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…