My friends tend to be surprised with the fascination that I share with one of my friends on social media. He regularly sends me pictures of the German Chancellor in everyday, yet funny, situations. Our enthusiasm explodes when we see photographs of her cutting meat for a traditional Turkish kebab or receiving a statue of a golden hen from her faithful electorate. We also analyse every colour of her two-piece suits and the energy that we feel emanating from her famous rhombus-shaped hands that featured in her CDU party’s election billboards.
Just to be absolutely clear – we feel that this in no way contradicts our progressive, green political views.
So are the political opinions of some of my friends, which in recent days surprised me with their appraisal of Merkel and the sense of stability she supposedly brings to Germany. Many analysts look with envy on the German economic model, its labour market reforms and the presence of a strong industrial base. If there is any criticism in the media for the CDU it is because of the perceived irrationality of the energy transition of our western neighbour. From time to time we therefore hear about people going to the woods to fetch some lumber, because the energy from wind or the sun it told to be extremely high. But – then again – the Germans are rich because of their protestant work ethic, which Merkel’s a symbol of, so they can afford to be extravagant (ecological awareness in a coal-based country is considered as such), can’t they?
Success of the Petit Bourgeoisie?
Let us now place the kebab that Angela Merkel herself cut with one of the German Greens proposals from the electoral campaign, namely “Veggie Day”. The idea was to make a no-meat day in public canteens once a week. From the standpoint of green politics, the well-being of animals or public health there is nothing to be ashamed of in proposing such a thing. But then again just one commentary from “The Mother of All Germans”, which can basically be summarised as a “do what you want” attitude was enough to make it an object of jokes and ridicule in the media, and required the Greens to constantly defend their proposal.
Looking at the voting results of the Greens, who just a few weeks before were poised to get 15% of the vote, and right now have to be satisfied with a result which is lower than their 2009 result, and putting it in context of the huge swing towards CDU and CSU, the causes of this bitter result have to be found. Of course “Veggie Day” can be just a symbol of this result – no one would suggest, that almost half of the potential electorate drifted away from the party just because they were scared off by a vision of a day without a schnitzel, porkshank or a kebab.
The Greens, in my opinion, lost this time because of their strong political idealism and the need for a deep social, ecological and economic transformation. This basic notion of green politics is at the same time its biggest strength and biggest weakness. Contrary to common perception, ecopolitics doesn’t only thrive during times of abundance and economic growth. The German Greens fared better when dangers to “the German way of life” were more visible (i.e. during the start of the global economic crisis or the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima) than during times of perceived stability.
The devil’s arithmetic
Pundits, besides blaming “Veggie Day”, like to point out the fiscal policy proposals, especially the ones about increasing the taxation on the wealthiest in the country. In their opinion it was this mistake to shift away from the more core subjects, like the German energy transition, that made their traditional, metropolitan, affluent electorate ebb away from them.
I’m not a big fan of this theory. If it was entirely true, than the Greens wouldn’t have lost so many votes to the SPD, which also fought for higher taxes for the rich or a national minimum wage. Also the timing of this loss of voters doesn’t fit – even after accepting their electoral programme with the now disputed fiscal policies, the party for quite a long time enjoyed a steady level of popularity of 13 – 15%. If I was to point out some problems with the communication that I observed from across the board, it could be the huge number of topics that the party tried to focus on during the campaign. The members of the party, in a democratic vote, decided to focus on nine subjects, which in effect was too complicated vis a vis the two big players – Merkel and Steinbrück. It was particularly visible when one thinks about the campaign of the CDU, focused not on a single issue or a catchphrase, but on just one person – and with quite a huge success.
A huge problem which may have been under the radar during the most part of the campaign was the limited coalition abilities of the party on the federal level. It comes as a surprise that a party which can proudly argue that thanks to their efforts ecology became a central theme of the German political life until just recently accepted only a red-green coalition with the SPD. Until the Social Democrats fought with CDU/CSU as equal political forces, and the centre-right opposed reforms such as phasing-out nuclear energy or civil partnerships for gay couples, this policy was obvious. In 2013 it becomes more and more problematic. In effect some parts of the green electorate might have thought that the policies which they support will probably have a better chance of implementation by a stronger SPD in a “grand coalition”.
