As Germany's Social Democrats decide who to put up against King Kohl in the autumn, Josef Joffe asks whether it matters who rules. As in Italy, politics is becoming a sideshowby Josef Joffe / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
In the middle of March the German Social Democrats will anoint their candidate for chancellor, the man supposed to dethrone King Kohl in the autumn. If they were like the Labour party in 1994-ravenously hungry for power after 15 years in opposition-they would give their blessing to Gerhard Schr?der, the premier of Lower Saxony.
Opinion polls have been telling us for months that Schr?der is the only Social Democrat who could outgun Helmut Kohl in October-by 16 points or so. So why hasn’t the German left nominated Schr?der already?
The reason has a faux French ring: Oskar Lafontaine-who actually looks a bit like Napoleon. If the SPD could go with its heart it would pick “Red Oskar,” chairman of the party, who doubles as premier of the Saarland. (There is a faint whiff here of Britain in 1983, when Labour went down in flames with Michael Foot, darling of the true believers.) Lafontaine has lost once before, in 1990, right after reunification, when he polled a dismal 33.5 per cent for the SPD while Kohl took almost 49 per cent. In recent months, he has trailed Kohl when matched against the chancellor in the opinion polls.
Why does the SPD pine for a past loser who looks destined to lose again? In fact, why would it even think about giving him the nod in March? The general answer is quite banal: Germany isn’t Britain, and the SPD isn’t Labour.
Going into the 1997 elections, Labour would have cheerfully expelled Keir Hardie and picked Milton Friedman for Chancellor of the Exchequer if that had been the price of power. Indeed, Labour virtually sanctified Margaret Thatcher, pledging to keep her legacy intact save for a bit here and there. But the SPD simply is not hungry enough to swallow a man like Schr?der simply because he resembles (and apes) Tony Blair.
Opposition parties in Germany, especially on the left, are never so desperate to sacrifice ideology and emotion to the jejune pursuit of national office. One reason is federalism (in the continental sense of the term). When a party loses in Britain, it loses everything: it ends up with nothing but the hard, ever more uncomfortable opposition benches.
Not so in Germany. Just because you fail in Bonn, it does not mean that you lose in the cities and in the L?nder. Of the 12 largest cities, the SPD rules or co-rules ten. On the state level, the SPD holds ten out of 16 premierships. For Social Democrats of ambition, this is a very nice cushion which assuages the sting of defeat in Bonn. It also softens the bite of party discipline when the left is asked to bide its time (and shut its mouth) in the run-up to a national election.
But the un-British comforts of life in opposition in Germany are not the whole story. Nor does Lafontaine merely profit from the strong heartbeat of the left. The SPD and its allies in the media genuinely dislike Schr?der. They see him as a relentless self-promoter, tailoring his message to diverse audiences like a shallow marketing expert.
In his youth, when it helped him to capture the Young Socialists, the ever-radical youth wing of the party, he posed as firebrand, pacifist and anti-American. Now, Schr?der plays footsie with big business, mouthing all the right phrases about law and order, competitiveness, labour-market flexibility and welfare cuts. In the opinion of the left, this does not go down as realism, let alone as deft leadership in the manner of Clinton and Blair. It merely adds the taint of opportunism to the sin of deviationism.
Still, the SPD seemed ready to forgive Germany’s “Slick Willy” his egregious ways as long as he-and only he-looked like a winner against Kohl. But treacherous are the favours of opinion polls. In the most recent one, Schr?der was still well ahead of Kohl. But for the first time, the polls also gave Lafontaine a slight edge over the perpetual chancellor.
More relevantly, both Lafontaine and the party have learned from bitter experience that the poll leads of spring can vanish by the autumn-especially against Kohl who, come campaign time, turns from a sluggish, overweight has-been into a fierce and nimble fighter. The SPD’s past challenger, Rudolf Scharping, had that lesson ground into him in 1994, when he lost the election after holding a 14-point lead at the beginning of the year.
Come 16th March, the candidacy is Lafontaine’s to give or to take. If Schr?der loses his Lower Saxony election on 1st March-or even polls two percentage points lower than last time, he is out anyway, according to his own pledge. But if he wins, the prize is still not his.
Here is Red Oskar’s hard-headed calculation: Germany’s floating voters will forget what they have been telling pollsters for months; that they are willing to cast their lot with Schr?der; and in the voting booth they will suddenly realise that right-leaning Schr?der comes in a twin-pack-that is, with the woolly-headed Greens around his neck, the SPD’s natural (and only) coalition partners. Ergo, they will once more cast their votes for unloved King Kohl and his bedraggled satraps, the Free Democrats.
Even so, Germany’s electoral arithmetic is such that an absolute majority for Kohl and company is about as likely as Britain’s early accession to the euro (the polls give the Kohl camp about 40 per cent). So it does not take a maths degree to figure out the consequence: a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. But if a grand coalition is destiny, Schr?der becomes dispensable. Lafontaine will rightly conclude: if a grand coalition is the best we can get, and given that I am the better man anyway, I might just as well climb into the ring on 16th March.
Does it matter who will be Germany’s next chancellor? Re- phrase the question. Is there anybody-Kohl, Schr?der or Lafontaine-who can galvanise Germany and stop its slow slide into the mire of immobility, where France is already stuck?
Kohl had some bright ideas about downsizing Germany’s behemoth welfare state, about fewer taxes and more microeconomic experiments. But these were ground down in the mill of German federalism, because the SPD holds a blocking majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house. Red Oskar? His is a reactionary utopia: up with regulation and redistribution, damn the global markets. Schr?der says all the right things (sometimes), but a look at his home state reveals him as a statist in Thatcherite garb. Nowhere else has the public debt and bureaucracy grown faster in this decade than in Lower Saxony-and he has just bought Preussag, a local industrial giant, to stop it falling into foreign hands. Not very Blairite, after all.
But Germany may be luckier than it looks. As the French aspire to be Germans, the Germans themselves are beginning to behave like the Italians. Look beneath the surface of a sluggish neo-corporatist state, and you feel the winds of change. While the government churns in futility, business is downsizing, becoming leaner and meaner in the American way. Labour markets, though formally untouched, are wriggling free from the heavy hand of regulation, displaying flexibility and even wage give-backs. Although Germany, with 12 per cent jobless, is hardly a full employment society, it is a full income society. Add to generous welfare transfers the incomes extracted from the “shadow economy,” and a family of four can live much better than a harassed two-earner family in Britain. GDP growth will approach 3 per cent this year.
So dour old Deutschland is mutating into a northern protestant version of bella Italia: it does not matter who runs the government. Society (above all business) is learning to take care of itself-aided and prodded by the stern discipline meted out by modernity and markets. Marx is right again: “base” beats “super-structure,” and the “modes of production” are mightier than the ways of the state.
Germany, once the epicentre of bureaucratic order, is loosening up in unexpected ways. People keep up appearances, with their neat flower boxes and predictable routines. But (pace Mitsuko Uchida in the February issue of Prospect) for the first time in recent history society is beginning to outflank the state. Kohl, Schr?der or Lafontaine? Given the torpor in Bonn during Kohlism’s twilight, the electoral outcome may be less interesting than the sub-surface dynamics of le pays r?el.