Co-authored with Joseph Klaver
As the Rosie Perez character tells the Woody Harrelson character in the classic movie “White Men Can’t Jump”, life is murky: sometimes the winners are losers and the losers are winners. This pertains to Angela Merkel after Germany’s poll today. The Chancellor’s losses in terms of her own party – the CDU/CSU – were gigantic and embarrassing. Add to this that with her coalition partner’s – the SPD’s – abysmal showing her four-year government’s losses amounted to more than 14 percent, the German voters have clearly issued the chancellor’s work a very negative, though perhaps not quite failing, grade. And yet, Merkel emerged as the unquestioned leader of the strongest party, remaining the pivotal figure in German politics who will most assuredly be the country’s next chancellor though with a different coalition partner in tow. Things did not go well for Merkel but she remains as indispensable as ever!
This leads us to the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) nadir with its worst electoral outcome in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. The party’s identity crisis hails from the late 1970s and early 1980s when it had to commence straddling the divide between “materialist” beef-and-brew male industrial workers and “post-materialist” sandal-and-celery, often female employees in the service sector. With the rise of the Greens, the Social Democrats lost their intellectual edge and became a Johnny-come-lately party that, by and large, copied the Greens’ innovative ways – just later and not as well. Germany’s oldest political party, the proud leader of the once-mighty Second International, the bastion of this essential movement that lent capitalism a human face had run into the fierce headwinds of the sociological, cultural and economic changes that altered the existence of its prime clientele that defined its essence for more than one hundred years: the male industrial working class! Germany, of course, was no exception to this development which befell pretty much most of the SPD’s sister parties in virtually all countries of advanced capitalism. A once proud party reaching electoral heights of 45 percent in 1972 and comfortably hovering in the high 30s, now had to be pleased not to have fallen below the ignominy of a 20 percent electoral return. As the first consequence of this bitter defeat, the party opted not to re-enter into a coalition government as Frau Merkel’s junior partner choosing to lead the opposition instead which, as it turns out, might in fact give the party a new and essential profile: that of being the leading dam in stopping the flood of the country’s far right which, with the Alternative fuer Deutschland, swamped German politics like it has never happened in the 68 years of the Federal Republic’s history. This party’s 13 plus percent in its first try ever to enter the Bundestag (when its predecessor tried in 2013 and failed to reach the 5 percent threshold needed for entry into that legislative body, the party, though masquerading under the same name, was a different animal) is nothing short of amazing given the fact that none of its many predecessors, from the SRP to the NPD; from the DVU to the Republikaner had ever been able to surpass the country’s 5 percent electoral threshold necessary to attain parliamentary representation. The party came in as the third strongest in the country and a clear frontrunner among the four smaller parties, frighteningly only 7 percent behind one of the two bigs – the Social Democrats. By opting to choose the opposition, the Social Democrats have thus deprived the AfD from becoming the largest opposition party which is of great importance in terms of seating on committees, order of speaking on them as well as in the plenary and other seemingly tiny issues that bear symbolic significance in the testy times that will characterize the Bundestag as well as German politics in the coming four years. Mark the SPD’s step as a valiant one in defense of the Federal Republic’s continued democratic discourse and culture!
Anyone vaguely familiar with German politics and society knows of the great cultural, social and political divide that reflect the geographic cleavage between the ten states comprising the former West Germany and the five constituting the former East Germany (with the hybridity of Berlin representing the 16th Land). If one adds the 21.5 percent that the AfD attained in the East with the 16.5 percent that the far- left Die Linke reached in the same space, one comes perilously close to 40 percent of Easterners voting for parties that have a very uneasy – indeed even hostile – relationship to the main contours of postwar Germany’s liberal democratic order and discourse. Supporters of both these parties exhibit xenophobic attitudes; both parties are hostile to the West; both extol a German particularism – not to say nationalism – that is inimical to the county’s cosmopolitan course of the past six decades. Even a cursory look at where people with some immigrant background have settled in Germany will reveal that less than 5 percent of such reside in the country’s five former eastern states showing yet again that it is not actual, real-live immigrants that drive Germany’s xenophobia and comprise the most potent fuel for the AfD’s (and to a much lesser, though still extant, degree for the Left Party’s) electoral success but rather feared and imagined immigrants. In a way, this election demonstrates yet again how electoral democracy is still in its infancy in the East as evidenced by its voters’ eagerness to give their voices to parties that are at least somewhat skeptical about – if not even inimical to -- many key features of Germany’s postwar essence of which a degree of internationalism and cosmopolitanism is one. It will be up to the impending “Jamaica” coalition certain to govern the Federal Republic of Germany over the next four years and the SPD’s stout democratic stand on the opposition benches to make certain that this cosmopolitanism not diminish or disappear.