Berlin and German Politics

The Needle’s 2013 German Federal Elections Roundup

It’s time to vote in Germany this weekend and you might have been wondering what issues are on the plate for Europe’s largest economy. Plenty of ex-pats here are wondering too, because Germany really does feel like it’s on valium at election time. Let’s take a look at what’s important this time around and keep awake while doing it.


The Sleepy Election

Let’s first dwell on this somnambulance…  I wonder whether sedatives haven’t been pumped into the U-Bahn stations, or whether a numbing gas is floating through the radiators this chilly September. When I read my copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung today, I have to search around for election news on the front page. What’s wrong with this country?

Hmmm… in the newspaper there’s something about the election after all! Family politics: whether parents who don’t send their kids to kindergarden should get a state subsidy (only the CDU says yes). How scintillating! But otherwise, the front-page news is occupied with the big issue of Syria (did German companies sell the Syrians chemicals?) and the release of an Iranian human rights activist. It’s probably just the time difference, but I have to turn to the New York Times to read about new polls that show that the ruling right-wing CDU (Christian democrats) has only a narrow lead (with 38%-40% of the vote) and may have trouble forming a coalition (their partners, the FDP, only have about 6%). Why is it all so sedate, given that, when everyone’s finished voting, things might get exciting indeed?

I do see it through an expat’s eyes: a federal election here is nothing like what you might have experienced in the United States, or even Canada and Britain.  There isn’t a frenzy of campaigning: I mean, the high-budget frenzy. You just need to compare the 20 million euros spent by the CDU to the 1 billion spent by the Republicans in the last US election (work that out per capita and you might laugh). You will get a flyer or letter in the post, but you’re not guaranteed to get someone knocking on your door. Parties are more important than individuals, with Merkel’s anti-charisma a notable exception (I’m not the only one who thinks she’s awful at elections). And it’s true that the SPD’s Peer Steinbrück can almost keep one awake when he gives a reporter the finger). You see election signs on the medians between traffic lanes, or tied to lampposts, and advertisements in the U-Bahn, but there’s a real absence of bling. Elections here are less of a popularity contest than in the US, and at least this aspect leaves me with good feelings about the state of German political life.

(On the subject of the ubiquitous signs on lampposts, the ones lower down get creatively vandalized: I like the ones of Angela Merkel with her teeth knocked out. The thankfully marginalized NDP (the far-right nationalists) whose posters feature Muslim immigrants riding a magic carpet, with the slogan ‘Have a good trip home’, have a talent at mounting their signs up very high, and they know not to put any up in Kreuzberg).


Finding your match

Much of the discussion isn’t happening on the streets, of course, but online, and one of the most instructive primers to the German elections is the Wahl-o-Mat, produced by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Central Government Agency for Political Education), which was used 7 million times in the last election . You answer 38 questions on election issues and indicate which ones are most important to you. Your results are compared to the platforms of  28 parties running—not just the big ones––from left to right.

I wonder whether Wahl-o-Mat uses the same software as some dating sites. Who am I going to fall in love with? A number of lefty friends have been alarmed at their results: for example, how they are really destined for a torrid affair with Die Linke (the Left), the home for many East-German former Communists. But then again, they might do as well making love with Die Grünen (The Greens), who don’t happen to be divorced from Erich Honecker. The SPD (Social Democrats), the CDU, and free-market FDP liberals round out the other big parties for whom you will be given a percentage compatibility––the prediction of a wild fling or a sexless grind.

But you can also compare your views to the little, and sometimes curious, parties like the Partei für Mesch, Umwelt und Tierschutz (Party for Man, Nature and Animal Protection), or Die Violetten, who see spiritual renewal in German going hand in hand with a left-wing agenda. Then there’s the socially conservative Alternative for Germany party, which is against the Euro and for a return of the Deutschmark, which looks like it may pass the 5% necessary to enter Parliament. The Wahl-o-Mat has the involvement of all the major political parties, and so is ostensibly a non-partisan source for figuring out what the different parties believe.


Foreign Affairs

One of the big issues posed on Wahl-o-Mat promises to make the election a little more exciting than usual. It is the question of foreign policy, and especially surveillance, in light of the NSA revelations. The CDU is in the unenviable position of being in power during what has turned into a privacy scandal over the transfer of information on German citizens through the American PRISM program (it seems like America likes spying on Germany more than any other European country).

