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The cliff-hanger in Germany

Just in case you have not been already doing so, essential blog commentary on Germany’s cliff-hanger can be found over on David’s Medienkritik.

It will be interested to see if just under 12% unemployment has actually got the attention of the German electorate or is it going to be more of the same old stuff? Angela Merkel is something of an unknown quantity and the mere fact she is described as a ‘loose cannon’ by the political chattering classes makes her someone worth watching with at least a soupcon of hope. Germany badly needs an ‘Iron Lady’ so it will be interesting to see if Angela Merkel has what it takes or will the entrenched system just make her one of them.

The election hangs on a knife edge…

29 comments to The cliff-hanger in Germany

  • Joshua

    Merkel’s no Margaret Thatcher (unfortunately), and the political situation in Germany now is nothing like that in Britain of 1979.

    It’s looking like there’ll be a Union/SPD coalition (since though the FDP polled much better than expected, it doesn’t seem enough to form a government next to Union’s poorer-than-expected showing). What THAT means is anyone’s guess.

    The good news is the Greens are almost certainly out of power – and a good chunk of the present government’s nonsense comes from their end of the gallery, actually. It may well be that free of their lunatic Green partners the SPD will be willing to talk sense and pass meaningful legislation with their Union partners.

    But that, of course, is only one scenario. Merkel is pretty weak as party leaders go. She’s not nearly as skillful a manager as Thatcher was, nor does she have as clearly articulated a set of policy goals. Meaning: while Thatcher was largely able to control divisions in her party during her tenure, Merkel probably won’t fare as well. And Thatcher wasn’t trying to manage an ideologically unstable coalition to boot.

    This will almost certainly be disappointing. Maybe an election will come in another year that Union can win more decisively. (Of course, by that time they’ll probably have weeded the free-market types, what few there are, out of the cabinet and gone back to the German political norm – at which point an election won’t make much of a difference anyway…)

  • Verity

    Thank you for that interesting analysis, Joshua. Of course, if it’s a coalition, it’s doomed anyway.

    Thatcher was an individual of great achievement and intelligence. I find it terribly irritating that other people are compared with her just because they happen to be women. It’s outrageous, in fact.

    It’s like remarking about a candidate, “Well, he’s got blue eyes, but he’s no Ted Heath.” It’s totally off the wall.

  • Oh, come on, Verity, surely a person’s gender has more influence on their personality than their eye color.

  • Verity

    Alisa, on their personality, certainly, partly because parts of our personalities are designed to please the opposite sex. But on their character and their ability to lead and inspire? No. I think not.

  • GCooper

    This sort of stalemate is worth bearing in mind the next time someone starts banging on about the joys of proportional representation.

    For better or worse, the British ‘winner takes all’ system at least allows for change.

  • Verity

    G Cooper – Oh, god, yes!

    And proportional representation causes horsehoe or circular debating chambers to come into being to avoid confrontation. The tribal elders’ circle, which is why it is so admired by the Kumbayah set. A thousand years backward. No thank you.

  • Verity

    Alisa – through absolutely no fault of my own, believe me, I gave refuge to a starving pregnant cat. I have two resident cats whose home this is, so she and the kitties will be going as soon as everyone’s fit. There are six kittens, most of them male. The first one to figure out how to eat from a dish was the tiny calico female. That was four days ago and she is still eating solo.

    Just under four weeks old, and she climbs out of their carton when she smells food and crosses the floor to the dish. In her wake, following her little tail raised like a flag, her brothers, single file. She leads them to the food and she eats, but they haven’t figured out how to eat yet.

    I just don’t think being a leader has anything to do with the sex of the person. More with mental acuity, strength of will and motivation. People will follow someone they sense is a leader. Look at Joan of Arc, for example. She raised armies.

  • Absolutely Verity

    Two of the most inspiring war leaders of our time were Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.

    I think this election in Germany is bad news for everyone especially Germans. It probably means the beginning of the end of NATO.

  • Verity

    Taylor D – end of NATO. Good.

    The French aren’t in it, meaning the only country on this side of the Atlantic with a fighting force is Britain. Why the hell would we send our troops to defend Europe? They disarmed themselves. Who cares?

  • Verity: tell your little kitty “you go, girl!”:-)

    You are right about the difference between personality and character, but politicians are influenced by their personalities, as well as their character. I don’t know much about Maggie’s personality, so I’ll stop here.

    As to Golda, I think that she was somewhat overrated as a leader, because of her being a woman. I get the same feeling about Indira Gandhi, but I might be wrong there. This certainly was not the case with Thatcher, though. This, of course, has at least something to do with what is expected by Western societies of women in non-Western ones.

  • Michael Farris

    On sex and personality: In lots of primate species, adolescent females are the most innovative subset of the population. My own private pet theory is that that’s one of the reason that conservative/afraid-of-change human societies put so many restrictions on them.

  • Michael: of course. But it’s not that women in general are more innovative than men, but that they see things from a different perspective, one that is not always available to men. This is true in both directions. It’s just that men always paid much more attention to what other men say, and only relatively recently have they began paying much more attention to what women say.

