Monday, September 06, 2004

Not Iraq, not neo-liberalism ... it must be good old-fashioned politics

Back in June it was the mantra of most British commentators (those suffering from paranoid anti-Americanism and those suffering from rampant hindsightism) that European governments were being punished by electors for their support for President Bush and the USA in the fight against terror. Except that France and Germany had very similar results in European and regional elections – the electors were presumably punishing President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder for their stance over Iraq. Perverse, these electors.

Chancellor Schröder has gone on to greater things and further defeats. In between endless summitry his party has managed to crash to the sixth defeat in seven state elections held since 2003.

There seem to be two reasons: the sluggish economy that has led to extremely high unemployment and the Chancellor’s rather low-key attempts to reform the very generous welfare hand-outs, which place an impossibly high burden on the economy, making it sluggish etc etc.

Of course, a severe recession is not a good time to start reforming the welfare state, but this is normal behaviour for politicians. When the going is good, they do not think ahead, when the going inevitably gets bad, they panic.

The loss of Saarland is a particularly bitter blow, as it has always been an SPD stronghold in the past, being a former mining area. According to Deutsche Welle:

“Amid low turnout, voters left the SPD smarting by slashing the party's score by one third from 44.4 percent in the last state election in 1999 to a dismal 30.8 percent, according to provisional results. It was the worst result for the SPD in Saarland since 1960.”
The turn-out was 55 per cent, down considerably from the previous 69 per cent. The German electorate is behaving similarly to other European ones – they are anti-government and dissatisfied but not clear as to what they would like. This is the price all of us are paying for allowing the managerial governance of the European Union to take over from old-fashioned democratic politics.

The smaller parties did reasonably well, with the Greens returning to the assembly with 5.6 per cent of the vote (something of a come-down since their glory glory days) and the only remotely liberal, free market party, the Free Democrats are also back with 5.2 per cent. The extreme nationalist National Democratic Party (NPD) failed to get the necessary 5 per cent, but only just.

The conservative (whatever that may mean in German politics) Chistian Democrat Union (CDU) has now an absolute majority in the Land Parliament. Their national leader, Angela Merkel, who is predicted to run against Schröder in the 2006 federal elections, has been making what can only be described as bullish comments:
“This is a signal that our clear course including support for reforms wherever they are needed and courageous action is acknowledged by the electorate,” Merkel said. “I believe that in the next elections in Saxony we will also be able to defend our absolute majority and that in Brandenburg we will catch up with the Social Democrats there.”
The Saxony and Brandenburg elections will be crucially important. Unemployment rate in the east has remained significantly higher than in the west and many of the wessies (West Germans) feel that the economic collapse has been caused at least partly by the speedy reunification and the great burden of the ossies that they had taken on.

The eastern cities have seen demonstrations against the proposed reforms in welfare, since these would hit them harder than many other parts of the country. The Monday demonstrations and meetings are a deliberate imitation of the famous weekly rallies in East Germany that demanded political, religious and media freedom. Now the demonstrations are against some of the effects of that freedom and, as such, have been condemned by many of those old dissidents who had risked their liberty to protest against the Communist East German system.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, may well benefit electorally from the discontent. The eastern länder brought Schröder to power. By splitting the left-wing vote, they may well bring him down. The two state elections on September 19 will be interesting.

Another person to do well out of these problems is Oskar Lafontaine, the extreme left-wing SPD politician, whose career seemed finished until a few months ago. Himself a Saarlander, his machinations are cited by the SPD as one reason for the defeat. Lafontaine keeps threatening to form a new left-wing party with the sole purpose of opposing the welfare reforms. He has been joining the demonstrations in the eastern cities.

However, it is hard to see what Lafontaine can achieve. If he forms a separate party, the left-wing vote will be split two ways in the west and three ways in the east. That may well be the reason why his threats have not materialized yet. He has been accused of jumping on the bandwagon of discontent in order to further or, rather, resuscitate his own career. He has no serious alternative proposals for curing what we must now call, echoing the well-known phrase of the seventies, the German disease.

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