On September 22, Germans hit the voting booths. Exberliner in-house political junkie Konrad Werner explains the issues, the candidates, and the possible outcomes.
This is it. The big one. Well, fairly big. Germany is about to elect a new parliament and choose a new leader – and since this is Europe’s biggest economy, their choice will affect a whole continent. On the other hand, seeing as this country’s legislature is so complex and it takes even the most dynamic chancellor (not exactly Merkel) months to get a new law through, you could say they’re choosing who gets to compromise all their principles for the next four years.
And if, as is likely, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is re-elected as the main governing party again, she’ll still have to manage an upper house – the Bundesrat – controlled by the Social Democrats and the Greens. But in the Greens and Die Linke, Germany has at least two major parties whose proposals are substantially different from the mainstream, and who could, maybe, join a coalition. So it does matter. It really does.
THE LEADING CANDIDATES
CDU – Angela Merkel
Germany’s first East German chancellor was actually born in Hamburg in 1954 – a few weeks later, Angela Kasner’s Protestant pastor father moved the family to the GDR. The church association barred her from teaching as a young physicist in Leipzig, but they didn’t stop her from going on a fateful exchange trip to Russia in 1974, where she met Ulrich Merkel, her first husband, whose name she kept even through her second marriage to quantum physicist Joachim Sauer in 1998.
By then, she’d traded science for conservative politics. She served in Helmut Kohl’s government as both Women’s and Youth Minister and Environment Minister, before taking over as the CDU’s General Secretary following the “perpetual chancellor’s” 1998 election defeat. The party’s donations scandal cost then-parliamentary faction leader Wolfgang Schäuble (now Merkel’s finance minister) his job, clearing the way for Merkel to take over as party leader in 2000.
Still, misogyny and fear – also known as ‘conservative values’ – prevented her from being chosen as a chancellor candidate in 2002, when stodgy Bavarian Edmund Stoiber was sliced and diced by the ever-buoyant Gerhard Schröder.
Her moment came in 2005, when she beat Schröder in a tight race but had to accept a grand coalition with the SPD. After a more resounding win in the 2009 election, Merkel was able to govern with her party’s preferred coalition partner, the FDP. Now she’s been in power eight years. There ain’t no stopping her.
SPD – Peer Steinbrück
Merkel’s main opponent used to be her ally: Steinbrück served as the chancellor’s finance minister in her first term from 2005 to 2009. And they share Hamburg as a birthplace. They’re basically twins.
Born in 1947, Steinbrück was brought up a good, solid, upper middle class boy, and his career path was a good, solid, upward slope: he studied political economics and sociology in Kiel before making his name as a dependable option in the regional governments of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia.
Despite his infallible reputation, there was one thing he never was: electable. He became state premier of NRW, Germany’s most populous state, in 2002, where he led the SPD to a devastating loss in 2005. Yet Steinbrück somehow emerged as the only viable candidate for the federal finance ministry, which the SPD claimed as part of its grand coalition under Merkel. He proved an able and respected minister who was in the hot seat when the 2008 financial crisis hit. But this carefully constructed air of assurance has been seriously undermined since he was named the SPD’s chancellor candidate late last year. The right-wing Springer press stirred up controversy over his extra earnings as a speaker; he’s since drawn criticism from Transparency International. His chancellorship ambitions seem doomed.
FDP – Rainer Brüderle
The FDP has been caught in an ugly mess over its leading candidate for at least two years. Their leader, Economy Minister Philipp Rösler, has become even less popular than his predecessor, Guido “I’m still Foreign Minister you know” Westerwelle.
So the party that always wanted to project itself as young and dynamic has been forced to field the oldest candidate of all: Brüderle, born in 1945 to a shopkeeper in a small town in Rhineland Palatinate. He has been in the FDP’s leadership since 1983, when Rösler was a 10-year-old whippersnapper, but only became a federal minister in 2009, when Angela Merkel handed him the Economy brief. He kept the job for two years before the FDP’s leadership shuffling forced him out in 2011.
Then he made a clumsy pass at a female journalist in January 2013, and the press has gleefully made him look like a dirty old man. They’ve also noted he has been keeping a relatively low profile in the election campaign. Well, what else was he going to do?
The Greens – Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Jürgen Trittin
In keeping with their strict gender quota, the Greens are fielding two leading candidates in the election: one male and one female. Trittin led the party into the 2009 election alongside Renate Künast. He was born in Bremen in 1954, studied sociology and became a mildly rebellious freelance journalist. That background of middle class rebellion is a common trait in his party, but interestingly, Trittin also began the 1980s as a member of a communist alliance that actively sought to undermine the newly founded Green party. He eventually became its official spokesman and then served two full terms as Environment Minister under Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005. New revelations about Trittin’s past may serve to undermine their chances at victory though.
Katrin Göring-Eckardt, meanwhile, is the greenest – the youngest and least experienced, that is – of all the candidates. But she has a few similarities with the chancellor, being an East German with connections to the Protestant church. Born in 1966 in Thuringia, she studied theology in Leipzig. Even though she never completed her studies, she later became praeses of the synod of the EKD, Germany’s federation of various protestant denominations. A member of the Bundestag since 1998, she has served as the Greens’ health, pensions, and culture policy spokeswoman, and vice president of the parliament itself.