  • BTW, Verity: your kitty’s behavior could be attributed to a stronger survival instinct in females, since females are more essential to species preservation than males are.

  • Michael Farris

    I wonder how many Germans couldn’t quite bring themselves to vote for a woman when push came to shove in the voting booth.

    It’s CW/CK that minority and female candidates usually poll better than they actually do in elections. Few people are willing to admit they won’t vote for someone because of their sex/race/whatever, but they become a lot more courageous in the privacy of secret elections. I had assumed all along that her lead in polling was greater than it would be on election day.

  • HJHJ

    The high unemployment rate in Germany is often quoted in support of radical change. But German business is generally in very good shape and is far more internationally competitive than in the UK. The big difference is in policies designed to stimulate domestic demand, where the UK and Germany are at opposite ends of the spectrum. In this area Germany certainly needs reform, but so do we in the UK if the red ink is not to get even worse.

    Note too that unemployment in the old West Germany is only 7%. This figure is actually substantially lower than in the UK, because the Germans don’t use incapacity benefit to conceal unemployment. Also, practically everyone who is unemployed there registers because the social security benefits are generous, whereas many unemployed people in the UK don’t register because they will get nothing (because they have savings or a working spouse). The German problem with unemployment centres on the old East Germany and there they have certainly made many policy mistakes, albeit certain aspects of the reconstruction have been very impressive.

    We should not act holier-than-thou towards the Germans. They have been moving, however slowly, in the right direction in many, although not all, ways (lower taxes and cost of employing people, for example) whereas Gordon Brown has moved us in the opposite direction.

  • Jacob

    It seems that Angela Merkel’s failure to win clearly the election was a personal failure. She is less of a personality, compared to Schroeder. Less charisma, less leadership, even if we like her ideas more.

    It would be interesting to learn how the voting split between male/female voters.

  • Alice

    Verity, thanks for each of your post, in that lively debate. “tribal elder’s circle”, “being a Women”… Tartuffe (Molière) would be a women nowadays. My French media do not allow me do understand the result of the German elections, but only that I should rejoice with Arte TV and Angela.

    Even if I have left the European continent when the civil troubles begin, I hope the Americans + Canedians, Australians, New-Zealanders and other allies, will care once more. “They desarmed themselves”, yes, but they always did and this time the European soldiers are not even born. But I believe that the Americans are too brave to be stopped by this.

  • Jacob

    Here is a prediction by an ignorant foreigner (me): Schroeder remains chancellor backed by a green-red-ultrared (Linke) coallition.

  • Verity

    Alisa – Not my kitties, please!! They’re being packed off as soon as they can survive without their mother. I have actually never been very keen on kittens, although I’m intrigued and beguiled by cats. Anyway, one of the ginger ones managed to take the eating concept partially on board this morning, so that’s two of them who can eat, at least part time.

    I agree that Golda Meir was overrated as a leader and agree that it was an instance of “it was a wonder that t’were done at all”. Indira Ghandi – no. She came bathed in the glory of her father, Jawalahal Nehru and she had grown up in an extremely political home. She was a strong and effective leader, but very wrong headed. She just couldn’t get her head around dropping socialism and that “non-aligned” philosphy. Between her and Rajiv, they kept India back for 30 years.

    Merkel looks ineffective and weak – in fact, she looks a lot like Lousiana’s Governor Blanco. Thatcher looked poised, confident and strong. People will follow a strong, committed person. I just don’t think it’s got anything to do with being a woman, and I think I resent it that every two-bit second-rate British or European woman who runs for national office gets elevated to being compared with Margaret Thatcher when they do not merit the comparison.

    Michael Farris writes: I wonder how many Germans couldn’t quite bring themselves to vote for a woman

    As long as they were thinking of her as a woman rather than a national leader, you are right.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    HJHJ, I think you are taking too sanguine a view of Germany’s unemployment. 5 million jobless is a lot of people and many tend to be young, which adds to social problems. The labour market there is so riddled with rules and regulations (yes I know, it is getting worse here) that many firms see little point in hiring anyone. You can slice and dice the data all you like but the problem remains huge.

    Many top German companies like BMW, Siemens, and the like are highly profitable, often because so much of their capacity is farmed out to cheaper centres in eastern Europe. The problems often centre on the Mittlestand middle and small-size firms which have been hit by high taxes etc.

    The hysterical reaction by the German left to recent takeover activity by venture capital firms was a bad sign of a country developing a siege mentality. Hardly a sign of rude good health.

  • HJHJ


    I don’t take a sanguine view of Germany’s unemployment – I was just pointing out that those who contrast the weakness of the German economy with the supposed strength in the UK’s are often wrong. The biggest problem in Germany is not so much supply-side reforms (which have been happening) it is the lack of a policy for expanding domestic demand (the Euro has clearly been a factor here).

    Labour market regulation there has been reducing and it is now generally cheaper to hire labour there than here, even when employers social security and other contributions are taken into account.

