The German elections: Enough is enough, again

Posted in Europe | 16-Sep-05 | Author: Sven Hillenkamp| Source: International Herald Tribune

People walk past a torn poster featuring German Chancellor and the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) main candidate in upcoming elections Gerhard Schroeder in Berlin.
BERLIN The German elections

The driving force in this country is disappointment.

Right now, people are disappointed in Gerhard Schröder and his coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. That's why, according to the current wisdom, they'll vote for Angela Merkel or the new Left Party on Sunday. Before, people were disappointed in Helmut Kohl and his coalition with the Free Democrats, and that's why they voted for Schröder. Kohl was elected because voters were disappointed by Helmut Schmidt and his Social Democrat alliance with the Free Democrats. Disappointed for decades by East Germany, the people in the East at first voted Kohl. And so on.

The media, too, have long adopted disappointment as a maxim ("I'm sick of everything!' headlines Bild, the country's biggest tabloid), and since the media are so influential, we are living through a real boom in disappointment.

It all began back in 1964 under Ludwig Erhard, when the government took the startling step of reducing expenditure because the "Economic Miracle" had come to an end. Erhard, who had just taken office, was denounced as a failure, and early elections led to a Grand Coalition. It avoided further disappointment by borrowing and simulating a renewed economic miracle.

And yet, unemployment grew. There were coal, steel, oil crises. After Hitler, war and reconstruction supported by the Americans, normal economic life began. The disappointment was huge.

The first "disappointment election" occurred in 1976, though it did not result in a change of power. In 1980, the motto "Stop Strauss" sufficed to stop the advance of disappointment. Since then, however, we have seen it become the law of elections: Unemployment and state debt increase under every government; at every election, this costs the leading government party votes.

What Helmut Kohl first managed to tag as 13 years of Social Democrat mass unemployment, bankruptcies and debts simply became Christian Democrat unemployment, bankruptcies and debts, and slowly but surely bled his party. Schröder, in his eventual turn, succeeded in making the disappointment with Kohl a mere memory: Christian Democrat mass unemployment once again became Social Democrat mass unemployment, and so on.

The new disappointment does not even tolerate an era in government, just a single term. Or so it seemed, until rescue arrived, in the form of floods and the Iraq war and Schröder survived.

But what can rescue him now? Despite all the talk of undecided voters, the last 30 years show one thing - the unstoppable losses of every government, gains for the opposition. The voter who changes stripes each time around is not merely seduced in the short term, but more or less permanently disappointed.

How soon are we going to be disappointed in Angela Merkel?

There is a lot of talk about happiness in retrospect, back when half a dozen countries could still divide the spoils of the world amongst themselves. It will never be as it once was. And yet when last year's growth is announced, the captains of trade and industry - and of course all the politicians - are disappointed. Only 1 or 2 percent? Why don't we have growth rates like Ireland, the Czechs, Poland or China? Why can't we speed up like we did back in 1871 or 1957? The cry rises for an upturn. And along comes somebody who says: You can pin your hopes on me.

In this campaign, the politicians all behave as if, all together, we could pull "it" off. As if Germany could again become "what it was." And of course, Merkel, just like Schröder and Kohl before her, blames only this government for record unemployment and record debts, and so on. On the other hand, Merkel says, she doesn't want to promise anything. Perhaps that is really the achievement of maximum democracy: The candidate promises to promise nothing more, and then promises everything - to cut unemployment, to clean up the budget, but never to reduce pensions. And so on.

How soon are we going to be disappointed in Merkel?

The mood of change at the start of this campaign has long since dissipated. We're disappointed in the change before it has even taken place. Or, more precisely, it has already occurred - in the media, where Merkel has been chancellor ever since Schröder announced new elections in May.

As the first media chancellor, disappointment is sure to overtake her. For there are good reasons to believe that the people who are disappointed in Schröder and Red-Green are now bound to be let down by a Merkel government.

(Sven Hillenkamp is an editor at Die Zeit, where a longer version of this article first appeared. Translation from the German by the International Herald Tribune.)

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