Sun Sep 18th, 2011 at 08:44:34 AM EST
Germany's capital Berlin is also one of the country's 16 states, thus today's elections are municipal and regional at the same time. The election system is like in (most) regional and federal elections, that is, people vote for both single-district candidates and party lists (with a 5% limit), resulting in a nearly party-proportional parliament, which elects the government and the "governing mayor" (the equivalent of PM).
Berlin's political landscape is special. It is the only state combining parts of former East and West Germany. Not just two but four parties can expect double-digits results: the governing Social Democrats (SPD) and Left Party, as well as the Greens and the Christian Democrats (CDU). The mayor, Klaus "Wowi" Wowereit (see portrait here) is the one SPD leader who has no problems working with the Left Party, and was the first gay top politician in Germany to come out.
The campaign was rather tepid and issues-free, except for a row about youth violence, until – as now customary since Merkel's temporary no to the first rescue package for Greece two years ago, which kicked off another market run and turned the problem into a Euro crisis – a party in the federal government decided to take the EU hostage for regional election gain. This time, the neo-liberal FDP, which was in danger of dropping from yet another regional parliament, decided to go for the Eurosceptic vote by openly talking about a sovereign default of Greece and kicking it out of the Eurozone, calling for a signature collection, and defying Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Now, what is at stake in this election?
- The Pirate Party looks likely to get in – its first election success at this level in Germany. This would be an opportunity to see what the party wants in terms of policies other than information freedom, and what kind of people it has other than the lone ex-SPD federal MP they had who was convicted for owning paedophile porn.
- The SPD looks set to be a clear winner; the question is, whom will they choose as coalition partner: the current partner, the ailing Left Party, or the Greens, or a CDU benefiting from the crime debate.
- This time, the federal significance of the regional election is not via Germany's upper house, but the mayor: if the SPD does well, Wowi is expected to enter the race for chancellor candidate (competing with the three centrist losers currently dominating the federal SPD).
- The FDP's success or failure in passing the 5% limit will likely decide over the continuation of its Eurosceptic course, too, and thus influence the futures of Merkel, Greece, and the Euro.
Some additional details below the fold.
I continue to view Wowereit as a somewhat shallow politician and a centrist at heart, which is underlined by the issues-free focus on his person in the Berlin SPD's campaign. Still, as chancellor candidate, I'd prefer him to the current three hopefuls, who are in order of chances:
- Peer Steinbrück: currently a 'simple' federal MP but topping the popularity polls; before that, finance minister in Merkel's first, Grand Coalition government; before that, the mid-term PM of Northrhine-Westphalia who lost that formerly core SPD state to the CDU in his first election; a thoroughly uninspiring doctrinaire third-wayist.
- Franz-Walter Steinmeier: currently the federal faction leader; before that, foreign minister of the Grand Coalition government who led the SPD to another election loss as chancellor candidate; before that, chancellor Gerhard Schröder's behind-the-scenes point man as his minister of the chancellery.
- Sigmar Gabrel: the current chairman of the SPD; before that, environment minister of the Grand Coalition government who alone made some noise towards the election; before that, Schröder's mid-term successor as PM of Lower Saxony who lost that state to the CDU in the next election. He wants to be chancellor, too, though his poll numbers aren't good.
A trio of losers and yesterdaymen in terms of policy.
Staying with the SPD, the Berlin SPD, a scandal that wasn't but should have been concerned their acceptance of a campaign donation from a certain person: Thilo Sarrazin. As I wrote in more detail in Green and Oriental Berlin, this dubious financial expert was first brought into Berlin politics by Wowereit to be his finance minister, to serve as a fig leaf for an austerity programme; then Sarrazin decided that he is an expert on immigration, and wrote an anti-Muslim-immigrant scandal book; then the SPD failed to fire him from the party. With the donation, Sarrazin remained true to himself in seeking controversy; while the local SPD remained true to itself in trying to avoid any confrontation or debate, saying 'what's wrong with a donation from a party member'.
Moving on to the Left Party, they are expected to lose and barely pass 10%. This appears to be largely the result of a controversy set off by the federal party which I find frankly inexplicable: the co-leaders of the party (see Successors for Red Oskar and Concrete-head Bisky) saw fit to write a glowing congratulatory letter to Cuban ex-leader Fidel Castro for his birthday. Praising Cuba would be one thing, but praising dictators in leadership fetish mode a whole other thing. A perfect invitation to resurrect views of the Left Party as the wolf of the former East German nomenclature in the sheep clothes of a hard-left democratic party, although the West German ex-SPD co-head is fully responsible, too.
The Greens looked head-to-head with the SPD half a year ago, with poll numbers of up to 30%, but now they slipped back to the 20% region due to bad communication, a loss of radical voters to the Pirate Party and a loss of other leftist voters afraid of a CDU-Green option to the other leftist parties, and a focus on the others' themes.
The Greens were overtaken in the polls by the CDU, who could apparently gather law-and-order voters, in spite of campaign blunders. The crime debate is fuelled on one hand by a car arson wave; on the other hand, by this video of a security camera at a subway station from April, showing an 18-year-old knocking a 29-year-old to the ground and kicking his head while his companion just looked on:
Reportedly, this is far from the first case of violence on the public space, and statistics actually show an improvement (a reduction of such cases). But the media focus on this case, and talk of a 'series' when there were further cases of violence, kicked off a competition in promising better safety on public transport and extra measures against car arson.
The Berlin FDP, in its attempt to survive this election, also resorted to putting burning cars on its election posters. When that didn't help, came the 'help' of federal party boss Philipp Rösler, who begun to speculate about a Greek default and its consequences. Now German chancellors are supposed to have the power to end a debate in the government by speaking a 'word of power' (Machtwort). For once, Merkel warned against irresponsible talk that could create a panic on the markets, a sin she committed herself multiple times over the past two years. But, defying the Machtwort, Rösler and other FDP leaders continued (and got some help from the Bavarian CSU). Whether this leads to the disintegration of the German federal government, or a disintegration of the Eurozone, or nothing much, remains to be seen.