German Politics and Vitamin B

What has Vitamin B to do with politics?  For the answer you must learn a little German, at least one key word.  “Beziehungen” — with a capital “B” — means connections, especially good connections.  It’s smart to have lots of “Vitamin B,” and not just the pharmacy kind!

Now here’s a man whose pockets seem filled with the valuable pills.  His great-great-uncle was a founder of the giant Deutsche Bank, which still helps rule Germany.  He himself was rather weak on the school side — left back twice in high school and forced to switch schools because of bad grades — but with a good, wealthy family that’s no real problem.  After finally overcoming college hurdles he moved into politics, starting well up on the ladder and climbing higher and higher until he became minister president in Germany’s most populous state.

True, there were bitter moments.  After he was head of the state government for three years his party took its biggest beating in half a century.  So he lost that job.  For him, the spring of 2005 was not a rosy one.  But by the fall he managed to climb even higher and became minister of finance for all of Germany, a top man in a coalition government.

His spell as finance minister is remembered for three things.  One was his privately-arranged chess tournament.  Germany really deserved an international tournament, he argued, so he gathered in a million euros in subsidies for it from Porsche, Telekom, and other powerful companies.  When it was pointed out that such private collections were illegal for a minister, he persuaded critics that these companies had not sought any special advantages from a top minister, they simply loved chess!  Then he wanted to assign lifelong identification numbers to all taxpayers.  This was rejected — but won him a not-too-welcome “prize” — the Big Brother Award.  His third little difficulty had more earnest consequences.  Right up until early September in 2008 he insisted that the German banking system was stable and needed no interference.  Then, on September 15th, Lehman Brothers went down the drain, and a big hunk of German banking headed the same way, costing taxpayers a bailout fund of 480 billion euros.  His solution: less regulation for the banks, while cutting social assistance to those hit by the recession.  Somehow this strange strategy won him an honorary doctorate at the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf and an honorary professorship at Leipzig University, known until 1990 as Karl Marx University.  (Poor Heine!  Poor Marx!)  But voters with no academic robes took a different view, and in the 2009 elections his party took a disastrous ten-point nosedive.  In the district where he ran for a seat in the new Bundestag he got swamped, also losing by ten percentage points.  But he got in anyway, thanks to the proportional representation system in Germany.  And “Vitamin B” always helps!

It served him well again as a representative.  Although he almost never took the floor and rarely even attended sessions, he was constantly invited to give lectures to old buddies in big banks and corporations and was paid royally to do so.  Because of the rules, we know only that his fee was never less than 7,000 euros per lecture, but it was certainly far, far higher.  He gave 75 or 80 during the legislative period, wrote a few well-paying books, and was named to the board of directors of the giant ThyssenKrupp company, which netted an additional 50,000 euros.  All in all, he became the wealthiest member of the Bundestag, probably worth well over a million.  We don’t know how much for sure because, like Mitt Romney, he prefers to keep such figures to himself.  But he has an explanation: he shares a bank account with his wife, so any information about it would be violating her right to privacy.  And he certainly could not dream of invading the privacy of his own wife!

On October 1st, perhaps after consuming some more of those good-luck vitamins, he was chosen as candidate for the office of chancellor (like premier) in the national election campaign for next September.

Quite a career!  And what is most surprising about it?  Peer Steinbrück, 65, a friend of the bankers, belongs to and is now the major candidate of the Social Democratic Party!  Yes, the SPD, the party with traditions going back to their socialist fight against Bismarck, who outlawed it, the party with the closest ties to the union movement, almost all of whose leaders support it.  And his selection for a star role in the campaign drama, facing leading actress Angela Merkel, was by unanimous decision of the 35-member executive committee!  The so-called left wing of the party, more or less represented by chairman Sigmar Gabriel, collapsed completely and swallowed Steinbrück lock, stock, and pork barrel!  Its attempts to win back lost voters by stealing program points from the Left party, trying to sound more socially minded for voters with short memories, who forget the total betrayal by the SPD while in office, will probably continue as before.  They have to keep to them.  But their voices now sound more hollow than ever before.  Steinbrück represents a return to just the same awful policies of the SPD when it was in government, from 1998 to 2005 with the Greens and until 2009 with the Christian Democrats (and with Steinbrück).  Those years brought terrible laws for working people, worst of all for millions of the jobless, and involvement in two wars — against Serbia and in Afghanistan.

