Boring but instructive German elections - Marites Danguilan Vitug

by Marites Danguilan Vitug

Posted at Sep 27 2009 12:28 AM | Updated as of Sep 27 2009 01:45 PM

BERLIN — In Alexanderplatz, a busy square surrounded by malls and hotels, The Left Party held its pre-election rally with a rock band as front act. Supporters waved red flags and balloons and the mood was lively.

On another day, the Greens held their own final-stretch rally in a smaller square in another part of the city, with a thin crowd, but with a local TV entertainer for an emcee. She brought humor to the otherwise staid gathering. What was new, at least to foreigners, was a woman doing simultaneous sign-language interpretation on stage.

The most well attended was the rally of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), one of the biggest political parties in Germany. They gave away bright orange T-shirts with the sign “teAM Deutschland,” the capital letters AM referring to the popular Merkel’s initials.

A singer belted pop songs and primed the crowd for the chancellor’s prompt arrival. As scheduled, the rally began at 12 noon and ended after an hour and 15 minutes: short and orderly.

Rich in issues

As elections go, the way we know it in the Philippines, this one lacks the verve and excitement we are so used to. But it is rich in issues, something we sorely miss. The main parties—CDU, Social Democratic Party or SPD, The Greens, The Left Party,  and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), referred to as the Liberals—offer programs that span a wide range of the spectrum.

They talk about nuclear energy, taxes, pension reform, German military presence in Afghanistan, among others.

Merkel, who had just arrived from the G-20 summit in the US, talked about the successful meeting of leaders as she was cheered “Angie! Angie! Angie!” That she took about two days off from the campaign spoke of her confidence—she is widely expected to win in Sunday’s elections (Sept. 27)—and the importance of the summit.

“It was a good photo opportunity for her, to be seen with Barack Obama and other world leaders,” said Heinrich Kreft, senior foreign policy adviser of the CDU in the parliament. “The pictures were in the prime-time news. The portrayed her as caring for the interest of the Germans in the international scene and that she’s well respected.”

Merkel also talked about the economic crisis as a big challenge but that Germany, in finding solutions, cannot afford to experiment.

Middle of the road

The chancellor is seen as a mother figure here but, to critics and some observers, she is a politician who has not done enough to stem the economic downturn.  John Vinocur, columnist for the International Herald Tribune, said in a talk before the American Academy in Berlin that the election season here is “middle-of-the road politics with three central commandments: change nothing, take no risks, and make no demands.”

He continued: “If power on September 28 is in the hands of the German mainstream, its political parties will come to office having promised very little that is new or critical in a Germany that has been doing the same old thing, with declining success, for a very long time.”

For the past four years, Merkel’s center-right CDU was in a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and analysts say this is the reason Merkel has been timid in pushing for reforms. These two big parties—who used to oppose each other—were forced into a marriage in 2005, commonly called a “grand coalition.” They had to put their differences in the backburner and work together.

What was unexpected was the global financial crisis which has increased unemployment. Moreover, the banking system is in trouble, exports have declined and the level of debt is high.

Stability

While Merkel is a shoo-in, what remains unsure is the coalition that will take shape after the elections. Analysts say that the CDU should embrace the Liberals or FDP as its junior partner in the coalition (they share more similarities than CDU and SDP) to enable Merkel to move more aggressively on the economic front.

Elections in Europe’s largest economy may be a distant event for the Philippines—something out of our radar screens—but there’s a lot to learn from the robust party democracy.

It has largely been described by local and foreign commentators as the most “dull” and “boring” elections in recent memory. The results are predictable, as polls show Merkel leading. But to a certain extent, it shows stability in a country whose policies are shaped by consensus.

As far as fireworks go, Merkel’s opponent, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD, is not giving her much of a challenge. “The dour bureaucrat lacks the campaign skills needed to offset waning confidence in his Social Democrats,” wrote Spiegel Online.

Analysts and officials of both parties agree that the boredom problem is rooted in the fact that Merkel and Steinmeier belong to the same coalition. The much talked about 90-minute TV debate between Merkel and Steinmeier, which was supposed to be a duel, became a “duet” instead.

But don’t we sometimes pine for this kind of elections—away from our personality-oriented, issue-less, violence-fraught campaigns?