Germany: A Tale of Two Parties

For weeks the German media have been full of gossip and speculation about a political party now rapidly losing relevance and importance, the Free Democratic Party, or FDP, also called the “Liberals.” This illustrates how heavily downhill slides can hit – if not the bottom then at least the headlines!

Guido Westerwelle has become known to the world as a colorless foreign minister. But not in Germany. On April 6th this loud, self-righteous if not arrogant head of a once important party, a fixture of the political scene for ten years, reluctantly but inexorably stepped down as chairman and strongman. At least for now he can remain as foreign minister.

Ever since the early post-war years the FDP played an odd part in politics. On the one hand it was the home of some moderate trends, strictly secular in contrast with the two Christian parties, the CDU and its Bavarian sister, the CSU, and it  included people willing to stand up for civil liberties, a few of whom still remain as brave but often ignored fossils. But other early members were unrepentant ex-Nazis. It was a hodgepodge, which settled down over the years to become a godchild of big business interests, usually to the right of Kohl or Merkel’s CDU. Once happy to be a junior coalition partner of anyone in government, either the CDU or the vaguely leftish Social Democrats, it has moved closer to its big-biz backers though still attracting some upper middle-class professionals and small business people. Despite its unofficial name, in terms of American political lingo it is anything but liberal.

But alas for the FDP and alas for Guido Westerwelle, after just holding its own in Hamburg this year, it suffered three bitter defeats: in eastern Saxony-Anhalt and western Rhineland-Palatinate it failed to win 5 percent and so lost all seats in the legislature. In Baden-Wurttemberg, where it was always at its strongest, it lost half its voters and barely squeezed back into the legislature by a 5.3 percent skin of its teeth. And with its CDU partners, those warm cabinet seats in the state government which had almost taken on their body contours after so many years had to be passed on to Greens and Social Democrats.

Not all that many wept over its defeats. The FDP had defended truly reactionary positions: lower taxes for the wealthy, continued tuition demands for students, further tracking for schoolchildren after the fourth grade, dividing them into “good pupils” for diplomas and college or just “poor pupils”, a class-based method still prevalent in western Germany. They pushed for fewer regulations on business, cuts in social assistance and, until events in Japan forced everyone to change position, at least in words, total support of the atomic energy industry. Only in questions of data surveillance are its old libertarian ideas somewhat visible.

The man replacing Westerwelle, who must be confirmed by a congress in May, is Philipp Rösler. At least his past is interesting. A German couple adopted him as an infant in a Catholic orphan asylum in South Vietnam and raised him in Germany. No dummy, he made a rapid career, studying medicine with the army, working only briefly as a doctor before entering politics and becoming, at 38, the youngest head of his party since its founding. He is certainly handsome, always elegantly dressed, almost always wearing a friendly smile. But his policies as Minister of Health have been less than friendly; he has tried, with mixed success, to increase the health insurance tax for working people while keeping that of their employers stable, and aims at having everyone pay the same tax amount regardless of income level, thus favoring the moneyed strata. That is also the policy of the FDP. But these days many people, getting wise to such policies, no longer give the FDP their votes. This growing skepticism also leads to fewer votes for the CDU or CSU, the allies of the FDP and, interestingly, fewer for the Social Democrats as well, whose sincerity is increasingly in doubt.

Who have the skeptical voters chosen? In almost amazing numbers the Greens. When founded 30-40 years ago this party was the “bad boy” of West German politics. It had strong left-wing leanings on questions like women’s rights, immigrant rights, gay rights and anti-militarism. And of course it was an early warner about atomic power and ecology. Largely made up of rebellious young people, some of them quite radical, it outraged fastidious Germans with daring attire like woolen sweaters or sneakers in the Bundestag, or its conduct there, knitting or sometimes caring for its babies.

But, sadly for some, its members got older and more prosperous, the more radical “fundi” wing lost out, and the Greens grew ever tamer. When they finally broke through the taboos and joined the Social Democrats in a government coalition, rebellious sparks were very rare. With their most prominent leader, Joschka Fischer, Foreign Minister next to Chancellor Schroeder, they helped push through many tough measures still causing trouble today; increased value-added taxes, hitting the poor, an  increase in the retirement age to 67, tougher policies for the unemployed. They achieved a few improvements for immigrants and the gay community, but supported the murderous bombing war against Serbia, killing civilians, diplomats, journalists and blasting at least one huge chemical factory despite the immense, easily foreseeable ecological damage. After long efforts they finally achieved a cutoff date for atomic reactors – but not until 2021.

Few still thought of them as “tree-lovers” or climate Cassandras. But wen they lost their government positions and had to sit again on the harder opposition seats, they loudly recalled their more progressive old traditions and, like the Social Democrats, purloined the program of the Left party which, always discriminated against by the media, was far less known. As for foreign policy they split, with most in top leadership supporting the war in Afghanistan and now attacking the surprising abstention by Merkel and Foreign Minister Westerwelle on the UN decision to bomb in Libya - to achieve a “no flight zone.” Thus, in the view of anyone opposed to military involvement by Germany in yet another conflict, most Greens, like the Social Democrats, took a position to the right of the Christian Democrats and FDP. But the core of Green support in recent years has centered increasingly in more prosperous, well-educated professional sectors.

Yet when it came to opposing the transportation of atomic waste through the land and storing it in dubious salt mines, or opposing the waste of billions on an underground rail station in Stuttgart, at the expense of an old and beloved park, the Greens were still most vigorous and most visible. Their actions were clever, their slogans catchy and people believed them and voted for them. Decisive was the shock of the atomic disaster in Japan; there are four not very youthful atomic reactors in Baden-Wurttemberg alone. This explains in no small measure why the Greens outpaced the Social Democrats for the first time and will now become senior partners in the state government in this quite prosperous home of Mercedes and Porsche – a true challenge if ever there was one! Indeed, a Green politician will become minister president of a state for the very first time. The one-time science teacher Winfried Kretschmann, 62, member of a communist splinter group in his student years, has long since dropped such radical ideas. He will now have a chance and a challenge in this southwestern corner of Germany.

His first successes or failures can soon be of importance in state elections where the Greens hope to gain new strength, in Bremen, the northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but above all in Berlin, where the latest poll shows them slightly ahead in a tight race. If they win, the aggressive Renate Kuenast might replace popular Social Democratic Mayor Wowereit after the September election, which would be a second very major sensation.

Last but, for some, not least; what about the Left?  It had hoped so very much to break the 5 % barrier and get into the parliaments of Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, and perhaps to win first place in East German Saxony-Anhalt. It failed in all three endeavors, with results in the West German elections of only around 3 %. Seemingly almost paralyzed by inner divisions and the lack of any new issue which might capture sympathy and entail action here and now, its members, at first happy that the party managed to stay in the city legislature in Hamburg, were greatly saddened by the losses that followed, and no real solution is in view. Some hope for the invigorating spirit of Oskar Lafontaine, currently active only in his own small state of Saarland but, evidently restored to health after a difficult time, perhaps more active soon on a national level. Lots must be done to save and enlarge this very crucial venture, the only party truly devoted to fighting militarism, restricting the banks and giant concerns and improving the lives and hopes of working people in Germany.

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