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INSIDE TRACK ON WORLD NEWS
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis
GERMANY’S ELECTORAL FIASCOCopyright: Eric S. Margolis, 2005
September 19, 2005
What a mess! There’s no polite way to describe yesterday’s electoral fiasco in Germany.
Neither of the two main parties won a majority of votes. But that didn’t stop CDU/CSU leader Angela Merkel from declaring victory. Not to be outbluffed, SPD leader Gerhard Schroeder also declared victory and announce he would stay on as Chancellor. But both parties were too weak to form a new government.
Meanwhile, both leaders began frantic negotiations with the real winner of the vote, the Free Democrats, who won 9.8% of the vote, the new neo-communist Left Party, which won 8.4%, and the Greens who won 8.1%.
Schroeder vowed he would never form a coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU nor with the Left Party. The Free Democrats proclaimed they would not enter into a coalition with the SPD. The Greens were out seeking the highest offer. In short, the very worst side of parliamentary politics was in full bloom in Germany.
Old political magician Schroeder truly pulled a rabbit out of his hat this time. Doomed to a huge defeat by all pre-election polls, the wily Chancellor managed to come within a hair of Merkel’s CDU-CSU, 34.5% to 35%, one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern political history.
What Schroeder did was take a page from the campaign book of France’ Marshal Ferdinand Foch. As German armies stormed into France in 1914, Foch declared `my left is broken, my center is crumbling, my right wavers. Situation excellent. I attack!’ Foch went on to win the epic victory of the Marne.
And attack Schroeder did, who two months ago trailed Merkel by a whopping 12 points. Just about everyone believed Merkel would become Germany’s first female prime minister.
But they underestimated suave, telegenic Schroder, whose robust manliness has great appeal in this male-dominate culture.
Particularly so compared to the dumpy Merkel who looks like the East German academic she was rather than the potential leader of a nation of 81 million accounting for a third of the EU’s economy.
TV proved Merkel’s undoing. A live debate between tanned, confident Schroder and fumbling, pasty-faced Merkel convinced many viewers she was unfit to be chancellor. Polls confirmed Germans preferred Schroder to Merkel 54% to 35%.
But Schroder’s SDP is widely disliked and has been lambasted by unions and the far left for implementing modest reforms to welfare, union rules, national health, and pensions. After years of stagnation, Germany’s 11.6% unemployment – 5 million people – is starting to decline and her economy shows signs of life.
Radical leftists and communists broke away from the SDP to form the new Left Party, which bled away SDP’s votes.
Merkel had her own problems. Her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, did not win enough votes to allow her to form a government. Merkel made a hash of her economic proposals, first proposing minor tax cuts, then advocating a 2% increase in the hated value added tax, provoking universal outrage.
A professor Merkel named to clean up Germany’s complex taxes, Paul Kirchof, proposed a flat income tax of 25%. This sensible plan, successfully adopted across Eastern Europe, ignited nationwide complaints the rich would pay less – ignoring the fact that the rich already pay the lion’s share of taxes.
Schroder jumped on this issue, accusing Merkel’s tax guru of being `a cold-hearted professor from Heidelberg.’ Merkel was thrown on the defensive, furiously back-peddling from Kirchof. As her mammoth lead shrank to nothing, rebellious mutterings began in her own party. Many Germans still recall with distaste how Merkel clawed her way to the top of the CDU by stabbing in the back her mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the reunifier of German.
The last thing Germany needs is political paralysis. Germany’s economy, the world’s third largest, desperately requires de-socialization and to made more efficient.
Germans have been living too high on the hog for too long. When business was booming, Germany’s powerful unions got everything they demanded: Europe’s highest wages, ridiculously long vacations, rich pensions, lifetime job guarantees - a perfect example of being careful what you wish for.
The result: economic stagnation and chronic unemployment. Over 83% of government income goes to paying pensions, unemployment and debt interest. In effect, Germany is suffering from many of the same problems, writ large, as America’s moribund auto and airline industries.
Germans like their cushy welfare state and vote against politicians urging change. Germany is so rich it can, like France, afford to support five million unemployed. Many German students stay in state-supported universities until they are over 30 years old.
Germany’s left can block major economic and social reforms. Merkel’s CDU would face massive national strikes if it confronts the powerful unions. The SPD is better at dealing with German labor.
As of this writing, the most likely scenario is a new coalition of the CDU/CSU, Free Democrats, and leftish Greens. Whatever the outcome, Merkel has won at very best a Phyrric victory in which her own career may soon come to an end. She has just presided over the biggest CDU/CSU loss in modern times and richly deserves to be shipped back to eastern Germany.
To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here
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