September 27, 2009

As the sleepy heads of America rise to a normal Sunday morning (or afternoon, depending on what you did last night), most are unaware of the battle that is just coming to a close several hundred thousand miles away.  Now, you may ask, why would I know that today is election day in Germany?  Well, unless you are as aware of the New York Times infatuation with this country as I am, then you probably wouldn’t.  But it seems that out of mutual respect, you should care about the German elections.  I mean, they cared about ours, a lot.  But I guess that’s because of all the chance and hope in the air last fall, and plus, Obama spoke in Berlin, on the steps of the Siegesäule.  The election results here are expected to be nothing short of predictable and Angela Merkel certainly didn’t grace the US with a speech at the Washington Memorial.  So perhaps there is little need for you to track the German elections, apart from a mild curiosity of knowing what is going on the world and wanting to look worldly at dinner parties.

I, however, am motivated to at least get a mild hold on the whole situation.  I say mild because every time the issue comes up, it is assumed the foreigner doesn’t know anything about the situation and it is explained to me; I nod and try to interject that I think I get it, but my nods are interpreted as the empty movements of someone trying to show that they understand what you are saying.  So I thought I would really try and get my info down by trying to explain it here.

**A note on language.  The word used for voting as a verb is wählen, which is the common verb for “to choose.”  For a noun, Stimme, meaning “voice” is most commonly used.  With that, I’ll get to the good stuff.

The first thing that I noticed with interest was that the elections are held on a Sunday.  Coming most recently from Oregon, a state that implemented mail-in ballots to solve the problems of work-schedule-based low voter turnout, I am a big fan of the Sunday vote.  It is even more effective because Germany is not the 24/7 culture I was used to in the US.  Things are closed here on Sundays.  All grocery stores; all shops.  The only people that work publicly on a Sunday are café staff (and priests and stuff).  So it seems that actually having Sunday as a day off for the vast majority of the population and then using that as voting day seems to make a lot of sense.

Second, Germany has a multi-party system!  Absolutely unthinkable, I know.  Like the US, there are a huge number of parties, but only a few of them are to be taken seriously.  Except that unlike the US, that number is larger than two.  The two biggest parties are the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union)/CSU (Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU) and the center-left SPD (Social Democratic Party).  The other relevant parties are the pro-business, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the far-left Left Party (Die Linke), and the lefty-environmental Green Party (Alliance 90/The Greens).  Then there are also a number of random parties that probably won’t get enough votes to hold a position (a party has to get 5% of the national vote to hold any seats in the Bundestag, which may sound like they are stamping out the little guys, but considering that the “little guys” include fascists, they decided to make it difficult for them to gain any sort of power).

Each of these parties has a color (this will be important in a second), like the Democrats’ blue and the Republicans’ red.  I’ve color coded them above, but for those readers that can’t see, the colors are as follows: the CDU is black, the SPD is red, the FDP is yellow, the Greens are green (not much of a stretch there) and the left party is also red.  Their socialist/communist past pretty much obligates them to use red, but to separate themselves from the SPD, they refer to their color as “dark red.”  For more on party colors and history, check out this article.

The disadvantage of a multi-party system is that none of these parties has a clear majority, so they must enter into coalitions to get anything passed.  In the last four years, the CDU and SDP have been in a coalition (pretentiously named the “grand coalition”), but one of the big issues this election is that Merkel favors a different coalition this time around between her party (the CDU) and the FDP, while the SPD is pushing for a “traffic light” of SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and Greens (green).  But from what I understand, neither the FDP or the Greens are at all friendly to this idea.  The greens made this clear with this election placard, showing a yellow barrel with black atomic signs on it, implying that they are against nuclear energy (another important debate in German politics).  The caption says, “Black-Yellow No Thank You!” which implies the double meaning of their aversion to the CDU and the FDP.


The issues at hand are lengthy, but here is a completely butchered version of who wants what (adapted largely from a Reuters article):

  • CDU/CSU: lower taxes 2% for poor people, raise the threshold for the highest income tax bracket; support a minimum wage (Germany doesn’t have one, isn’t that surprising?); they don’t want Turkey joining the EU, they want to stay in Afghanistan; fans of nuclear energy
  • SPD: lower taxes 4% for poor people, raise rich peoples taxes; more jobs targeting industrial and green technology sectors, minimum wage; open to the possibility of Turkey joining the EU, possible time-line-ish approach to getting out of Afghanistan; phase out nuclear energy, less foreign oil, more renewable sources
  • FDP: change the tax system and make cuts for families and people worth less than 35 billion euros; build small- and medium-sized business sector, lower taxes on businesses, more privatization; they are going more an more in the direction of getting out of Afghanistan, but its still a debate within the party; keep nuclear energy but eventually switch to renewable sources
  • Greens: raise taxes for rich; a million new jobs; stay in Afghanistan (lame!), think Turkey should be in the EU, want China and Russia to follow more strict human rights standards; 40% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020
  • Left Party: no taxes for people who make less than €12,ooo, tax top earners 53%; nationalize banks, ban mass layoffs; Raus aus Afghanistan! (Out of Afghanistan); they want to phase out nuclear power.

