Germany's Uncertain Stability
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Despite widespread fears about the character of reunified Germany, the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections seemed to affirm the Federal Republic's traditional image as a stronghold of political stability. A wave of voter frustration has swept over Western countries, in Europe as well as in the U.S., washing away the political landscapes which have characterized the post-war period. In Germany, however, the coalition between chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats and the smaller Liberal Party was able to enjoy its fourth electoral victory since 1982. And, whereas in Austria, Jörg Haider succeeded in winning nearly 23% for his nationalist "Freedom Party," and Gianfranco Fini, the leader of Italy's neo-fascist "National Alliance," has recently become the most popular Italian politician, the so called "Republicans" in Germany, the most important party of the extreme right, decisively failed to enter the Bundestag, receiving only 1.9% of the national vote.
Nevertheless, it would be completely misleading to interpret the outcome of October's parliamentary elections as a kind of "all-clear signal" for the political future of reunified Germany. This article will show that the seemingly quiet surface, far from reflecting reliable strength in the political system, might rather be a symptom of the system's inability to respond to profound changes in German politics and society.
A Narrow Escape
Kohl's success, as the accompanying graphics demonstrate, resembles more a narrow escape than a convincing victory. Kohl's CDU, together with its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU, lost a bit more than two per cent compared to their showing in the 1990 elections. Their partner in coalition, however, the liberals ("liberal" more in the economic than the political sense) of the FDP, fell from 11 to 6.9 per cent, losing more than a third of their voters, and consequently running into an existential crisis.
How precarious the old majority has become, was clearly demonstrated when the new Bundestag reelected Kohl as chancellor with by only one single vote more than required. Kohl's problems in winning sufficient support within his own ranks, as well as the poor, uninspiring outcome of the programmatic agreements between the coalition parties, have produced comments about the sunset of a political era. In a way it seems that the coalition has again arrived at the same point of mediocre muddling-through where it found itself in early 1989, before Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher seized the opportunity for unification, transforming themselves, in the process, from uninspired politicians to successful statesmen. Now, with the dust of the dramatic events settling, it has become obvious that the cooperation between the conservatives and the liberals is suffering from exhaustion of both conviction and perspective. Their domestic policy has been characterized by a mixture of value-oriented, conservative rhetoric and a temperate version of economic neo-liberalism, which was so typical all over the world in the 80s. What the liberal-conservative government achieved was mainly a redistribution of income at the expense of workers and low salary earners which may have improved the short-term competitiveness of Germany's economy. Besides that, it cannot claim any substantial changes.
The new coalition agreement does mention some of the outstanding problems, like reconstructing Germany's welfare system or balancing the budget, but it is more an expression of vague intentions than a concise, precise plan of political action. A glance at Kohl's slightly changed cabinet indicates that new approaches will not be on the agenda of this government. The most spectacular personal changes are the appointment of 28-year-old Claudia Nolte, an outspoken opponent of any liberalization of § 218, the German abortion law, as minister for women and families, and the removal of Klaus Töpfer, the former minister for environment, who probably displayed too much engagement with ecological issues. Nearly everybody, including many Christian Democrat and Liberal politicians, feel that continuing the old policy will not be sufficient to solve the economic, social and ecological problems which are arising from the ongoing restructuring of Germany's industrial society and it should not be forgotten the integration of a former communist country. But there are no clear alternatives in sight.
This lack of clear alternatives helped Kohl win the elections and it might help him again to get along with his narrow majority in the Bundestag. The main opposition party, the SPD, did not confront Kohl with an issue-oriented campaign, but rather relied on atmosphere and feelings, presenting itself as the more sensitive, the more caring and the more responsible political force. Some observers have understood this emotional campaign as a further step towards the "americanization" of German politics, a process they have linked to the overwhelming influence of the electronic media. With regard to the voting itself, the outcome was not that bad for the Social Democrats. After continual losses on the national level in the 1980s, they were able to regain roughly three percent from their 1990 showing. But now the question arises, how to confront the government with a convincing alternative in parliament.
Split of the German Electorate
A major problem for the political left, as well as the most important impact the 1994 elections had on the political system in general, is the strong outcome in the former East Germany of the PDS, the "Party of Democratic Socialism". The successor to the SED, the communist party which ruled East Germany for four decades, the PDS received only 4 % nationwide, but up to nearly 20 % in the East German states. Today's PDS expresses the widespread disappointment and bitterness many East Germans feel about unification and about the social and economic problems it brought about. But it would be misleading to trace these feelings simply to unemployment and the hardships of economic restructuring. Polls show that the supporters of the PDS are rather better-off in economic terms than the average East German citizen. PDS voters tend to be among those who suffered a loss of social status and ideological belief. But besides that, the success of this post-communist party has to be seen as a symptom for a much more widespread alienation East Germans feel when confronted with the Western economic, social and political system that was imposed upon them after 1990.
