By Lois Woestman, Guest Contributor
Dr. Lois Woestman, both a Greek and US citizen, is an External Funding Officer at the University of Marburg, Germany and an independent research/policy advice consultant for UN and international non-governmental agencies.
There was a hole in the clouds as I biked along the Lahn river Monday, the day after elections were held here in Germany. Like a wormhole, the sky-eye transported my mind back to Athens of a bit over a year ago, when feelings were running high as Greeks were deciding whether or not to remain in the Euro. The German elections, at least as they appeared from my ground’s eye perspective in its heartland, could not have been more different.
Greece stayed in the Euro. And the eyes of many Greeks – as of many southern Europeans - turned toward France and Germany, to see what the next step would be. Hopes of some growth policies being added alongside austerity ones arose as France elected socialist PM Hollande. And rumor had it that Germany might elect a new PM of similar political leanings in its September 2013 elections, increasing the chances of such an important shift in European approach to the crisis. The results of last Sunday’s elections did not fulfill these hopes.
At federal level, Angela Merkel’s right-center CDU party increased its share of the vote, almost obtaining an absolute majority. The CDU here in state Hessen - where I live near Frankfurt, the Wall Street of Germany - also increased its share of the vote. The FDP, the CDU’s libertarian coalition partner, did not obtain the 5% required to remain in the federal parliament, though it barely managed to remain in the state Hessen government. Though its second worst showing since WWII, left-center SPD also increased its share of the vote, but not enough to surpass the CDU. Both federal and local SPD leaders rejected the possibility of forming a “red-red-green” – SPD-Left-Green - coalition. Which has left the CDU the challenge of forming a coalition with either the SPD, Link or Green parties.
Why were most of my neighbors and colleagues here in the German heartland so blasé about the elections? Why did they cast their vote for a euro policy – a Europe - so far from that southern Europeans had been hoping for?
One reason appears to be a desire for political predictability, and realted disenchantment with the SPD. “Peer Steinbrueck is too loud, too unpredictable. He lies, and is corrupt. His promises cannot be trusted” argued Frank, a university researcher. For Frank, it appeared difficult to disentangle perceptions of Mr. Steinbrueck’s political style from SPD history. “It is more than that,” Frank went on. “We just settled down here in Germany, you know. It was the SPD that began the destruction of our health care system by introducing private health insurance, not the CDU. The SPD cannot be trusted to be what they once were, so I cannot vote for them. And, as someone born and raised in East Germany, you could not honestly expect me to vote for the Left, now could you?”
Such lamentations by left-leaners about the lack of credibility of center-left parties was familiar to me, from what many Greeks had been saying since the beginning of 2010, when the socialist PASOK party delivered them into the hands of the Troika.
Merkel seen as "taking care of things"
Frank, as many others, sees in incumbent Angela Merkel and the CDU not only political predictability, but also a team that takes away the encumberment of having to make political decisions, and facilitates keeping the status quo. “Merkel remains consistently calm. She never breaks character. She is not corrupt like the men. OK, she, too, says one thing and does another, like Steinbrueck. But, at least she is consistent. She takes care of politics, so I don’t have to, and we can all just carry on.”
Judith, a doctor, told me she voted for Merkel because: “she, more than others, gave me the feeling that I could leave matters to her, get on with business as usual, and not have to bother to think about anything else. She takes care of things.” (As I write this, I wish I had asked: Does Angela Merkel give you a feeling of maternal tough love?)
Thirdly, relatedly, it appears that many Germans in my neighborhood believe that Angela Merkel/the CDU can also buffer them from economic buffeting, i.e. from “the crisis”, that most do not believe has yet affected them - and they want to keep it that way. This has surprised me. This Germany I am living in now is a far cry from the one I lived between 1986 and 1991.
Gap between German rich and poor widest in Europe
Incomes do not appear to have risen, and the gap between rich and poor in Germany has become the largest in Europe. Many people are working outside the social security system, which I do not recall at from two decades ago. The social security system is now two-tiered: the above-mentioned private one, and the public one that is much less able to support the increased number of people in need of it, because the SPD as well as the CDU have shrunk it and introduced holes in what remains.
For example, I see a lot of under- and ill-nourished people literally counting their pennies in Peny Markt, as they buy loaves of cheap bread and cheese. I do not recall seeing this two decades ago – and do not believe this is only because I was not needing to buy my food at Peny Markt back then, either. There are some, however, who seem to continue to be doing well, if not even better. Yesterday my neighbor, Marlena, whose husband works in The City, shuddered at what could have happened if a red-red-green coalition had been a possibility. “Red-red-green would a catastrophe for Germany. Thankfully the CDU is running the show on its own. It will save us all.” I found myself thinking: That “us all” circle appears to me pretty exclusive, excluding most Germans as well as most Greeks.
I am struck by the fact, too, that most Germans do not seem aware of the fact that southern Europeans’ inability to continue to buy German products has been a significant factor in the stagnation of the German economy. The CDU seems to have done a good job, indeed, of making Germans feel safe, despite the facts that the crisis is and will have direct impacts on their quality of life. As long as the CDU continues to be successful in convincing most Germans that this is not the case, their voting patterns are unlikely to change.
And neither is much of a sense of class-based solidarity with southern Europeans likely to emerge. But then again, how can one expect that, when the social solidarity that I sensed so strongly in the Germany of the 1980s is no longer the norm?
The left out: the anti-European party
Speaking of being left out: The anti-Europe party, Alternative for Germany, whose campaign spot begins with the question: “Why should all of our money go to Greece instead of to building bridges and schools” just barely missed obtaining the 5% of the vote required to enter parliament. It is good news that Germany is without a party equivalent to Greece’s Golden Dawn, which has been much in the press the last week, as the Greek government has been considering banning it. It remains to be seen if the German “Alternative” will garner additional support if/when more Germans realize that their wellbeing is not longer what it was.
A grand coalition?
The CDU has a month to finalize its coalition planning, and the Hessen state government until Christmas. The day after the elections, a civil servant argued that a CDU-SPD grand coalition would be the most likely outcome. “A grand coalition is not new here in Germany, you know. This one would essentially ensure we have gridlock, as both parties would balance each other out. Essentially, we would have a permanently lame duck government. Nothing would change.”
He did not appear unhappy about this. And he was not wrong. In an opinion pole carried out since, most Germans indicated they wanted a grand coalition. The SPD leadership took the first potential steps toward making this a reality on Friday, when a small delegation met with the CDU to explore the possibility of finding enough common ground.
Such a grand coalition would not mean grand changes for the south of Europe. The SPD has largely supported Angela Merkel’s euro policy. And Angela Merkel commented on Monday that European policy would continue “in the same spirit as before.”
What will the Greeks say?
I am wondering what people in Athens will say when I visit next month, when the German federal coalition will have just been officially announced. I suspect their comments about more of the same – if more lame duck - CDU-driven politics for Europe might reflect the weather over the Lahn today, as the sun tries unsuccessfully to bore a hole through the fog.