raus aus afghanistan

Today, each voter will cast two votes.  The Erststimme (erst meaning first and stimme meaning vote or voice) is for a candidate – an actual person – from their local district.  The second vote is for a party.  The parties are then awarded seats in the Bundestag according to the number of votes they receive.  Then it gets a bit complicated.  If two candidates (from the Erststimme) from a particular party win seats, but the party (from the Zweitestimme) wins a total of 5 seats, then three more politicians from that party are chosen off of a “state list” drawn up by each party.  If the party wins 10 seats but 13 candidates are elected directly, then all 13 get into the Bundestag and the extra three are called “overhang seats.”  I find this complicated enough to try and explain (a more thorough explanation can be found here), but if you want all of the math on how proportions are selected, check out the Bundestag’s own explanation, which also includes results from the last national election in 2005.

The elections are difficult to avoid because of the constant assault of advertising.  The most advertising is from the big parties: the CDU and the SPD. Angie wears her power suits like a champ and sports power and grace in these placards and billboards:

angie copy(“We choose/vote for the Chancellor”, party slogan “We have the strength”, and “we choose confidence”)

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister (Hillary to Angie’s Obama), pictured here with a slogan literally translated as “Our country can more” – the “achieve,” “do,” or “accomplish” that should be in the middle is implied.


These are the two big candidates, and I like how Die Zeit illustrated the debate (and the question of coalitions on the cover of the newspaper last weekend:

die zeit(Steinmeier as Hamlet holding a skull.  Merkel wrapped in a German flag with ample cleavage showing – this will come up again later – looking at each other in front of a red curtain.  The caption reads: “To Be or Not to Be”)

Political candidates’ looks don’t and shouldn’t matter, but I do find it impressive that Angie’s dowdy haircut is one of the best in female German politics.  How she has managed to avoid what seems to be a syndrome of short blond haircuts, I don’t know.  But I salute here for resisting making the cut, I think she looks better (and a lot less scary) than these women.

election women candidates copy

Worth throwing in for good measure are Ströbele, local Green party candidate for my district, cause he has the greatest eyebrows ever and I saw him at the Turkish market a few weeks ago:


And the poster for Halina Wawzyniak (I left her out of the political women series, but she is also a victim of the short blond hair syndrome).  This features a lower-back tattoo (fondly known as a “tramp stamp”) that reads “SOCIALIST”

socialist tattoo

Merkel is favored so strongly for the win that no one seems to be getting too excited for the election.  This election has most commonly been described as boring.  Voter turnout is expected to be at a record low, and Germans followed the American election last year more closely and with more enthusiasm.  So what has spiced up the (extremely short) last two months or so of campaigning?  What were the scandals?  The Sarah Palins and the Reverend Jeremy Wrights?  There weren’t many, but here are a few highlights:

  • Horst Schlämmer, a character of comedian Hape Kerkeling, created his own party (the Horst Schlämmer Party), and ran a fake campaign leading up to the release of a mockumentary about his run for Bundestag Chancellor.  I noticed the posters around Berlin and couldn’t believe that someone with his ridiculous appearance could actually be taken seriously as a candidate.  Turns out he can’t be, but in a poll, 18% of the population said they would vote for him if he was a real candidate.  Read the NYT article here or watch the film trailer (in German) here. (His posters were taken down before I started photographing campaign ads, so I must admit that this was downloaded from the internet):


  • The SDP took a publicity hit in late July when party member and health minister Ulla Schmidt went to Spain for a weekend vacation in her chauffer-driven, armored Mercedes.  Unfortunately for her (and the party), the car was stolen, leaving Schmidt, as the New York Times put it, “without a vehicle but with some explaining to do.” Oops.  [related article]
  • And lastly, the campaign ad that made it to the Colbert Report, now infamous placard from Vera Lengsfeld (I didn’t remember her name, but fortunately for me, one of these placards is attached to the light pole outside the coffee shop where I am sitting).  Running against Merkel, she knew she didn’t have much of a chance, so decided to draw some attention to herself in a unique way.  There is a famous photo of usually conservatively dressed Merkel at a formal evening event with much more cleavage showing that Germans are used to seeing on their Kanzlerin.  Lengsfeld paired this photo with one of herself in an equally revealing dress and added the caption “We have more to offer.”


**If you want more information on any of this election system stuff, here are some of the websites and articles in English I found helpful when researching this post: FOCUS Information Agency’s article on how the German electoral system works, The New York Times, which is absolutely in love with Germany (and especially Berlin) and writes about it all the time, and several articles on The Local, German news in English, including this election primer from August.


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