Berlin: Empty Elections

‘This reunification generation of Germans is sick of coalition government but equally dissatisfied with the alternatives on offer’

Why is the German election campaign, which reaches its climax this month, so utterly dull, I asked my friend while strolling through the streets of Berlin’s Mitte district. “Well,” he shrugged, “this is a German campaign — what do you expect? It is bound to be solid but lacklustre.” Here we go again, I thought, the old excuse that Germans just don’t do excitement, they do reliability, and do it well. What did I expect? Quite simply: a theme, or maybe just an ounce of political courage that would turn this campaign into a debate or even a battle of ideas. After all, is this not what one should expect of a country that has become accustomed to seeing itself as the epitome of the European social model, or even, in the context of the current economic crisis, an example to the whole world?

Hang on a minute, cautioned my friend, Germany already has a new European face, and we’re standing right in the middle of it — just take a look around you. And I did. I saw the shiny new ministries and embassies right by Norman Foster’s reconstructed Reichstag, across from the Brandenburg Gate, I saw Spanish tourists delighted to find the cheapest cappuccino in any Western European capital, I saw hip young Americans on their way to an art installation that promised to be more radical than anything they had seen in Brooklyn or Shoreditch. Wasn’t this Germany’s happy new European face?

I turned round. Under a red and white parasol sat a solitary, slightly comic figure: a man in his late fifties, in shorts and sandals, resting from the late summer heat and fanning himself with a few papers — a campaigner for the centre-left Social Democrats. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat foreign minister and candidate for chancellor, had just unveiled his campaign team, a solid, if slightly bland line-up of little-known functionaries and backbenchers. Was this exhausted veteran before me an honest image of what the Social Democrats — one half of the present coalition government — had at its disposal to confront Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which is far ahead in the polls? When Steinmeier claimed that Germany can create a total of four million jobs in the next decade and eradicate unemployment by 2020, rival parties predictably heaped criticism on his “Germany Plan”, describing it as a vague socialist fantasy, a demonstration not of strength but of impotence. I didn’t dare to confront the old campaigner, now resting languidly on a fold-up chair, with accusations of impotence. 

As for the other half of the grand coalition: Merkel dominates the scene and yet remains hard to define. Her modest, self-effacing style, instinct for consensus and austere but upbeat moral rectitude make her more appealing than her dour opponent.

However, this has hardly made a significant impact on the generation who may be the decisive voting bloc in this election: the 30-40-year-olds, i.e. the youngest voters who still remember a divided Germany. This reunification generation is sick of a coalition government with colourless compromises, but equally dissatisfied with the alternatives on offer — mainly because they don’t identify with their style. In a country like Britain where conservative politics can offer an intellectual as well as an aesthetic challenge to the status quo this may be hard to imagine, but in Germany the Right is still seen as irredeemably philistine and uncool.

Look at that, exclaimed my friend, and pointed at a bright green meadow the size of a football field, right in the centre of the city. In this spot once stood the East German parliament buildings before they were demolished last year, causing many tortured discussions about the face of post-unification Germany. Over the next few years, a museum modelled on the old Prussian royal palace will be erected. Its style is so archaic and its mission so lofty (it is supposed to house exhibitions to “make people think about other cultures”) that even Prince Charles would approve. Perhaps it is too simple a metaphor to see this empty space as a symbol of the flatness of German politics in the face of a general election: a pleasant in-between, waiting for something new to be constructed. Still — is it a coincidence that this vacant site should be found in the heart of the new Berlin?

Chancellor Merkel once commented that President Sarkozy behaved like the Sun King. In Germany you have to persuade people, she said. Perhaps she forgot that the first step to persuasion is to develop a theme. What one hopes for from this election is that it finally spurs a debate about what themes Germans want their politicians to bring to the table. What one fears is that it will reveal a mirror image of what lies in the middle of Berlin: a flat empty space, with solitary, languid figures who chose the wrong outfit for the new, supposedly European Germany. 

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