How could the executive committee, and both wings of the party, approve a tight-lipped, tough-looking, wealthy conservative like Peer Steinbrück?  What is up with the SPD?

The weekly opinion polls provide part of the answer, giving the SPD 29 percent and the Greens, their comrades in opposition, 12 percent.  Add them up.  Even if they improve, despite present indications, they hardly reach 50 percent.  Of course, by adding the votes of the Left, now at 8 percent but slowly improving, they might well reach the needed majority.  But, as most of the SPD leaders, and very decidedly Steinbrück, always stress, “we will never, never join” with those Reds, or Stalinists, or GDR lovers, or whatever other epithets they can think of, none of them fair, correct, or genuine.  On state and local levels they have overlooked such inhibitions more than once.  The real problem is rather that the Left, despite all its own inner differences, is against the big banks, the giant industrial corporations, and military engagement abroad.  And of course it is disadvantaged by years of red-baiting, in which both the SPD and, almost as loudly, the Greens have happily joined in.

As for the Pirates as possible partners, they now stand at 7 percent, still have no program at all, are fighting amongst themselves, and seem to be steadily sinking.

But Merkel’s “Christians,” while leading in the polls, now stand only at 35 percent.  Even if their present partners, the Free Democrats, should survive the next election — less and less likely at the moment with 4 percent — they too would be far from 50 percent.

So what is the obvious solution?  As usual, better look right than left.  Just as in 2005, the Social Democrats would snub the Left, heartlessly jilt the poor Greens, and join with the Christians in a “grand coalition.”  This would require abandoning most if not all of their proclaimed social aims — like reversing their own past sins against working people — while cutting taxes on the super-rich.  (Does that sound familiar to Americans?)  But it would provide lots of comfortable cabinet posts and sub-posts with all the power and perks that go with them.  Then, happily or not, they would join Merkel in forcing suicidal austerity down European throats while trying to save the German economy from further crumbling.  As it looks, with southern Europe in trouble and East Asia less and less resilient, they could no longer count on export surpluses to keep strong.  And who knows, more German workers, threatened with cuts and layoffs, might just take a good look at big protest demonstrations in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Romania, and who knows where else?

This rightward spin of the SPD should make it much easier for the Left to go on an enlightenment offensive and really do some punching.  Can it get its own act together?  There are signs of this, more of its banners are visible when people do demonstrate, and its figures in the polls are slowly climbing again, though probably not enough to save it in the coming state election in Lower Saxony on January 20th.  Three years ago it got 7.1 percent there and won 11 seats in the legislature.  Now it seems stuck at 4 percent — and 5 percent are required to get even one seat.  Psychologically, that vote could count — but January is still three months away.

Steinbrück refused to let party members pin him down on his own program, not even on party promises to reverse those past sins by trying to raise pension rates or retreat from the postponement of full pension age to 67 (as approved by all parties except the Left).  Indeed, he avoids any promises at all.  “I need to keep some leg room free for myself,” he announced.  That’s elbow room in German.  He illustrated his intention with a weak smile and an awkward and yet menacing little swing with one leg.  Few returned the smile.  But he does plan to quit that job with ThyssenKrupp, he announced.  Yet he is certainly not giving up on those magic pills.

That’s the big problem with German politics.  All the main parties count on Vitamin B.  Sadly, only that one pariah party, the Left, never gets such valuable prescriptions.  Or maybe, in the long run, that could be a very good thing!

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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