The notion that the coalition with the Social Democrats is in any way “natural” is being put in doubt also in parts of the green family – and some fragments of this discussion have even been observed in the Polish media. In an interview on the webpage of the “Krytyka Polityczna” (“Political Critique”) quarterly the co-leader of the Green Group in the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, reminded the readers that still a huge part of the German social democracy is keen to support old-fashioned branches of industry and a productivist economic approach, focusing on retaining the role of exports as the main fuel of the German economy. This approach, which limits the scope of an alternative European policy regarding the crisis-hit countries of the European periphery, wouldn’t be in any way countered in a big, CDU-SPD coalition. In Cohn-Bendit’s opinion, only the Greens in the German government could influence a revision of such an economic course.
In effect the Greens lost their appeal as possible post-election “kingmakers”. If the possibility of either an alliance with the CDU, or a wider left-wing coalition would me more actively pursued the political position of the party would right now be probably better – and even better, if the attitude of the SPD towards the Left would also change. This scenario wasn’t as improbable as one might think – the choice of Katrin Göring-Eckardt as a leading list candidate alongside Jürgen Trittin was seen by many as a possible opening of the party both towards the political middle ground and talks with the CDU.
No such opening actually took place and while there still exists the potential for a black-green alliance, it would probably strengthen the Social Democrats, further erode the Green’s political influence and popularity and create internal conflicts. If one wants to overcome such historic, symbolic differences, one needs to prepare both the party and the electorate for such a process – the example of FDP shows that sometimes even coalitions between ideologically close parties can end in tragedy for one of the partners – and it’s usually the smaller one that gets beaten in the process.
By the way – it looks like a scenario that is attractive not only to the German CDU. In a recent interview with the Polish “Rzeczpospolita” daily Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, MEP from the ruling Civic Platform and the vice-chair of the European Peoples’ Party told that a black-green coalition would be better for Europe and for Polish-German relations than a black-red one. He accused the SPD of leaning toward Russian interests in the region (a common part of the Polish political discourse, used both by the Civic Platform and the main, right-wing opposition from the Law and Justice party). He also told the Polish journalist that a left alternative to cuts – more financial help to the south of Europe – may not be in the Polish interests, because less money would come to Poland. I think that sums up the short-sightedness of the centre-right (not only in Poland) quite well.
Let’s return to the German Greens now. A similar problem with declining a coalition possibility arose when they sounded rather sceptical towards the idea of an alliance with the SPD and the Left after the elections. Although it can be argued that such a coalition would be a difficult one for parts of the Green electorate, the same could be said about an alliance with the CDU. The experiences of a CDU-Green coalition in Hamburg, where the party didn’t lose ground, and in Saarland, where it scrapped tuition fees in a very difficult coalition with not only the Christian Democrats, but also with the Liberals, shows that telling people exactly why such pacts are being pursued and what the party wants to achieve in them doesn’t have to end in a future election wipe-out.
In effect, when the opinion polls showed that a post-election SPD-Green coalition was more and more improbable, the voters turned away to SPD and CDU. At one point also to… the Left, which started to group voters opposed to Merkel and Christian Democrat rule. Even if in the end they also lost ground, they managed to get a bit more votes than the Greens and snatch away from them the title of the third biggest party in the parliament.
Lack of debate in poland
Let’s get one thing straight – there hasn’t been a huge discussion in the Polish media on the German elections, just like there is almost no foreign news in the main polish evening news programmes. The topics related to international affairs, even the ones that take place inside the European Union, aren’t seen as attractive piece of journalism to the Polish audience. Even if the election on 22nd September got some air time, they were focused much more on the election results than on the issues that affected the political debate in Germany.
This absence of European policy and in-depth discussions (symbolised in articles about shale gas, in which the MEPs from different countries and standpoints other than the Polish centre-right very rarely get the chance to stage their concerns) allows misinformation to flow. For months, Janusz Palikot, the leader of the Your Move (formerly known as the Palikot Movement) party tried to persuade Polish journalists that after the 2014 elections to the European Parliament a new, federalist group made out of Liberals, Greens and Pirates will emerge. For months most of the journalists didn’t care to check the probability of this fact, so that even a few weeks before the German elections Ralf Fücks, the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, had to explain to the journalist of “Political Critique” that the Greens and the FDP are in completely different parts of the political spectrum.
If some articles finally emerged they tended to focus more on the way Peer Steinbruck wasn’t having a successful campaign than on the election proposals of the SPD. The taxation proposals of the Greens were mentioned in “Gazeta Wyborcza”, but mainly as a way to show that pursuing leftist ideas brings electoral defeat and not a pretext to focus on social conditions (ie. growing inequalities) in the country. It’s therefore hard to say that – besides some discussion on the German policy towards Russia – that there has been any serious conversations about the future of Germany and its European policies in Poland.
This article – first published in Polish – is an edited part of the dossier on the German parliamentary elections, prepared by the author for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung office in Warsaw.