 4 September, Jason Burke wrote: ‘As voters yearn for the Cold War certainties and economic power…Angela Merkel is rallying former communists with hardline Thatcherite policies.’ That piece also quoted Holger Schaefer of the Cologne Institute for Economic Studies, who said Merkel provided a ‘chance to step forward. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms were controversial. We are seeing the same thing here just 20 years later’ (3).

Yet this image of Merkel as Thatcher petered out in a matter of weeks. She is now described as a ‘broken woman’, and reports tell us she was close to tears on election night. British commentators, however, have simply come up with another pat explanation for what happened. In today’s Guardian, Jonathan Steele claims the election results were a vote against neoliberalism. He says that ‘one winner is clear: Linkspartei, the Left Party’. That’s the party set up by Schroeder’s former finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, which won 8.7 per cent of the vote. Steele reckons Germans voted to defend the welfare state against right-wingers such as Merkel (4).

So in the space of two weeks, the Guardian and Observer have gone from telling us that Germans were rallying behind ‘hardline Thatcherite policies’ to claiming that Germans have voted in protest against right-wing free marketeers. That is a good illustration of the fact that you cannot use the worn-out categories of left and right to make sense of contemporary European politics, or to explain people’s voting habits today. To this outside observer, the German election seems to have more in common with other confusing elections overseen by crisis-ridden elites in recent years.

The election points to the end of any meaningful distinction between left and right, or of any ideological content to those categories. As one who grew up under Thatcher, I was never very convinced by the claim that Merkel was Maggie incarnate. Merkel’s policies (judging by the media coverage at least) seemed to amount to reforming tax, opposing the entry of Turkey into the EU, and saying favourable things about the invasion of Iraq. That hardly compares to Thatcher, who waged war against the Argentineans, clamped down in Northern Ireland, took on the miners, and effectively finished off old trade unionism. Merkel is no new Thatcher, in terms of her policies or the political circumstances she operates in.

For all the left/right talk, there seemed to be little substantial difference between the two main parties. Both were proposing austere economic measures. And they seemed capable of defining their differences only on non-German issues – most notably Turkey (Schroeder is in favour of the Turks joining the EU, Merkel is opposed) and Iraq (Schroeder bashed Bush over the war, Merkel supported it). The Schroeder/Merkel clash seemed to boil down to the politics of personality, which has become widespread in the West in our post-political times: Schroeder presented himself as a media-friendly man of the people while Merkel put on a serious and stern front. As a German friend of mine said: ‘The most important difference between the parties is that Schroeder is a bit better at promoting himself as modern.’

Nor are the claims of a left resurgence very convincing. Lafontaine’s Left Party seems to embody the politics of disgruntlement: it’s led by a man who famously fell out with Schroeder and seems to have won the votes of people disillusioned by Schroeder. The votes for the Left Party have more in common with votes for the Lib Dems in the UK General Election earlier this year, or for various other one-issue or even far-right parties in European states: they are an expression of frustration with mainstream politics. The Left Party is cynicism about politics given an organisational form.

The German election did not represent an ideological clash between an old left and a new right, or between an old left and a new left. Rather, it expressed the exhaustion of political ideology and a sense of political crisis that have become common in capitals across the West. That is one reason why commentators got things so wrong: in the absence of ideology, it is far harder to tell what the electoral outcome will be. People’s voting behaviour becomes more unpredictable and arbitrary at a time when there are few political convictions or interests directing the debate. Yet now, some political commentators blame the German people for landing Germany, and the EU, in a mess. Germans have been lambasted for voting for ‘the greatest possible self-obstruction’, and for causing a stalemate across Europe (5). This, of course, is another recognisable feature of contemporary politics: blaming apparently stupid voters for causing crises that, in truth, have their origins among a disoriented and visionless political class.

spiked described the 2005 UK election as ‘an election that nobody won’: Blair’s New Labour government may have been re-elected but the results revealed ‘a political system in stasis, with no sense of dynamism in any direction, and no idea that anybody could seriously change things’ (see An election that nobody won, by Mick Hume). The German election is literally an election that nobody won, even in numerical terms. The German results, too, point to a sense of political stasis and lack of dynamism, at the heart of Europe.

Read on:

Germany: have politicians lost their tongues?, by Sabine Reul

(1) Germans buy Merkel’s miracle, Observer, 4 September 2005

(2) ‘The gathering storm’, New Statesman, 19 September 2005

(3) Germans buy Merkel’s miracle, Observer, 4 September 2005

(4) Above all, this was a vote against neoliberalism, Guardian, 20 September 2005

(5) German press ponders political impasse, BBC News, 20 September 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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