Decision in Germany

It’s election time in Germany. On September 18, Germany will vote for a new parliament and presumably for a new chancellor. This election is a contradiction in itself. After all, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had asked his governing coalition in the German parliament to cast a vote of no confidence (Germans use the word “mistrust”), so that he could ask the German voters for their trust again. One week before the election, the outcome is unclear, the debate tense, and the differences between the competing major parties ill-defined.

The last polls before the election show Germany as a divided country. Five parties are likely to gain the 5 percent of votes necessary to be part of the next Bundestag – Germany’s parliament. The center-right coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP with its leading candidate for chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to gain about 48 percent of the likely votes cast, while the center-left parties of SPD, Greens and the newly formed Left Party – a collaboration between the East’s former socialists and disillusioned, left-leaning members of the SPD – are expected to gain a combined 49 percent. The remaining votes will be spread over a number of radical left and right-wing parties. With such an outcome, neither the governing coalition of SPD and Greens nor the opposing coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP will be able to elect a chancellor this fall.

The closeness of the election gained a new twist in recent days. A candidate for the neo-Nazi party NPD in the eastern city of Dresden suffered a stroke and passed away on September 5. As a result, 219,000 voters in this district will vote two weeks after the rest of the country and when the preliminary results of the election in the rest of the country are already known. Given how close the results could be, massive legal challenges are looming from both sides.

One possible outcome to this election could be a grand coalition of SPD and CDU/CSU. This has occurred once in German history – in the 1960s – and is credited with enacting a number of important reforms. Whether a new grand coalition would be able to accomplish similar reforms and revive Germany’s ailing economy is uncertain, largely because it is unclear what either party’s economic vision is.

The major parties try to hide the fact that they are devoid of a coherent vision on how to address Germany’s looming problems: high unemployment, slow growth, budget deficits, health care inflation, energy price shocks, lack of integration between the East and the West, integration of immigrants, and dramatic demographic changes as a result of one of the lowest birth rates in the industrialized world. Instead, the two major parties have called each other liars, charging that each is misleading voters by not disclosing specifics or by misrepresenting the record of their opponents. Rather than discuss a positive vision for Germany and specific programmatic details, the major parties have decided to continue the negative attacks in the last week before the election.

The lack of a well-articulated vision for Germany’s future is reflected in the selection of pre-election slogans. In a “life imitates art” world, where the similarities of political slogans are reminiscent of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” one party clamors for “Trust in Germany” and the other proclaims to “Use Germany’s Chances.” You decide who is more progressive and who is more conservative.

This is not to say that Germany’s major parties do not have specific ideas on how to handle some of Germany’s problems, most notably its budget deficits. However, neither of the two major parties is willing to share those specifics with the voters. The CDU/CSU has admitted that it has a list of about 400 tax loopholes that it plans to close proposed by a constitutional law professor and former judge, Paul Kirchhof (hence “Kirchhof’s list”). Yet it has refused to release this list, claiming – in a remarkable political twist for a conservative party – that the loss of loopholes will only affect the rich. The governing SPD will likely address the country’s budget deficits by cutting programs. However, when a list of possible spending cuts, amounting to $36 billion next year, started circulating in an apparent leak from the finance ministry, the finance minister Hans Eichel claimed that the list represented a “concerted action by government employees with CDU membership and parts of the Union [CDU/CSU]”. Eichel, though, did not detail what his cuts would really look like in a new SPD-led government.

At a time when Germany struggles with massive economic problems, it is involved in an election that offers, at least on the surface, very few new concepts and visions that would allow the voters to decide on who is better equipped in moving the country forward. The fear is that a tight election outcome will give no party a clear mandate to enact reforms and to address the country’s problems, thereby potentially delaying real changes.

Christian E. Weller is senior economist at the Center for American Progress.