One party, the Pirates, who have entered the Berlin Parliament, has been particularly visible in the capital on the question of data protection.  The SPD meanwhile have accused Merkel of breaking her oath of office by violating individual constitutional rights. Meanwhile, all the parties, except the CDU, are against an extensive CCTV (Closed-circuit TV) system operating in the country. The issue gains urgency when you consider how the memory of the Stasi is still fresh for many in the East.

Will this make or break the election and pull support away from the ruling CDU? Probably not. But I do think there will be long-term fallout. I was told by a colleague over dinner the other night that the NSA issue is the concern of left-wing intellectuals living in certain Berlin neighbourhoods. I argued that it’s not really such a niche issue, the question of surveillance does rank 6th of important electoral issues in polls, but it’s important to remember that the economic issues rank well before it.  But on the long term of internet savvy: I think it’s telling that the CDU does not use Twitter, and has one of the lowest Facebook presences of any German party, and one of the highest average ages for party members (at 59, compare that the tech-savvy Pirates with an average age of 38). The NSA issue shows the CDU and CSU partners in Bavaria increasingly out of touch with the new generation––swimming in a world of virtual political assembly, and concern about the related privacy issues.


Wealth hoarders

Now, speaking of the economy, Germany has done much better than its European neighbours at weathering the crisis (Germany has in fact benefitted from the crisis, and a depressed Euro to boost the exports of the economic motor which is German industry). Merkel’s party promotes Germany’s good economic growth as proof of a job well done, but plenty here feel that the wealth is not sufficiently shared.

One of the biggest economic issues is the question of fair employment and minimum wage (there’s no statutory minimum wage in Germany). It’s a country where more than a million people work for less than 5 EUR/hour, and 25% of the population have what’s considered ‘low pay’ (less than 10 EUR/hour). No other country in Europe has so many low-wage earners.  

The CDU and the FDP are predictably against introducing a statutory minimum wage, arguing for industry or sector-specific minimum wages. Some members of Die Linke are pushing for much more drastic measures: a guaranteed minimum income for all Germans (1050 EUR is the amount on Die Linke signs in Kreuzberg). Arguments for the minimum wage include that it will increase purchasing power, or––more importantly––that is a humane move. Others, on the left, worry that a right-wing government will use it as an opportunity to scale back welfare payments.



Dirty Hands

Economic issues are interwoven with environmental questions. If you live in Germany, you may have been watching with concern your rising electricity bills (along with your rental costs, another election issue). Both the SPD and Die Linke want electricity prices highly regulated (the CDU and FDP disagree). Meanwhile, the FDP, CDU and SPD have all said they won’t ban the construction of new coal-powered power plants. This balance between concern for rising consumer costs, in relation to environmental costs, is a knotty issue, with politicians appealing to the pocket book to justify bad environmental choices. Since Germany has turned away from nuclear energy, and is increasingly reliant on a whimsical Russia, the question of where Germany can obtain cheap energy is a major concern.


The Social Scene

There are other important social issues which place the CDU apart from the others: the possibility of opening rights of adoption to safe sex couples (every big party is for this except for the CDU), making the morning after pill available prescription-free (CDU against), or pushing for being generous in taking more asylum seekers (again, only the CDU against). At least all the big parties are for promoting individuals with a ‘migration background’ in the workplace, but the CDU alone doesn’t want to allow them to have dual citizenship. I have been quite amazed at how these social issues have suffered in this election, especially the question of the integration of minorities into German society. I’m reminded of grad school critiques of Germany’s historical obsession with wealth and consumption over other concerns. Another issue should be the number of women in politics (why are almost all the FDP candidates men? And, despite Angela, 75% of the CDU?) and more vigorous debate over the introduction of a required minimum female participation on German company’s boards of directors (again just the FDP against, with the CDU tight-lipped on the issue).


Some parting shots…

Now, do you feel sedated? Did this all put you to sleep? Take some consolation that very little of it––perhaps save the environmental issues––is likely to give you nightmares. And when I mean nightmares, I’m talking about the parties that could really scare you, like the NDP. The extreme parties thankfully have very little support, around 1% (nonetheless––and my North-American civil-rights education reels against this––all the big parties want to see the NDP banned). Compare this to the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece or the far-right in Hungary or the Front National in France, and there’s plenty to be grateful for in German political life. If only Germany would vigorously start debating the effects of its austerity measures on the rest of Europe––an issue almost entirely absent in the politicking as people argue about their minimum wage, rental costs and electricity bills––then we could really get a good night’s rest.


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.