    The unemployment in Germany is not so much concentrated among the young as in the East – and there are special factors here. Employment growth in the UK has principally been either in the public sector, in industries supplying the public sector and in those benefitting from the debt-fuelled consumer boom – it is highly debatable whether this is sustainable. It is an instructive exercise to look on the jobs section web site of any large international electronics company ( I mention electronics because it is arguably the world’s most globally organised industry). In Europe you will see that the majority of the jobs are in Germany and there are almost none in the UK. Just five years ago the UK electronics industry was bigger than that in Germany.

    The German economy has problems and needs reform, but it has fundamental strengths. I suspect that it will perform better than the UK economy over the next few years as Brown’s (or rather our) luck runs out.

  • Joshua

    Jonathan –

    I agree that HJHJ is not giving unemployment the weight it’s due, but at the same time he makes an interesting point. Not only unemployment, but FEAR of future unemployment as well, is significantly higher in the East. There’s a good map on David’s Medienkritik illustrating this. Also, if you go to Spiegel Online and have a look at their election results map, click on the “Zweitstimmenanteil” for the Left Party (Linke), you will notice that the radical Left’s support comes entirely from the East (save in Oskar LaFontaine’s district in the West – which itself suffers from major unemployment problems). The resuts literally draw a map of the old border.

    I’m not sure how HJHJ intended his point to be taken, but for my part I think a lot of people who point the finger at Germany do indeed underestimate the extent to which the East is still an economic AND ideological drag on the country. It’s not easy for people who’ve been raised to think of a job as a natural Party/God-given right to rid themselves of the notion that the State is more responsible for them than they are for themselves.

    In that vein – this gets back to my original point that Germany’s brand of socialism today is a very different one from Britain’s 1970s socialism, and Angela Merkel is a different creature altogether than Margaret Thatcher. There is no free-market revolution brewing in Germany – partly because German culture won’t allow it, partly because the East in particular won’t allow it, partly because Merkel isn’t strong enough to bring it about (even assuming she really wants it…and I’m inclined to be generous and say she does), and partly because German socialism – as much as we Libertarians hate to admit this – isn’t as bad off as it’s often painted to be – including the unemployment “crisis.” Germany simply ISN’T facing any real crisis. It’s not the sort of desperate situation that Britain faced in the 1970s where the country was teetering on the brink of collapse. Rather, what’s going on in Germany today is more like a prolonged (and worsening) discomfort. True, there will need to be reform if they’re ever going to get out of it, but Germany’s economy is basically solid and will not be tanking anytime soon, no matter who the next Chancellor is. It may continue to decline – but it’s declining slowly and manageably.

    And that, I think, is the lesson of this election: absent a clear and present crisis, the sheep will continue to feed.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    If the British electorate in 1979 knew what Margaret Thatcher was going to do (and she didn’t know herself), would she and the Tories have got in?

    Maybe it’s because the Germans know what she did do, that they’re wary of putting Merkel in.

  • Verity

    Findlay Dunachie – In other words, you see Merkel as a woman and not a politician? She seems to be a fairly mediocre politican. Why compare her with Margaret Thatcher? Why not compare her with Reginald Maudling, say?

  • Verity, I now see your point, but I think this comparison is being made not only because Merkel is a woman, but also because there are some similarities between the two situations.

  • Verity

    Alisa – I understand what you’re saying, but according to the comments above, there is little similar about the situations. Britain was indeed, with yachtsman Ted at the helm, heading for the rocks when Maggie came in. Joshua says, and he is backed up on some of his points by HJHJ, that Germany is fundamentally on a slow slide, but not alarmingly so and the country still has strong economic underpinnings. Britain was on the skids.

    So the comparisons with Maggie are unwarranted – and also as yet unmerited – and are made solely because she shares the same sex as Thatcher, which is silly.

    Has anyone else noticed that Merkel looks a bit like Governor Blanco?

  • HJHJ


    I wasn’t denying the unemployment in Germany at all. I was simply pointing out that, in reality, in the west it is lower than in the UK. I’m not saying that it isn’t a problem in the UK – it most definitely is, despite what the government would have you believe.

    As evidence that not everything is gloomy in Germany and rosy in the UK I would point to industrial production which has been flat in the UK since 1997 and which has increased by 25% in Germany. A 25% rise is hardly a sign of a collapsing economy.

    I was making exactly the point you identify w.r.t. the particular historical difficulties in the East. These were compounded by the damage done by arbitrarily assigning the two currencies to be equivalent in value. Kohl ruined a lot of businesses in the East by this populist measure.

  • Snide

    and is far more internationally competitive than in the UK

    Germany is said to have the highest true labor costs in the world… competitive?

  • HJHJ

    No Snide.

    On most measures, total cost of labour in the UK now exceeds that of Germany. German unit labour costs have now been declining for several years – largely thanks to the efforts of their private sector companies. In the UK they have been increasing for several years, largely as a result of the efforts of government (higher taxes e.g. NI and rapidly rising public sector employment and salaries).

    That’s why their competitiveness is increasing and ours declining. You need to look at where things are headed rather than just where they are now.