The Clash of Campaigns
The past election year in the United States has generated a mixture of exhaustion and - for Obama supporters at least - exuberance. There has never been a longer campaign period than during these last two years. Now the mantra of 'Yes We Can' has to move to 'Yes We Must.' The new president will need to hit the ground running at full gallop to move along with decisions and ensure their implementation. The speed with which Obama has been putting together his cabinet and appointed officials is matched by the speed of the problems we will be facing in the new year. And the country will be expecting the new team in Washington to put all of the campaign battles aside and start winning battles against the serious challenges ahead with a unified effort on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Which Parties Will Comprise a Coalition??
In Germany, 2009 will signal the beginning of a political campaign which will absorb the country for most of the year, culminating in national elections at the end of September. In between there will be some important state elections which will serve as weather vanes for the battle shaping up for the Chancellery. Most predictions now suggest that Angela Merkel will remain Chancellor after the elections, even if it is within a coalition different from the current one. But nine months in politics is a long time and a lot can happen between now and September 27. With an unpredictable economic environment expected to get worse before it gets better, the Chancellor already has her hands full with the current financial challenges. Some experts are predicting that German unemployment could increase by over a half million by election time. And she has to respond to these challenges within a framework in which her governing coalition partner, the Social Democrats, and her own Vice Chancellor, Foreign Minister Steinmeier, will be campaigning against her and her party in the run up to these September elections. That is not going to make things easy for either side of the coalition, but it will make it interesting for the three smaller parties as they try to position themselves as potential alternative partners for either Merkel or Steinmeier.
The Free Democrats clearly want a coalition with Merkel as their preference. They are currently in coalitions with the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and now also in Bavaria with the CSU. The question is whether the FDP can generate enough votes at the national level to reach a majority with Merkel in September, an outcome that the Chancellor would also prefer. The Greens are flexible enough to be in a coalition with the CDU in Hamburg and with the SPD in Bremen. And they almost wound up in a coalition in Hessen with the SPD until controversy over the role of the Left Party scuttled that initiative. Meanwhile, the Left Party is in a coalition with the SPD in the city government of Berlin. While there is no chance for the Left Party to form a national coalition with either of the big parties, the Greens could wind up with enough votes to offer that option to either the CDU or possibly the SPD. Right now, however, no one can know for sure how the voters will behave next September given the anxiety emerging around the financial meltdown.
Starting in January, there will be four state elections which will help set the political mood of the country. Hesse will lead off in mid-January, where the possibility of another CDU-FDP coalition regaining power is gaining strength. Seven months later on August 30, three states will go to the polls: Saarland, Thuringia and Saxony, three weeks before the national elections. The state of Brandenburg will also go to the polls either before or on the same day as the national elections. It is likely that just around September the unemployment figures will have risen again as the recession in Germany takes its toll. The question is: which of the parties will be able to win support and who will be hurt by the downturn? As in the presidential race here, Candidate McCain was clearly damaged by the economic meltdown and his response to it whereas Obama picked up support. In Germany, the incumbent Chancellor and her coalition could take hits for a sagging economy, and the three smaller parties might gain some support as voters express their dismay. What remains unclear is what kind of political equation would result to form a government after the elections.
Working Together and Against Each Other at the Same Time?
Throughout all of this campaigning, Merkel and Steinmeier are going to be trying to govern jointly while competing separately for the votes they need in September. Given the serious situation into which the economy is sliding - already being anticipated as the worst recession since the founding of the Republic in 1949 - there will be a need to work through policy differences and generate effective policy responses. Voters will expect that a coalition which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Parliament ought to be able to generate a coherent and unified strategy to cope with the problems they are facing. But the fact is that the two sides of the coalition are not completely coherent among themselves. There is serious squabbling going on between the CDU and the Bavarian CSU over what fiscal policies to follow. The Social Democrats are also working through serious splits within their own ranks, be it about domestic or foreign policy issues. Yet the German voting record appears to suggest that Germans don't like to change horses, especially in moments of dramatic change or challenges. This coalition has already lasted longer than its predecessor in the 1960s, and Merkel continues to enjoy a majority of public approval of her as Chancellor.
Obama and Expectations of Germany?
As the new President takes office on January 20, a question for the Obama team might be: what can we expect from Germany while it wrestles with its political and economic challenges during the new year? The answer will depend on what priorities the President needs to set during his term in office. Priority number one will be the economic crisis, and he will certainly need Europe's largest economy to be involved with coordinated responses to it. The fact that the European Union partners are having trouble getting on the same page with each other does not bode well, but there is no alternative to forging a cooperative approach to this global meltdown. We all have a common stake in steering through this storm together, and Germany's role in that effort will be of critical importance. There has been a great deal of criticism directed at Germany's responses to date but it is likely that this will change and adapt to the deepening crisis in the new year.
Obama will also need to make immediate decisions on what to do to prevent Afghanistan from imploding further. He knows he cannot expect a surge of German troops in that region, but he will expect that Germany increase its contributions in other ways such as the dire need for more infrastructural aid and assistance, and police training and equipment. That may be a difficult topic amidst the election campaign throughout Germany but it cannot be avoided. Obama will be in Germany briefly around the NATO sixtieth anniversary summit in early April where it is expected that he will address the need to create a new strategy for NATO. That will involve not only efforts to strengthen efforts in Afghanistan, but also to secure more coherence when it comes to dealing with Russia in the wake of the incursion into Georgia and threats toward Ukraine. Germany is Russia's most important partner in Europe; Obama will want to have a clear understanding with Berlin in particular about how to deal with Moscow in the future.
One area in which Berlin and Washington ought to find common ground quickly is in the area of energy security and climate issues. Obama has suggested that these will be major priorities and ought to make common cause with Germany (as the leading proponent of policies to deal with climate change) so that there can be a sense of measureable progress leading up to the next climate summit in Copenhagen a year from now, whether there is a treaty emerging from it or not. These are just a few of the critical areas in which Berlin and Washington will need to be in close communication.
Domestic Agendas and Global Goals?
However, problems can occur when election cycles get these agendas out of sync and the centrifugal forces of domestic politics eat away at those goals. One thing Berlin needs to keep in mind: As much as everyone welcomed Obama's win in November's election and the shift in policy that will accompany his win, he will be entering another American election cycle in 2010 - Congressional elections in November - which will give him a signal as to how he is doing at home. By this point he will need to have racked up some accomplishments which point to the value of recharging relations with Germany and the transatlantic relationship in general. That should lead to pursuing a win-win agenda given Obama's popularity in Europe - at the moment.
Of course, campaigning never really stops for any political leader in today's 24/7 "media-ocracies," but there are moments when political leaders can capture the attention of the public and tell them what needs to be done and why in crisp and clear tones. Crises can help focus the minds of both leaders and followers. We have enough of those to go around now; we need to make sure that we share not only the crises but also the ability to solve them, despite election cycles.