When Germans celebrate Octoberfest, oddly, in late September, they will also go to the polls in an election that has been marked by oddities.
First there are the political billboards, which are racy by any standard -- American or German. Perhaps even French. The Greens have a poster of two topless same-sex couples (male and female) pinching each other's nipples with the message: "Equal rights for lesbians, gays and heteros." Not to be outdone, the youth wing of liberal Free Democrats, likely partners for the conservatives, are running an ad of a rather youngish looking woman holding up a ballot beneath the slogan: "Stick it in."
Then there's the distinctly American presidential campaign style of current chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who also happens to be running on some anti-American positions. Irony aside, such personality-driven politics are a new development in Germany, where the parties traditionally have been more important than their candidates. In addition to Schroeder's style, the entire campaign is a little too "presidential" for many German Pooh-Bahs, who see it as another example of American cultural imperialism. Both the candidates and the public were downright confused over how to respond during the August 25 debate, the first in the history of modern Germany.
Another curiosity is the party's position on taxes. The conservatives seem more interested in how to offer tax breaks in the most equitable way possible rather than delivering them. Meanwhile, Schroeder's position on corporate taxes is the more business friendly one. As a result, it's plausible to conclude that the Social Democrats are the tax-cutting party.
But with al Qaeda still not vanquished and Saddam stockpiling chemistry sets, these types of distinctions are mere parlor talk. What's most worrisome are the candidate's position on Iraq. If Schroeder pulls out a victory on September 22, it will largely be a result of his aggressive anti-Iraq stance, say German political analysts.
It all started when Schroeder kicked off his re-election campaign with the unusual move of criticizing a U.S. policy that hadn't really been articulated. Six weeks out and eight points down, Chancellor Schroeder announced that Germany would "not make itself available for an adventure," in Iraq. Since then, he has hardened his position, declaring his opposition even if the U.N. approves. It is now a major theme, if not the theme, of his campaign.
This tack took many in Washington by surprise. After all, Schroeder did pledge "unconditional solidarity" immediately after 9/11. For a man who prides himself on his subtle suits, his ploy was rather obvious. With unemployment settling in at 10 percent, railing against America's perceived position on Iraq (already widely unpopular here) was an act of desperation. Even so, voters responded and in the next poll, his party jumped six points.
The conservative candidate, Edmund Stoiber, not wanting to be left in the pro-Bush lurch, eventually struck a similar note, but has since toned it down. In their debate last Sunday, he took Schroeder to task for his very own brand of unilateralism. Stoiber's stance is that Germany should cling to the European Union's position (whatever that may be) and that Germany should no more "go it alone" with its foreign policy than America should "go it alone" against Iraq. Stoiber seemed to be implying that Schroeder is a German version of Bush; voters beware.
Contrast this maneuvering with the political scene in Britain, where public support for action against Iraq is just as thin. Even though a third of his MPs are against him, Prime Minister Tony Blair shows no sign of weakening his resolve; he is now the effective bridge between America and world that he long promised to be. The Tory leader, Ian Duncan Smith, may even be more pro-American than Blair, falling much closer to Richard Perle than Richard Armitage.
As the White House takes stock of it "allies," unpleasant conclusions are difficult to avoid. It can't be good news that Germany, traditionally America's second closest ally in NATO -- a country the U.S. guarded against Communism -- is deeply reluctant to help America protect the world from Iraqi-fueled terrorism. When a candidate sees his polls numbers rise because of his anti-U.S (and vaguely anti-Bush) rhetoric, it is cause for concern.
This is not say that Schroeder's gambit will be enough to put him over the top. His economic record could send him to the very unemployment lines his party has failed to shorten.
It is inevitable that if a center-right coalition does win in Germany, some will explain the victory as the latest domino of conservative governments snaking across Europe. In the last two years, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands have all seen center-right governments come to power. The only aberration has been Britain, where Blair has all but dismantled the Tory opposition.
Should Schroeder lose, is it a cause for a conservative celebration? Yes and no. On economic issues, Stoiber is a sort of Richard Nixon wage-and-price-controls conservative. Add to that, he is positively timid about standing up to Germany's powerful unions, a necessity if the country's Byzantine labor laws are to be reformed -- the key actually to invigorating the economy.
In regards to Iraq, it may be even more troublesome when a conservative -- not hidebound by the rearguard left or committed peaceniks in his coalition -- dabbles in anti-U.S. rhetoric.
On the other hand, the PDS (the former communists) may not even get the requisite five percent to enter parliament. And the Greens are expected to win fewer seats than in 1998. Compare these overall declines with the supposed right-wing surge in France's Le Pen fiasco. In France, hard left parties actually saw a measurable net increase from pervious totals. Only because these leftist parties were divided did Le Pen make it to the final ballot. The situation in Germany is quite different -- the left is on the decline.
Aside from Iraq, the crucial differences between the major candidates are stylistic, not substantive. Schroeder is witty and energetic. He is deeply tanned. He is on his fourth wife. By contrast, Stoiber is grandfatherly -- a politician that makes Al Gore look lively. Coming from the southern state of Bavaria, he draws sneers from urbane northerners who like to think of him as a country hillbilly.
Hillbilly or not, Bavaria is Stoiber's ace. As premier, he transformed Bavaria into Germany's hottest hi-tech zone, with the second lowest unemployment numbers in Germany. Whether his formula of "laptops and Lederhosen" -- technological subsidies tempered by cultural conservatism -- will work throughout Germany remains to be seen. Lederhosen in the Catholic south is one thing. How that garb will contend with topless lesbians up north is another matter.
If anything, a Stoiber victory may demonstrate two things. One, Germany isn't quite ready for an American-style campaign -- Schroeder's personality politics. Two, the electorate cares more about its own chancellor's handling of the unemployment crisis than about Bush's handling of Iraq.
A Schroeder victory would be much more ominous. It would show that the German people remain susceptible to having their concern about the economy distracted, and having their attention directed to another problem, one that is unrelated and in many ways symbolic. This seems all too familiar.
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