Die Linke – Gregor Gysi
Germany’s socialists are fielding a team of no less than eight leading candidates in the election, including TV debate queen Sahra Wagenknecht. But the most senior of them remains tenacious old veteran (and Berliner since his birth in 1948) Gregor Gysi, loved by political opponents and allies alike.
Gysi’s father was a member of the Communist KPD in Nazi Germany, and the young Gregor studied law at the Humboldt University. Joining the GDR’s ruling SED party in 1967, his rhetorical skills and popularity helped him become its chairman after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Alongside the recently deceased Lothar Bisky, he subsequently guided the socialists through various incarnations until the creation of Die Linke in 2007.
The only blot on his firebrand career is persistent accusations that he was an “informal informant” for the Stasi – a charge he always angrily denies.
When a crisis has been going on for so long it has become a situation, something can’t be right. Do we want the slow and steady hand of Merkel or a radical solution?
CDU: Nothing to see here. We’re in control. No, we don’t need Eurobonds, or any other new idea. Stick with austerity, and vague youth employment “initiatives”, which the Spanish PM himself described as a Merkel campaign ploy.
SPD: More initiatives – “growth initiatives”, in this case. Plus a European social union and more legal responsibility for banks. And the EU Commission to become an elected government. Promises, promises.
FDP: A bit confused. Committed to the CDU’s anti-Eurobond plan, but also wants something radical – a European federal state. But not yet. When? Oh, sometime.
The Greens: They want an extensive reform of the EU – to make it more democratic. Specifically, the European Parliament (currently the only directly elected part) should have the right to introduce bills of its own. And people’s initiatives to force European-wide referendums should be expanded.
Die Linke: The socialists want the EU’s current ruling document, the Lisbon Treaty, to be scrapped wholesale and replaced with a completely new system, complete with higher contributions from the banks, higher taxes on fortunes, and minimum welfare standards across the continent.
Berlin is not the only part of Germany where rent prices are driving the poor out and changing communities. What are we going to do about it?
CDU: Cold crumbs for tenants. Proposing a 10 percent cap on new rent contracts, so when you move into a new place, landlords can charge you no more than 10 percent over the standard rent in the area. BUT: this rule will only apply in areas where there is a housing shortage, and not at all for new buildings.
SPD: The same as the CDU, except without the caveat about restricting the cap to certain areas.
FDP: No rent caps at all. Instead restrictions should be reduced on new buildings to boost the construction industry and so hopefully reduce housing shortages.
The Greens: A 10 percent new rent cap across the board, plus tenants should not have to pay for modernising buildings.
Die Linke: District councils should have the power to decide the top per-square-metre rents for their area. Also, rent caps should be tied to inflation.
People howled like hyenas when Merkel called the internet “Neuland” (virgin territory), but her government was complicit in NSA surveillance. How will the parties react to the Snowden revelations?
CDU: Their emphasis is on “cyber-security” and making sure that the authorities have the “necessary permission” and the “technical” resources to deal with internet-based criminality and terrorism.
SPD: A lot of detail on reforming the copyright system to improve the rights of artists and journalists And that old mad plan to have free wi-fi in all public areas lives on.
FDP: They like to portray themselves as the civil rights conscience of Merkel’s centre-right government, and are definitely against mass data collection, which is “neither necessary or appropriate.” Similarly, online police surveillance should be subject to court approval.
The Greens: They subscribe to the SPD’s copyright reform plans, and also call for new international laws to protect data and ensure privacy. Also important: stop the export of surveillance malware to dictatorships.
Die Linke: You know those Abmahnungen you get from a lawyer when you’ve illegally downloaded Game of Thrones? Die Linke would put a stop to that and limit lawyer’s fees. Also, intelligence agencies and the police must be separated, and mass data collection outlawed.
One new problem: Betreuungsgeld (cash for not putting your kids in kindergarten), the CDU’s brazenly ideological interference in children’s policy. And one old: Germany’s perennially problematic three-tier school system. What now?
CDU: Introduced Betreuungsgeld against their better judgement, but no plans for change. As far as they can see, there’s no reason to reform Germany’s three-tier education system either.
SPD: Scrapping Betreuungsgeld would be near the top of Steinbrück’s in-tray, with the money to be invested in kindergartens. Children’s allowance should be more generous for low-income families, and parents should be allowed to reduce their working week to 30 hours.
FDP: Germany’s sort-of-libertarian party wants to make schools more independent and less statecontrolled, and they want to “re-assess” Betreuungsgeld. They say all child-related state benefits should be rolled into one.
The Greens: Implement a basic maintenance allowance that every child is entitled to, including the right to a kindergarten place for all of them, regardless of age.
Die Linke: Children to be supported by a basic standard allowance per child per month. They’ve already done the sums – it should be €536 precisely. Elterngeld (parental allowance) should be extended so it can be claimed up to the age of seven.