Sat Sep 17th, 2005 at 07:53:39 PM EST
In the last nights before elections, the news situation usually gets thin. Politicians do not want to stay up all night, to be prepared for the next, long day. As do the reporters. Whom I am dependent on, sitting here with my notebook in a flat in Berlin-Neukölln, election district 83 (with no one else around but a cat named Akira, poor poor me).
So, I guess I have to turn to the big picture.
- The long-time table of German election results
- German politics now: The times they are a-changin'
The long-time table of German election results
If you want to get an impression about the traditional structures of (West) German politics, the following table, which I fetched from one of my favourite election sites, election.de, might help. It shows the absolute and relative numbers of all votes cast in all federal elections (Bundestagswahlen) since 1949:
.Party Votes Percent Seats Districts
Eligible 673 597 485
Voters 568 825 056 84.4
Invalid votes 9 603 335 1.7
Valid votes 559 221 640 100.0 7 967 3 997
CDU/CSU 243 374 969 43.5 3 648 2 305
SPD 212 463 838 38.0 3 148 1 616
FDP 48 100 474 8.6 716 28
GREENS 19 046 977 3.4 228 1
PDS/Left 7 627 910 1.4 85 11
Others 28 607 472 5.1 142 36
You have to take the table with caution, of course, because not all parties existed all the time. The Greens first competed in 1980, and they first managed to get seats in 1983. The PDS first competed in 1990. The relatively large number for "others" contains to a large extent the parties that are history now, such as the Communist Party (KPD), the Alliance of German Expellees (GB-BHE), the German Party (DP), or the Bavaria Party (BP).
But the table surely shows something: That (West) Germany is - or better: was - a conservative country. About 31 Million more votes were cast for CDU/CSU than for SPD. This is also reflected in the number of years these two parties held the chancellorship: From 1949 to 2005, CDU held the chancellory for 36 years (64 % of the time), SPD only for 20 years (36 % of the time). The emergence of the Greens actually did not change too much in the system, since they acquired their votership from ecologigal-minded parts of the SPD and social-liberal parts of the FDP. The only result was that the FDP did not play its role as a pivot any more, and that from now on two camps competed.
German politics now: The times they are a-changin'
But the real change is underway now, and it has been for the last 15 years. It is becoming clear that re-unification also fundamentally changed German electoral politics. Not only electoral politics, but also the whole political culture. Many people from West Germany did not (and often still do not) want to realise it, but the fact is: The old political system of the Federal Republic of Germany is history. In the early 90s, everybody in the west smilingly looked at the voting patterns in the east, which were really strange: No strong party affiliations, mysterious voting behaviour and strangely fast and sudden changes of voting preferences. "That's all right", you could hear the Westerner say: "They don't have the democratic traditions we have. Give them some time, and party affiliations and mass voting stability will grow, just as in the west." And why should he have been wrong? - The whole political, economic and social system of the BRD was transplanted into the former GDR. Most people expected that, consequently, the political culture of the west would also be transplanted into the east.
This is as far from thruth as Walter Ulbricht, president of the GDR, in 1961 when he said that "no one wants to build a wall." In fact, during the 1990s, the west adapted voting patterns of the east. Tradidional party affiliations dissolved to a large part - except Bavaria. In the election results graphs, the "change from last election"-bars for all parties became larger and larger. Suddenly, politicians had to be enormously careful in order to be re-elected, for they could not count on a solid voter base any more. On the one hand, this made German politics much more populist - on the other hand, why should an enhanced voter awareness of current political problems, an enhanced democratic accountability and democratic change be a bad thing?
To put it short: The dissolving of traditional party clientele is a good thing because it is more democratic. Tradition meant that a voter is bound to a party; but it should be the other way around: Parties and politicians should be bound to the voter. This is one side - the good side - of the coin. The bad side is: The German political system as of now is not prepared to cope with that change. Especially during these times of social and economic distress, when reform is necessary, non-aligned voters tend to turn away from the governing party quickly. In the US, you know this as the midterms-effect. In Germany, it is the elections of regional state parliaments (Landtagswahlen). During the second half of his chancellorship (i.e.: 1990-1998), Helmut Kohl's CDU lost grip of most regional state parliaments. Voters seemed to strive for a balance by voting for the other party in regional state elections. This resulted in an SPD-dominated Bundesrat (the other chamber besides the Bundestag), which was able to block the most important reform efforts of Kohl's government. Kohl complained about the blockade, and the voters agreed: In 1998, voters decided to end it - but they did it, in contrast to what Kohl had in mind, the easiest way: By electing Schröder in a single election rather than waiting several years and electing CDU candidates in different regional states elections. From 1998 until now, this situation was reversed: Schröder took Kohl's part, CDU took the part of the SPD. Again, alienated voters caused a political stalemate between the two chambers. When, as I expect, Angela Merkel wins the elections today and forms a coalition with the FDP, the carousel will move on the same way.
In the end, this means that German politics has developed cycles with periods in which the political system has a capacity to act versus periods in which political decision-making is, to a large part, blocked. In my perception, former periods and latter periods are about equally distributed. Under any circumstances, this can not be wishful. The federal system itself badly needs reform. The parties actually acknowledged the problem and formed what in US-politics would be a bipartisan commission. It acknowledged that it is only because of this blurring of political competences - tax policy, education policy, economic policy, social policy: almost every important single issue has to be decided on in both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat - that voter alienation as described above can cause a political stalemate resulting in a blockade situation. The goal was to divide up the political competences between federal and regional level which have become blurred in the last decades. But it failed. Both big parties were not able to reach a consensus.
So, what now? Is federal reform on anybody's agenda? - I feel like waiting for rain in the Sahara. I am usually not the guy who writes in bold letters, but please allow me this one:
DEAR MRS. MERKEL. PLEASE GET ACTIVE AND INITIATE THE REFORM OF THE FEDERAL SYSTEM NOW. YOU WILL NOT HAVE MUCH TIME, SINCE IN A FEW YEARS, YOU WILL FACE A BUNDESRAT BLOCKING YOUR EFFORTS. PLEASE HURRY.
Everybody in this campaign talked about jobs, taxes, foreign policy. Sure, these are important issues. But, if we want to make the German political system fit for the 21st century, the crucial task is federal reform. Only a reformed political system will enable us to make good use of the historical developments of and since 1989/1990.
I have not been able to integrate the new Left Party into this picture. But I think that it belongs in there, as I assume that it might play more than just a transitional role. I added this to my diaries-to-do-list.