Fri Sep 10th, 2010 at 06:49:38 AM EST
Over the spring and summer, when Angela Merkel's German federal government (and the conservative and liberal parties in the coalition behind it) suffered a significant loss of public support as a result of infighting and austerity measures, opinion polls showed that voter movements benefitted the Greens above all.
Then in the past few weeks, in some polls, the Greens even passed 20%, benefiting from another controversy: Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the Bundesbank who made waves in recent times with xenophobic and Islamophobic comments, upped the ante in a whole book claiming lack of integration on the part of Turkish or Muslim immigrants. While he was finally forced to resign yesterday (in spite of moral and public support from certain corners), the controversy hurt the party he was a member of: the Social Democrats (SPD).
Sarrazin got to political prominence thanks to the current SPD mayor of Berlin. Thus, it is somehow apt that in the latest poll for the capital Berlin (which forms one of federal Germany's 16 states, and will hold elections in a year), the Greens even became the biggest party by a clear margin, giving Renate Künast, the former federal agriculture and customer protection minister, a serious chance in her bid to become mayor.
Berlin mayor Klaus "Wowi" Wowereit is best known for being the most senior advocate of SPD alliances with the hard-left Left Party, and his dramatic coming-out ahead of first being elected mayor (see short portrait), thus it is easy to (mis)take him for a leftie. However, especially on economic matters, Wowi is a standard centrist 'pragmatist'. He became mayor in 2001 after a big scandal involving a crisis of Berlin's state bank, which left a big hole in the budget. The new mayor applied the standard austerity treatment.
As political cover for the budget cuts, on one hand, Wowereit got the PDS (the East German one out of the two predecessors of the Left Party) to sign it off. On the other hand, he took on board a bigmouth economist and cost-cutter manager (who was just booted from the higher echelons of German Railways DB after an intrigue too much) as "independent expert" to run the city's financial ministry: Thilo Sarrazin. (Beyond cost cuts, Sarrazin was an advocate of privatisation via 'popular shares', that is shares to small investors; giving some real ideological connections to the SPD's right.) After initial controversy about him asking for a top manager's pay-check, and a questionable work commitment given his record 46 secondary jobs, Sarrazin (rather than economic boom) got the credit for Berlin's improved finances, and he moved on to the Bundesbank's board in 2009.
At the same time, always the seeker of public attention as a provocateur, Sarrazin began to re-focus his verbal attacks against the poor on immigrants -- Turkish and Arab in particular. He reacted to criticism as he always did: with even more vehemence. That is, in this case, he reached to the standard Islamophobe rhetorical repertoire, combined with Social Darwinist idiocy about lack of productivity. This peaked in a book castigating immigrants from Muslim countries for a general lack of integration -- in complete denial of all sociological research into the matter, not to mention the irony with his own name (a version of Saracen).
This story reminds me of Frits Bolkestein's crusade in the Netherlands a decade earlier. That forerunner of Geerd Wilders was expressing statistics-unsupported fears about integration, immigration and birth rates; expressed paranoia about intended Islamic conquest with silly parallels to the time of Ottoman conquests; and was defended by some as taboo-breaker and a martyr of free speech.
Now, while in the Netherlands, there was arguably a lack of discussion of problems with integration (thus Bolkestein can at least be defended for kicking off a discussion, even if it didn't come to much good), that is certainly not the case in Germany -- the voices in the right-wing media to the contrary are extremely hypocritical. Not to mention ignoring the racist overtones (he wrote about the intelligence level of immigrants and about a Jewish gene). As for popular support: a poll for tabloid Bild (the German equivalent of The Sun or The New York Post) found that, would Sarrazin create a party, 18% of citizens would consider voting for it. (While most of these would switch from conservative parties, the highest ratio of potential deserters was 29% for the Left Party.)
For weeks, leading politicians from Merkel downwards suggested (even if some with forked tongue) that the Bundesbank fire Sarrazin, and when the bank agreed, he pre-empted it by resigning yesterday. As yet, he still remains an SPD member, despite suggestions from the leadership that he should leave as his views have no place in the party.
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The Greens benefit from the developments of the last few months more or less by default; by being the sole party not affected by major scandals. It's true that Merkel's recent championing of the extension of nuclear plant running times gave them a popular pet theme to get themselves noticed with, but with opposition coming even from the government's own environment ministry, that's probably not a strong factor.
As for the Greens in Berlin: them being popular with both the artsy scene and the immigrant population, the Greens had a strong base in Kreuzberg quarter (so much so that prominent party left-wing member Hans Ströbele has a safe seat as directly elected member of the federal parliament). With the CDU, SPD, and the Left Party that is strong in East Berlin, that makes Berlin a unique political landscape with four big parties.
In polls taken over the summer, the Greens already equalled the SPD on top of the polls. Here is the latest which I mentioned above the fold:
- Greens: 28%
- SPD: 24%
- CDU: 22%
- Left Party: 16%
- FDP: 4% (fails the 5% limit)