German Party Politics: Color Them Blurry
Katha Pollitt's new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House.
My friends here are still depressed about the September 29 elections, which as you probably know will allow Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (black, in the political color code) to form a government with the pro-business, anti-tax Free Democrats (yellow) instead of the Social Democrats, or SPD (red). The SPD were the day's big losers: they garnered only 23 percent of the vote, down from 34 percent in the election four years ago, their worst performance since the end of World War II. Klaus Offe, the eminent sociologist and Green Party co-founder with whom I watched the gloomy results, attributed the SPD's loss to its embrace of the Hartz IV reforms, which went into effect in 2005 and drastically lowered unemployment compensation.
The Greens scored modest gains, up from 8.5 percent to 10.7 percent, as did the Left (Die Linke, dark red), which increased its share of the vote from 8.7 to 11.9 percent (the Christian Democrats got 33.8; the Free Dems got 14.6). On paper, and in the dreams of some American progressives, it looks as if roughly half of German voters favor some sort of left party, and all they need to do is bring the parties together in a red/dark-red/green coalition. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as the math suggests. Die Linke, which is strong in the former East Germany, is led by two problematic men--opportunistic SPD turncoat Oskar Lafontaine and former East German communist Gregor Gysi. Die Linke's strength is its opposition to the status quo--"It's the party of no," historian and former vice president of the Free University of Berlin Uwe Wesel told me. "No to NATO, no to Afghanistan, no to the European Union, no to capitalism--but what's its positive program? It doesn't have one." (In fact, it has yet to formulate a party program.) For every nostalgic Easterner and ex-student leftist there's a left-leaning pragmatist, or a civil libertarian, or a bitter Stasi victim, or a Lafontaine hater who wants nothing to do with Die Linke or any coalition it's in. The very thing that gives it its appeal also limits its potential. The SPD and the Greens have said they won't partner with it (but the SPD has recently softened that position).
The election has left me wondering if American progressives, frustrated at being perpetually taken for granted by the Democrats, don't oversell the benefits of the multiparty parliamentary system. It's true that it offers progressive voters a more fine-grained set of choices. Since a party needs only 5 percent of the vote to be represented in the Bundestag, you don't have to worry so much about wasting your vote (although some German voters apparently wanted to do so, judging by the 400,000 who voted for the Pirate Party, which is dedicated to the cause of free music downloads). But that warm, uplifting feeling of voting your conscience lasts only so long: if a party actually gets into power, on its own or as a partner in a governing coalition or even as a dominant party in one of the sixteen Länder, or regions, it's soon besmirched by compromises, sellouts, scandals and gaffes. Eventually that has a discouraging effect. The Green Party, for example, is still suffering because, among other perceived betrayals, it supported the war in Afghanistan when it was in the coalition government of 2002-05. The SPD not only promoted Hartz IV when its leader, Gerhard Schröder, was chancellor; it could hardly mount a stirring challenge to the Christian Democrats this time around when it had spent the last four years as the junior partner in Merkel's government. The realities of coalition politics give minor parties more power--which is good if it's your party, bad if it's not--but they also blur party differences: after all, your opponent today may be your partner tomorrow. In Germany, in other words, Ralph Nader might well make it to the Bundestag--but he might not stay Ralph Nader for long.
At least in the United States it's easy to make up your mind. I was amazed by how many of my friends here were still undecided the day before the election. The Greens were for NATO. Lafontaine's wife said women should stay home. As foreign minister in the Merkel government, the SPD's leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had failed to extract a German citizen from Guantánamo for several years after Washington admitted he was innocent. And so on. Comparing the very real sins of three leftish parties--two of which have been around a long time and have thus accumulated many demerits, and one of which carries the entire burden of East German history--can be quite dispiriting.
The media constantly complained that the campaign was "boring," short on personalities and contentious issues. (I know, I know, why didn't the press ask some tough questions and put some real issues on the table instead of sighing and yawning?) Turnout was low by German standards, at 70.8 percent. Of course, for America that would represent a manic frenzy of voting (for all the excitement of the Obama-McCain race, turnout was only 61.6 percent, just 1.5 points higher than 2004). That Germans are so much more likely to vote than Americans may reflect the comparative ease of voting in Germany. Registration is simple; voting is on Sunday. Nonetheless, as in the United States, nonvoters are numerous--and not a random sampling of the population. According to Offe, ten times more nonvoters would have cast a ballot for the left than for the right. So what was stopping them? "Disillusionment," he said. "They don't believe anything will really change."
And as if to prove him right, the latest news is that the irrepressible Lafontaine has stepped down as co-head of Die Linke in the Bundestag to become party leader in Saarland. Whereupon the Green Party promptly entered into talks about a regional coalition with the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats. Forget the grand coalition of the left--down in the Saar it's "Jamaica" colors: yellow, black and green.