From a Stalemate on the Rhine to a Quagmire in Berlin

Things are really happening in Germany!  Like many others, I predicted that the federal government, an unhappy coalition of right-wing Christian Democrats led by Angela Merkel and her even more big-biz-friendly junior partners, the FDP (Free Democrats), would wait for a key election in the giant state of North-Rhine Westphalia on May 9th and then start beating the heads of all but the wealthy.  That, no surprise, is exactly what happened!  But two big surprises might just alter the picture.

That key election along the Rhine and Ruhr turned out a stalemate which became a gridlock (to mix metaphors).  The two ruling parties there, the same ones running the country (into the ground, one might add), took a well-deserved beating.  But the Social Democrats and their friends the Greens fell one seat short of a majority in the legislature.  That meant lots of bargaining under the many-party coalition system so unfamiliar to most Americans.  As in many a gossip column, the big question was, who was going with whom?

At first the SPD (Social Democrats) closed the door on a coalition with the young party, the Left, which had just broken into the state political scene with 5.6 %, and more than enough seats to provide a majority.  But the SPD and the Greens feared red-baiting.  In their negotiations they insisted on so many demeaning questions on how fiercely those representing the Left were willing to attack the long-dead GDR (East Germany) that the latter finally refused to bow any lower, seeing this as a ploy to blame a failure on them.  Ironically, few if any of these western Left members had anything at all to do with the GDR.

The next try was to join with the far right FDP.  But this time it proved too stubborn; the gaps were just too wide.  So the SPD tried to hook up with the Christian Democrats, although going with that party, which has one more seat than the SPD (sans Greens), meant that the same man would head the next government who had headed the outgoing one.  Worse still, it would preserve a right-wing majority in the upper house nationally (the Bundesrat, somewhat like the US Senate).  Merkel could then push through all the nasty laws she wanted with little opposition.  This would have been a real betrayal of all the promises the Social Democrats had made in the election campaign.  But as it turned out, neither side was willing to make the required compromises, and that, too, fell through.

Now, in a sudden switch, Hannelore Kraft, the head of the state SPD, chose what was really the only remaining option.  She will try to rule with the Greens despite the lack of a majority.  This is permissible but shaky; its life as a government depends on a few delegates from other parties supporting it on every important vote.  If they don’t, the whole fragile structure would collapse, possibly meaning new elections which nobody wants.

The government can stay on successfully if it proposes and supports legislation in accordance with its own election promises and agreeable to the Left, a party which only just began its political life along the Rhine.  Many view this as a satisfactory situation, at least for people in that area who hope for better schools, free university education, more help for hard-hit local communities, and, above all, jobs!

This is especially important because of the expected offensive by Angela Merkel.  One week ago her CDU and the FDP announced economic plans for the years ahead.  Of course, they blamed the dire economic situation and said that “we” had lived beyond our means and therefore “we” must tighten our belts.  Millions of jobless or underpaid workers wondered when and how they had lived beyond their means.  But who was meant by “we” when it came to belt-tightening was more than clear; financial assistance to parents for each child would no longer be paid to the jobless; “they already get subsistence aid.”  The money to pay heating expenses would also be taken away from them; “they gat rent money already.”  Employment agencies to help the jobless find work would also be cut drastically.  Plans for increasing the amount paid for medical care are not yet finessed, but on the drafting boards.  Yet all demands to increase the pitifully low taxes on the extremely wealthy, on their heirs, and on major corporations were roundly rejected according to that old rule: you must give the race horse enough oats and even the sparrows will have it better — in the end.

Similar plans were announced all over Europe, first in Greece and then elsewhere.  The same excuses, the same lop-sided plans, and soon the same old bonuses for the bankers.

The plans were a shock.  In Germany some militant unions joined left-wing parties in demonstrations in Berlin and Stuttgart.  Their slogan: “We won’t pay for your crisis!”  Ten or twenty thousand turned out, too many for the media to ignore, but not nearly enough to really shake things up.

But that other event shook things up more than expected.  After the surprise resignation of President Horst Koehler, at least in part because he told the truth about the true economic reasons for sending troops to Afghanistan, the two coalition partners agreed on a candidate; the Christian Democratic head of the government in Lower Saxony, Christian Wulff.  He is good-looking and has a reputation of being harmless, despite the usual one-sided steps influenced by the mighty Volkswagen company in his bailiwick.  Since the two parties have a majority in the huge legislative body called together to choose a president, things were expected to go smoothly.

But then the SPD and the Greens took a step bordering on genius, something not always expected of them.  As an opposition candidate they chose Joachim Gauck, who for ten years after the demise of the GDR administered the files on its Stasi, or State Security.  Since nearly anyone with any position of even minor responsibility and many without had had some relations with the Stasi, his hunting ground was full of game.  Some had done some nasty spying and snooping, others had been hardly reprehensible, but Gauck and his bureau could ruin the careers — and often the lives — of countless people.  And they did.  Yet they received so much good publicity in West and East Germany, with the Stasi question constantly used in political situations, that he was assured of lots of votes.  All the parties were hit by dissension about this man, whose manner and actions are in many ways reminiscent of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover rolled together.  Enough CDU and FDP electors may switch sides to give him a majority or, failing that, the needed plurality in the third vote.  The Left chose a third candidate, a woman who was once prominent in West German TV, and though she can get only a limited number of votes, the divisive question has arisen as to what her backers should do in the possibly decisive third vote.  Thus, the nomination of Gauck is splitting every single party.

And what is more important than the result of a vote for president, who has little more power than the British queen: if Gauck should beat Angela Merkel’s candidate, this would mean such a loss of prestige for Frau Merkel and her partners that the whole coalition government, now extremely unpopular, might get dragged down in a bitter quagmire.  And no one can really guess what would follow then; there is talk of reviving the old Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition which got Germany into its economic mess in the first place.  Don’t make any bets!

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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