Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Guest blogger: Germany's Thatcher? 

Germany's opposition chiefs selected Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel on Monday to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at an early election that might make her the country's first woman leader.

Merkel, 50, would also be the first chancellor from former communist East Germany if she wins the election, expected this year rather than next after Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) suffered a heavy loss at a regional poll last week.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) holds a commanding lead in opinion polls and her own personal popularity has overtaken Schroeder's for the first time, according to opinion polls issued at the weekend.
With Merkel likely to replace Schroeder as the Chancellor later on this year, I asked German blogger, journalist and historian, Ulrich Speck, to give Chrenkoff readers a run-down of the domestic political situation on the Rhine and to introduce Merkel, who is already touted as Germany's Thatcher. Hype or reality? Read the first part of Ulrich's piece today, and make sure you check out his excellent Kosmoblog for news, views and analysis from Germany.

Start Again: The Challenge for Angela Merkel

There are two major challenges in Germany today, and it's likely that Angela Merkel, leader of CDU and candidate for the head of government, will have to find an answer. Gerhard Schroeder, German chancellor since 1998, failed on both points.

Number one is the reform of the welfare state, number two the invention of a German foreign policy.

To understand these tasks we have to go back to the good old days before German unification. Western Germany lived well and quiet under the umbrella of America. The transatlantic partnership was not a matter of choice, it was as matter of survival as a free state. Americanisation was successful. The integration in the Western sphere permitted Western Germans to use their energy for economic purposes, and that's how Nazis were changed in consumers. A fine example of reeducation. Democratic Germany developped something that Weimar and Third Reich didn't achieve: a long-term economic prosperity.

The "social market economy" became famous, as a formula that pacified the inner conflicts of the capitalist system, that ended class struggle. You had strong unions and large companies, and together with the government they organized economic life. Together, they advanced the system of social security, to minimize personal risks and to guarantee every German a good live. I think it's the kind of corporatist system that Walter Russel Mead has described as "Fordist".

Yes, there have always been strong anti-American, anti-Western feelings. Germany has been defeated in 1945. Especially the cultural elites didn't like Americanization - it made them a kind of endangered species.

There has always been an anti-Americanism from the right - a feeling of superiority - and a another from the left, which was a major force behind German 1968 and all those movements in the seventies. The key word for the left was "anti-imperialism", and the idea was liberation from American influence.

But as, since Adenauer in the fifties, the German interest was defined as an interest to be part of the West - to be part of the East was much less attractive - German government always defended the West and fought anti-Americanism.

That's how it was in the Cold War.

Than came 1989, the pressure to unite both Germanys, a pressure from East Germany. 1990 than, the unification.

The idea was simply to enlarge Western Germany. But it didn't work. The government was not capable to initiate a structural change that would have made the East competitive. Helmut Kohl was more interested in voters than in making tough changes. People in Eastern Germany were confused, not challenged. They were used to rely on the state, not on themselves - that's socialism - and they could continue to do so. They got a regime change, but not a system change. Many of them went from socialism into Western social state.

East Germany has it's own pressure group: PDS - party of democratic socialism - is the successor of the former SED - the governing party of Eastern Germany when it was under soviet rule. Now they also put pressure with NPD, a far-right party with a sympathy for a certain period in German history.

A main reason for pumping money into Eastern Germany is the fear of radicalism. Now it seems that money doesn't prevent radicalism. What is needed is not simply more money but more chances for the people to realize personal goals, to live a decent life on their own feet.

With Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor from 1982 to 1998, the crucial idea was continuity. The cold war might be over, Europe might re-unite, Germany might became the central player in Europe - all those historical changes should not change the fundamental settings of Germany policy. Social market economy should be enlarged to Eastern Germany, and the role of Germany as a mediator between Paris and Washington should remain unchanged. European integration, the vehicle for the return of Germany on the international arena, should be accelerated, to make sure that future governments would not use German power for power politics in the traditionalist way.

Kohl's formula seemed to work. There was stability and continuity, and the fears that Germany might reemerge as an aggressive or imperialist power were calmed down. Germany, a success story.

