Monday, May 23, 2005

Why Schröder Doesn't Matter...Very Much

As everyone probably knows by now, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is trying to call new elections after a cudgelling from the electors of Nordrhein-Westfalen. I say trying, because unlike in Britain he doesn't have direct control over the dissolution of parliament, and he may have to arrange his own defeat in a vote of no-confidence. Which would be fun. There's plenty of stuff wandering about the interwebs on this event, but I'd like to focus on a couple of things.

For a start, I was amused in a dark sense by a remark of the Schockwellenreiter's in which he said (roughly) "I know I've said enough about the SPD's swing to the right, but that's no reason to go out and vote conservative!" Well, this is a case of the inherent danger of voting for a party you don't want to elect - unlike in the British general election just past, your protest vote really could put in the conservatives. French readers, take note - if you are thinking of a "non de gauche" or a "non pour l'Europe", don't delude yourself. They'll put your vote in with the Front National bloke from your local cafe who sweats red wine and spits at anyone who looks North African. Seriously.

Moving swiftly on, Schröder's coup de théatre has revived one of recent German politics' favourite rows, the K-Frage. That is, who should be the candidate of the Right for the chancellorship. You'd think it was easy, that the one they elected as party leader might get the job, but that would be too simple. Although Angela Merkel was, ahem, elected, after a bout of hard-core internecine backstabbing she was kiboshed in favour of Edmund Stoiber. Stoiber, the elected king of Bavaria and protégé of Franz-Josef Strauss, turned out to be just too rightwing, too Bavarian, too Catholic, and too old-fashioned for the public, and Schröder got a pass. Now, anyone with any sense could have told them Stoiber was a very rightwing, very Bavarian, very Catholic, old-fashioned machine politician, but unfortunately the CDU-CSU delegates tend themselves to be old-fashioned, rightwing, Catholic, Bavarian machine politicians. Angela Merkel, however, is a Prussian, Protestant, right-liberal sort - and, perhaps most importantly, she's a woman, which the pompous old buffers of Swabian politics weren't ready for.

Merkel has spent the intervening period practising the art of internal party politics, progressively culling out the buffer herds from the CDU federal offices. They push back, of course, but their options have been so limited that for a while they were seriously spinning a return of the old crook Wolfgang Schäuble in the columns of the FAZ. It now seems that her hour is at hand. And I think, contrarily to Tobias over at AFOE who claims she has "negative charisma", that she's going to win. I have two reasons for this: first, that she makes the CDU look more like Germany. The CDU-CSU grew up in the two-thirds Germany of 1945-1990, which meant it could govern from a base in the Catholic south and south-west, simply because half the Lutheran and SPD-voting north had been lopped off by the Red Army. The regional split was exemplified by this: the CDU's election-night party served white wine, and the SPD's served beer. With reunification, the north is back. Bavarians seeking the chancellery will always run into a headwind for this reason.

Second, that she represents the Party of Change. Schröder reminds me in some ways of John Major. At bottom, he's an unprincipled operator who inherited more than he cares to admit from the Kohl years. He's now, by the way, embarking on something very similar to John Major's half-resignation in 1995 - does he hope to make Franz Müntefering his John Redwood? - with the important difference that he's going the whole hog and asking the people to decide. A curious feature of the crash in NRW is that the Greens, Schröder's coalition partners, were wiped out. Going Green has always been a vote for "change", and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of their army of feminists swinging to a "first woman chancellor" campaign.

This "change" factor is doubly important, because the easy reading of the NRW election is both easy and wrong. Painful economic reforms, working class protest against SPD sell-out/unrealistic and reactionary resistance to liberalisation (delete version not suiting your prejudices). But the NRW public voted for a party that says it will cut subsidies to the Ruhr coal mines - a rebellion against Hartz-IV? Surely not. Coincidentially, on the same day, General Motors announced that the Saab 9-5 will be built, not in Sweden, but in Rüsselsheim, home of Opel. Uncompetitive? Reports of German industry's death have been greatly exaggerated. I don't know about you, but when I look at an economy with flat growth, low inflation and the world's biggest export sales despite a surging currency and high oil prices, I don't see desperate inefficiency at the heart of its problems. Neither can I take seriously the chap who's making a mint selling a Hartz-IV cookbook for people supposedly reduced to eating grass, except perhaps as a money-making proposition. Come on, it's hardly Bradford in 1992. What Germany needs is perhaps some fiscal or monetary stimulus, and a goodly dose of confidence. They will have the immeasurable advantage of starting economic recovery with a world-class industrial base and monster trade surplus.

And, with any luck, the FDP will keep any Thatcherite fantasies on Merkel's part from wrecking it.

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