A Presidential Race - German Style
A Long Campaign Ahead
If Americans are exhausted by the presidential race they have been putting up with over the last eighteen months, the Germans are already getting into full campaign mode for its next national elections in the fall of 2009. An unexpected catalyst has popped up which may add more political competition among the parties: the race for the German Presidency in late May of next year.
Up until the past few days, the assumption that the current President of Germany, Horst Köhler, would be reelected next year for a second term was widely presumed to be a safe one. A member of the CDU and former head of the IMF, he was Angela Merkel's choice in 2004, just a year before she became Chancellor. The president is elected by all the members of the Bundestag plus proportional representatives of all parties in the state parliaments. Even though there was a SPD-Green coalition in power under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Berlin in 2004, the conservative parties of the CDU, CSU, and the FDP had the majority for Köhler then. He has also been very popular during the past four years. And seriously challenging a sitting German President, as ceremonial a job as it is, has not been a practice of German politics.
Today, the political situation is different. The presence of the Left Party (Die Linke) in more than half of the state parliaments, and with a chance that they will enter more in the coming state elections this year and next, opens up the possibility that the SPD candidate, Professor Gesine Schwan, might have a shot at upsetting Köhler's bid for reelection in May of 2009. And if that happens, the question is whether that might act as a bellwether for the national elections a few months later.
Will the SPD Deal With Die Linke?
The main issue is whether the SPD leadership would accept Schwan's election as President with the votes of the Left Party - which is the probable way for her to have a chance at getting a majority - and at the same time make it clear that they have no intention of pursuing a coalition government with the Left Party after the national election in the fall. The current answer to any coalition question with the Linke is no. But recent events have caused many to doubt how resolute that position might be in the future.
Just a few months ago following very close state elections in Hesse, the SPD leadership as well as the national leader, Kurt Beck, were prepared to accept an outcome which would have created a coalition with the Greens, but only possible if it was tolerated by the Linke. That initiative was stymied by one SPD member who refused to allow such an arrangement by withholding her vote and canceled out the majority needed to approve the move. The result is a caretaker government in Wiesbaden with no clear signal when new elections might be held to resolve the dilemma.
In the wake of this debacle, the SPD state leadership looked foolish and Kurt Beck's standing on the national level sank as well. The party's position in national polls is now at historical lows with this month falling to 21 percent of popular support, the lowest mark in this election period. This month's polls show that only single digits separate the support for the SPD from the support for the Left Party, whose support increases slightly to 12 percent.
Many in the SPD are strictly against an arrangement with the Linke at the national level and party chairman Kurt Beck has stated that he is also not in favor if it. But the call to make it clear beyond a doubt in a written statement by the party now has been dodged by Beck so far, leaving many thinking that the outcome of the national elections next year might still leave the door open for the Left after all.
Translating Rhetoric Into Political Power
Looking at the larger political atmosphere, one sees increasingly how the Left Party is influencing the domestic debates in Germany. Their recent party convention in Cottbus portrayed a party primarily driven by anti-capitalist rhetoric, articulated loudly by its leader (and former Chairman of the SPD) Oskar Lafontaine. While there is a good deal of intra-party friction between the representatives from east and west Germany over policy issues and platforms, Lafontaine wants to keep the momentum going as a protest party against the current coalition in Berlin. He also has his eyes set on the state election in March next year in Saarland, where he was once a popular Minister-President years ago. If the Left Party picks up significant support there, he will continue to put pressure on the SPD to consider a coalition with the Linke further down the road. How long that road is remains to be seen.
The Left Party represents a very eclectic mixture of interests. The majority of its membership is anchored in the east, and the experience of those members and their leaders emerge from working within the discipline of party membership and the machinery of labor unions, seeking to get a hold of power by presenting themselves as problem solvers. The Linke is actually in a coalition government with the SPD in Berlin. Those attracted to the Left in the west are driven more by protest than by specific policy directions. But there is no question that it is trying to connect with voter anxieties about their jobs, their pensions and their futures with the result that the Linke is currently polling ahead of both the Greens and the Liberals. When reports like a recent one which highlights a growing divide between the rich and the poor in Germany appear, despite the fact that the economy is holding up well amidst global turbulence, the Left Party leaders pounce on it for their purposes. In doing so, they also put pressure on the other parties to address the fears of the voters. This is a particular problem for the SPD, who traditionally drew low-income voters and the working class Germans.
The presidential race is less about the SPD candidate, Gesine Schwan. She is a well respected figure in German politics and academia and ran against Köhler in 2004 with a closer than expected result. This is more about how the much the Linke can aspire to drive the debate in Germany and establish itself as a veto power about how to deal with the challenges of changes inside the country as well as those global forces making their demands on Germany from Afghanistan to Iran, from energy prices to global competition from China.
The Best SPD Candidate for Chancellor is...?
The SPD is confronted with the problem of positioning itself as an unwilling partner for the Linke, yet willing to engage in a discussion about the problems which the party wants to underscore, be it unemployment, disparities in wealth, tax increases for the rich, and more government spending. On top of this is the continuing ballast of poor standings in the polls for both the party and its leader, Kurt Beck. The idea of proposing Professor Schwan for president was based on the assumption that she might improve the party's profile. But the move can backfire in two ways. She might overshadow Beck if she loses next year, which most people expect. The support of the Left Party would also make Beck suspect again among those Social Democrats who don't want anything to do with the Left and Lafontaine. It might even lead to Beck being replaced as the SPD candidate to face Chancellor Merkel in the national elections. That fate might fall then to Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is also Vice-Chancellor. A poll conducted in Germany this month clearly shows the popularity of Minister Steinmeier as a candidate of his party against Beck. Even amongst the SPD voters Steinmeier is the preferable candidate by 46 percent against 20 percent for Beck.
The problem there is that the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor, Minister Steinmeier, have an agenda to pursue in the same time as coalition partners in a government which needs to be seen as addressing immediate problems and policies and not focusing on posturing only for electoral successes.
Regardless of whether or not Professor Schwan is elected next May, these challenges for the SPD from the Linke will not disappear. Lafontaine and his party are tapping into real fears and insecurities Germans resonate with. Germans don't like risks. The more the world appears risky, the more a populist party platform can draw attention. Social Democrats appear unable to come up with both persuasive leaders or policies for the voters. As one veteran of the SPD told me, "The SPD is like a church which has lost its religion." Despite the public denouncement of the party leadership for a coalition with the Linke on a federal level, party supporters by 43 percent believe the SPD would form a coalition with the Left if election results would allow this scenario.
Still No Majority for the CDU/CSU
These are also challenges for Chancellor Merkel and her party. While she continues to maintain her personal popularity, her party, the CDU, and the sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, are also at levels which cannot generate a working majority at the national level with the Free Democrats as of now, a result Merkel would far prefer to the current coalition with the SPD. The only other alternative would be a three way government with the Free Democrats and the Greens, an option now considered more openly after the elections in Hamburg generated a CDU-Green coalition.
If she wants to avoid another four years with the SPD after next year's election, she has to find ways to secure sufficient support to lift her party and the voters to confidence levels it does not now enjoy.
Merkel has complained that the discussion about the presidential race is distracting the coalition to get to the business of governing during the last fifteen months of the current term. Many campaign-exhausted Americans might identify with that lament. But given the politics of populism these days, the endless campaign mode seems to be unavoidable on either side of the Atlantic.
This essay appeared in the May 30, 2008, AICGS Advisor.