- A few Random Thoughts
1. German society in 2017 is as pluralistic as it may not have been at any other point in its history. Such plurality of interests is reflected in the outcome of the parliamentary elections in September 2017. The results voted parties into the new parliament which range from ultra-conservative to open and change-oriented. Still the middle ground with a broad consensus that all is well and we need to continue as up to now with a few changes here and there, is transcending party boundaries. And this is most likely the main reason why the discussions among 4 parties stalled and now seem not to lead to a new government. There apparently was no room to a consensus on initiating needed changes, in particular with regard to climate change mitigation, a policy area in which Germany was strong, but is slipping at the moment.
2. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lost its footing in the society as her traditional base of industrial unionized workers has eroded. Many of the remaining ones are voting today for conservative parties, such as the CDU/CSU and AfD. Others, who are mostly self-employed or are employed in small and mid-sized companies don’t see themselves as part of a modern proletariat and hence do not recognize the social democrats as their political representatives. Social justice is not what they aspire for, long-term economic security is what they want with a maximum of individual freedom. Not surprisingly, the SPD was the big loser in the last elections, although their ministers in the outgoing government worked successfully at the agreed agenda with their coalition partners. The party leadership decided to assume the lead role in the parliamentary opposition and to use the time until the next elections to renew its political platform and outlook on Germany’s future. This is an honorable decision, and in principle in the interest of the country at large, but may still have to be revised, as I shall show later.
3. The CDU/CSU has a big advantage over all other parties: its social base is solidly entrepreneurial both in industry, agriculture and the services. Managers of large and mid-sized companies constantly rub shoulders with the leaders of the party, and thus the politicians have an easy task to formulate goals and give direction to the economic and social process which appears to be affordable and in line with Christian values of sharing and caring for weaker members in the society. Among others, it was the pressure from the economic elite to reduce the debt of the state and to balance the state budget, which gives Germany today its exceptional standing in terms of public financing. Thus the Christian democrats shine as being sensible and in control. This impression is enhanced by Angela Merkel, although her star after 12+ years in the office of the chancellor is waning. She clearly has overstayed her welcome in the eyes of a growing number of people, and it is a shame, that she can or does not want to accept this. That an outgoing American president urged her to stay on can’t suffice for a decision to run for another 4 years as leader of the German government. Irrespective of her many contributions to the well being of the country, like anybody else she has her blind spots, and they are becoming more visible every day.
4. Three smaller parties, namely the liberals (FDP), The Greens, and the Socialists (die Linke) represent the views of the middle-classes which range from views, which will preserve the economic standing of a professional middle-class in the society (FDP), to a position which challenges the existing order intellectually (die Linke) to a party which believes that only fairly radical changes can maintain our social, economic and ecological well being (die Grünen). As the views on how to change the current unsustainable status of our society differ greatly, the party suffers from heavy fighting among two wings, one, which wants to make changes more gradually and as
part of the government and the other one, which wishes to promote changes quickly and by adhering to strong principles of social and ecological sustainability. Die Linke appears at the moment similarly suffering from in-fighting, as their leadership seems to disagree on how to stem the tide of dwindling votes and how to stay a convincing course as a long-serving opposition party since 1989.
5. The newcomer on the block, the AfD, will have to decide whether they wish to distance themselves from the right-wing fringes of their voting base and become a conservative party to the right of the CDU/CSU or whether they want to keep a populist, provocative style, which will satisfy disgruntled members in the society, but will basically be a nuisance to the other parties and the majority in the society, and thus ineffective in the political structures of today’s Germany.
6. No clear majorities emerged as the result of the last elections. The CDU lost, but remained the strongest party. Although Merkel’s political basis was weakened, nobody was strong enough to challenge her. The SPD opted for a soul-searching course of action, assuming the lead role in the parliamentary opposition. The FDP is pleased to be back in the national parliament, but too weak to assume any government responsibility at the present time. The Greens, although
programmatically up to scratch on the challenges of our times, their voter base has weakened, as the party leadership cannot show how they would use a role in government. Too often leading politicians have shown a tendency to force the pace for sustainable solutions with authoritarian measures, or to cave in to specific interests in the economy (e.g. car manufacturers) and thus compromising the party’s principles. The Greens are clear on their goals, but less convincing in the adoption of the means by which they wish to reach these goals. The socialists lost all the votes of angry citizens to the AfD, and they are now in search of a new political base. They are strongest among intellectuals, but this is not sufficient a base to maintain influence and eventually become eligible for a governing coalition. Besides, they are still tainted by their origin which, after all, was the SED in the German state, which did not make it into the 21st century. Whether the AFD will survive or become a gadfly like other right-wing parties after 1945, is too early to say.
7. In this situation, political compromises are called for. Merkel has to save face, but also has to signal that she is willing to relinquish her hold on power. The current caretaker government, which over the last legislative period by and large did a satisfactory job in the eyes of the majority of the population, should continue for another 2 years. The FDP, the Greens, the Socialists and the AfD should sharpen their profile in the opposition, and fight for new mandates in elections to be held in 2 years from now. By then, even the 3 parties forming this caretaker government can renew their leadership, platforms and plans for the future. At the moment, new elections would not bring any major changes in the vote distribution. Hence such elections would be a waste of time and effort. Regrettably with the interim solution Germany will politically limp along for another 2 years, and most likely be a weak member of the EU and other multilateral organizations.
8. The only alternative would be to form a minority government between the CDU/CSU and the Green party with the hope that for different policy areas and law initiatives the liberals and the social democrats would vote along with the governing parties.