1998 Schroeder was elected, as he promised "not to do everything otherwise, but to do many things better". His start was promising. He seemed prepared to finally attack the structural problems of the welfare state which have become much urgent since unification. He seemed to be attached by liberalism (in the European sense): more individual freedom and responsibility, less state. On the other hand, the minister for foreign affairs Joschka Fischer, a former leftist radical (and streetfighter) who has been converted to Atlanticism, seemed to cherish the heritage of Adenauer and Kohl.

It took not long, very short indeed, that Schroeder's ideas on the reform of the social state got in conflict with the unions and the leftists in his party, the social-democrats (SPD). To make it short: in his seven years he made a first step in reform. But in a very timid, defensive manner. He always presented reforms as a necessary evil. He never talked about new chances, meanwhile many talked about losses. The message was: Unfortunately, globalization forces us to take steps in a bad direction. Unfortunately, we cannot resist. And Schroeder never presented a vision where he wanted to go. He failed to build support. That's why he, ultimately, came under such a heavy pressure form his own party that he finally gave up and called for new elections.

For the leftists, the talk about liberalisation and economic reforms is nothing else than a new conspiracy against the working class. There is a milieu that is strongly related to France - with Oskar Lafontaine (a former SPD-chairman and candidate for chancellorship, who has left his party some days ago), the unions, Attac - that has introduced the idea that "neo-liberalism" is an "ideology", invented by the powerful (guess who) against the weak. So again it's time to "resist".

Muntefering, chairman of Schroeder's SPD, now tries to hold the party together by referring exactly to those ideas which work fine with traditional anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. His attacks on "international capitalism" - known as the "locusts affair" - before the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) were part of the attempt to blame somebody else for Schroeder's failures: desperately seeking a scapegoat.

But when SPD lost the elections in NRW on May 22, in that traditionalist blue-collar worker-Land that has been ruled by social-democrats for 39 years, even this radical language was not likely to stop the revolt in SPD. It would come to a clash. With that perspective in mind, Muntefering and Schroeder decided, on the day of the defeat, to choose the lesser evil: to give up, one year before the term should end, and to call for new elections. This was supposed to be the only possible measure to discipline the party again.

Following all signs, Schroeder's SPD will loose the elections. Schroeder cannot play the working class hero, he is known as "Genosse der Bosse", as the comrade of the bosses. And why should people re-elect somebody who just has given up? That makes no sense.

So Angela Merkel from CDU will be his successor. We know little about her. Born 1954, she grew up near Berlin, in Eastern Germany. Merkel is the daughter of pastor, what might has given her a certain distance to socialism. She became physicist. In the early nineties, she joined CDU, the party of Helmut Kohl. He made her minister for the environment. In 2000, she managed to become his successor as the leader of the party.

What Merkel did with great success is to manage her own advancement in the party, as an outsider, as a woman from the East. She is not from the establishment. She was also successful in holding her party together. And now she has triumphed again over her male rivals, getting nominated as the candidate for the top position in the government.

Angela Merkel is not a German Maggie Thatcher. But she may become one. It's really hard to foresee where she will go - and who will follow. Merkel is not the type of politician who is well-known for this or that position. She is more the manager-type. But, again, we might be surprised.

Whatever she will do or not, at least she is in a good position for reform. First, she has not the burden of being linked to the unions and to a party that is full of distrust of economic liberalism, as Schroeder's SPD is. CDU and CSU - the "sister party" in Bavaria - have origins in the Catholic social doctrine (katholische Soziallehre), but since Adenauer and especially since Erhard, CDU is a strong backer of market economy, much less socialist than SPD. And there is FDP, a party that is normally between 5 and 10 percent, which is the party of liberalism, especially economic liberalism. So Merkel will not have the tension that Schroeder had in his own party. Sure, there are tensions as well, but they are much more moderate. It will be much easier for her to build support for reform.

Secondly, CDU/CSU has a large majority in the "second chamber", made of the federal states, the "Lander". The consent of the Lander is needed for most reforms, without Lander, the Bund has not much room for maneuver. A check that today is more a blockade for the necessary changes. When CDU will win in September, they will have, for at least two years, a majority in both chambers. That will give Angela Merkel a window of opportunity.

Come back for part two tomorrow.


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