Then, fast unification seemed to be the easiest way to both the West German government and the majority of East Germans. For the former, it guaranteed continuity, and for the latter it promised rapid access to the Western standard of living. But it was this fast administrative unification which completely devalued the collective and individual experience of East Germans and turned them, once more, into objects, if not victims, of a seemingly unchangeable political process. The PDS, regarded as the only authentic East German party, was able to capitalize on this alienation and to ride a wave of GDR nostalgia. Its success may indicate a profound and long-lasting split in Germany's society and electorate.
Problems of the Left
This partial failure of unification ironically helped to stabilize Kohl's narrow majority, because it resulted in new contradictions within the political left. It already seems difficult enough to find common ground between the SPD and the Greens, the first, in a sense, standing for the traditional, working-class oriented left, and the second for new, postmaterial values. And the PDS, a political force stamped by its totalitarian past, can hardly be a partner for the two other oppositional parties. Although the Greens had a remarkable comeback, winning 7.3 % of the votes, their goal a "red-green" coalition for a socially balanced ecological restructuring of the industrial society has been shifted to the remote future. The Greens enjoy considerable support among younger and better educated voters and increasingly among women, but it is not clear how they can win more general support for their positions on ecological reform, equal rights and a multicultural society in times when economic fears and resentments against foreigners play a growing role in political life. With the SPD heavily concerned about the loyalty of its traditional supporters, causing it to defend the old industrial structures and switch to a conservative rhetoric on law and order, it is hard to see how the two parties could agree on a strong common challenge to the present coalition. If Kohl's thin majority turns out to be too shaky, there will, instead, be a so-called "great coalition" between the CDU and SPD. Much of what the Social Democratic Leader, Rudolf Scharping, does, in tone and substance, seems to prepare the way for this possibility.
The Disappearance of Structuring Conflicts
Both the difficulties in forming a political alternative and the already mentioned image- and personality-centered campaign point to a deeper problem, one which Germany obviously shares with other Western countries. Niklas Luhmann, an internationally-known sociologist, has recently argued that Western societies have lost the ability to generate overall political cleavages. He might be right in so far as the economic difference between capital and labor in post-industrial societies is no longer sufficient to integrate two sides of an overall political conflict. The clear economic and ideological cleavages which have shaped modern industrial societies for decades are now receding and leaving room for an individualization of life-styles and a new variety of values. The absence of a dominant and therefore structuring conflict leads to fragmentation and a confusing complexity in politics and society. The "social-democratization" of Western countries with its Keynesian politics and its relatively simple cleavages on distributional questions came to an end more than ten years ago. However, the era of neoliberalism which followed did not generate a clear new structure of societal and political conflicts but resulted, instead, in disintegration and confusion.
This process fuels the tendencies of the political system to become an end in itself. "Politicians care about their own power and nothing else" is the general complaint all over the Western world. Without any obvious ties to integrating interests, the decisions and actions taken by the political class seem to have little in common with the average citizen's needs and worries. Lacking coherent programs, politics become more and more personalized. These tendencies, rather than the frequently cited influence of the electronic media, might best explain the "Americanization" of European politics.
And the Extreme Right?
In order to win necessary support, politicians turn to rhetoric, symbols and feelings, thereby opening a vast space for manipulation and populism. But whereas the extreme right and new populist groups have been successful in previous elections in cities and states, German voters obviously shrank from big risks and stuck to the major parties on the national level. Given the high level of frustration about politics, with more than two-thirds of the population expressing disappointment about CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP in polls, the voters' manifest loyalty to these parties in the recent elections is not easy to explain. One reason for this astonishing stability might be that the populists as well as the extreme right suffer from a lack of qualified leadership and personnel. Whereas most of the Western countries saw the rise of populists like Ross Perot or charismatic leaders of the extreme right like LePen in France or Fini in Italy, there still seems to be a taboo on the extreme right in Germany; it exists more in pubs than in public. Germany's Nazi past, normally referred to in the context of fears of a possible revival, might still work as a barrier against antidemocratic forces, hindering them from gaining the status of normality. In the specific case of the 1994 elections, the extreme right suffered additionally under what one may call a violence dilemma. Because xenophobia was their major or even sole issue, they were unable to disassociate themselves from the violent assaults against asylum-seekers and Turkish families which have shaken the German public during the last three years. Many voters with xenophobic nationalist sympathies presumably shrank from supporting a party which had ideological if not necessarily organizational links to the kind of open terror carried out by skinheads and neo-nazi groups.
But the extraordinary ability of the German Christian Democrats to absorb the right side of the political spectrum does not necessarily have to last. Kohl's narrow majority will hardly allow for a strong, convincing government. And the fact that the Social Democrats control the upper house will even further promote a kind of muddling through and fuel frustration about the inefficacy of politics.
Asking what we can expect for the next months and years, the first answer is continuity. There will not be any drastic changes, either in foreign or in domestic policy. But the reason for this continuity has rather to be seen in the lack of ideas and perspectives than in strong popular support for convincing political programs. The astonishing stability in Germany may, therefore, rest on rather wobbly foundations.
Winfried K. Thaa is a visiting Associate Professor with a joint appointment in Political Science and Germanic Languages. His major publications are on the former GDR and the transformation of communist systems.