Last year, the German public followed the 2008 US presidential election with a lot of enthusiasm. When Barack Obama delivered his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin last July, the US campaign trail even seemed closer to us than our own politics, and the German public was fascinated by the US presidential election campaign. Many – including myself – watched the election night till the next morning. Only three weeks ahead of our own election which will decide if Angela Merkel will remain in office, the German election campaign is arousing little passion among voters, and many Germans are rather bored [NYT].
The campaign itself
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign began almost two years before the Presidential election, and it was a long, intensive and expensive political campaign. The candidates for the US presidential election have traveled the US and delivered speeches in hundreds of town halls and school gyms to discuss political issues, the voters and event the viewers were thrilled. Until recently, it did not seem that the German politicians want to campaign at all, particularly not those of the Grand coalition. It seemed like they wanted to continue their business as usual as if no election was coming up. The German campaign did not even seem to start 6 weeks ahead of the election. Only three weeks before September 27, all parties have officially started their election campaigns. 29 parties, alltogether, broadcast their advertising spots on TV. German cities are full of posters. German politicians seem to be very active on SNS, YouTube and Twitter. Many politicians go online and seek contact with the voter on the internet. Many try to portray themselves as Obama-type modern people who are familiar with Social Media. This does not seem to be very convincing, because – please correct me if I am wrong – Barack Obama would not mention his online popularity when he addressed the people; he would discuss the political issues that his presidential campaign was about. Another difference is in the direction of the campaign: Though there are gradual differences among the parties of the German Bundestag, all five parties have organized their campaign in a top down manner. They all share the general principle that a party organization defines positions and politicians communicate these positions to the voter. They largely lack the aspect of interaction and self-organization, activation and participation on the side of the voters. Rather it seems like politicians and a few experts exchange their views and the voter finds himself in the position of a viewer. Consequently, though a large part of the election campaign takes place online, there is no guarantee that online campaigning contributes to increase the trustworthiness of the candidates. The strategic character of politicians’ online communication does not go unnoticed. [see also Elektrischer Reporter, in German]
What is the campaign about?
Germany is a country with a long tradition of welfare, social security, health care for all etc. Since the beginning of the Federal Republic of Germany, German politicians across party lines took have taken pride in their commitment for the German Grundgesetz and “Soziale Marktwirtschaft” – a state regulated market economy with a strong and reliable social security system. In the light of the economic globalization and financial market economy, Germany has undergone a process of adaptation from coordinated market economy toward the model of the liberal market economy and fundamental change in the institutions of German capitalism – with the backside that many people experience great uncertainty and fear with regard to career chances, employment, social security and poverty when they become old. At a time of economic and financial upheaval, with unemployment expected to climb rapidly and as the most fragile of recoveries in the export-oriented German economy remains threatened by the vicissitudes of the unstable global economy, the party campaigns operate to a large extent with the uncertainties and fears on the side of the people when it comes to their fate in the future. Thus, if the German election campaign has one dominant topic, it is probably the distribution of wealth (and debt), the future of “Soziale Marktwirtschaft” and the degree to which economic inequality will be tolerated: distribution of wealth between affluent and poor people, the distribution of wealth (and debt) between corporations, the state and citizens, the distribution of wealth (and debt) between the generations. This discussion also comes in the form of a debate on taxes, a debate on a potential maximum salary for managers, a protection employees from getting sacked by their employers, a discussion whether or not tertiary education should be free of charge, a discussion whether state property such as the Deutsche Bundesbahn should be transformed into a private-owned company. The discussion on the problem of unemployment has not become a dominant topic, yet, because Bundesanstalt für Arbeit has managed to postpone and hide much of Germany’s underemployment, first, due to the construct of Kurzarbeit with 100 % income (reduced working hours, financed by Bundesagentur für Arbeit and the employer) and, second, due to short-time work for job seekers that creates only very little income (but people do not appear in the official unemployment statistics). Of course, there are many other topics, too: environmental issues, security with regard to terrorist threats versus citizen rights, education, health care, etc.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU/CSU) competes with a member of her own cabinet, Frank Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democratic (SPD) for the office of chancellor and the dominant role of the new cabinet. After the election of 2005, 5 instead of 4 parties were elected into the German Bundestag. Since no combination of two parties had a majority of seats in the German Bundestag, CDU/CSU and SPD formed a Grand Coalition. So, Steinmeier has held office both in Gerhard Schröder’s Angela Merkel’s cabinet, and he now holds the offices of secretary of state and vice chancellor. Steinmeier is an „incumbent“ – only now in the role of a challenger. Now, I would suspect that chancellor Angela Merkel would like to strengthen her position such that she earns the majority of the electoral vote and gets to choose between a coalition with a weak social democratic party (SPD) and the liberal Party (FDP). Expectedly, Merkel plays SPD and FDP against each other and both compete seem surprisingly willing to give up important aspects of their own campaigns as to be chosen for a coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU. This might explain the short duration and part of the appearance of the German election campaign. A game changer for German politics would be possible, if Steinmeier’s SPD won a higher percentage of the electoral vote than Merkel’s CDU/CSU, or if Merkel’s CDU/CSU would end up clearly below 50% of the electoral vote with either one of SPD and FDP. After losses in state elections on August 30 [NYT], it seems like CDU/CSU increasingly doubt their strength when it comes to the upcoming election that they thought they would certainly win.