Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What's Really Happening in German Politics?: An Interview with Judith Meyer

Should the SPD enter another “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s CDU? Is Merkel actually a progressive—or as progressive as German politics can be at this point? What is likely to happen in German politics in the next few weeks/months? Judith Meyer, a computational linguist and German political activist (she works with Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25 movement), is a singularly astute observer of German politics; she has kindly allowed me to share some of her recent insights with readers. Herewith, an interview with Meyer conducted over email.

Q: Should the SPD enter another grand coalition?

A: No. It would deal a deep blow to German democracy. It must be possible for the voters to effect a change of government and change of policy. For 12 years now we had the same government (except of a brief stint of CDU-FDP that was in no way different than the others) and we should have it for another 4 years?? That only happens in dictatorships. People decided to rout the SPD in order to force a change. The SPD only got 20% and was forced to swear a holy oath to not have another grand coalition this time. If they go back on it, they will be 10% next time the people have a chance to vote.

All the more because the CDU breaks its coalition contracts, e.g. one of the SPD's key campaign demands last time was that there should be a state contribution towards the pensions of those who have worked at least 40 years and whose pension is still below 850 EUR / month (the poverty line for Germany is 1033 EUR / month), in order to combat the rising number of elderly poor we see searching the trash bins. This did not happen. And just recently, it was the vote of the CSU minister that approved glyphosate to continue to be used for another 5 years in the EU. There had been a massive EU-wide and Germany-wide mobilisation against glyphosate, which is why the SPD (though not the CDU) had decided to take a strong stance against it. Under the conditions of the coalition agreement, with one partner being in favour and another against, that meant that Germany would have had to vote 'abstain' at the European level. Now however, Germany voted in favour and due to its population weight approved it for all of the EU. Following this, both SPD, Greens and FDP said that they do not consider CDU to be capable of coalitions. (On another issue, the European parliament had also voted against approving it and it's deeply concerning that the "government" of the EU chose to treat its parliament as a mere advisory body.)

Schulz promised that there would be a vote among all SPD members on whether to accept the coalition contract. I think that his team will come to an agreement in order to let the SPD members be the ones to refuse. Approval for a Grand Coalition is currently only 25% in the general population (38% in favour of new elections, 14% for CDU-Greens minority government and 11% for CDU-FDP minority government); among SPD members 36% are in favour, while state-level SPD leaders attach significant conditions. I think as soon as some quid-pro-quo becomes known, the probability that SPD members will approve the coalition contract will be close to zero. We'll have new elections. The parties already agreed on a date: 22 April. Plenty of time for all parties to re-assemble and for public opinion to yield a very different result.

Q: At times, Merkel seems to act like a progressive. Should we consider her as such?

A: I think German politics cannot be fully understood by American standards. The entire political spectrum is to the left of the US. In the Romney/Obama election, a mock vote among Germans came out 95% in favour of Obama, because most of his radical ideas were considered self-evident here. See this article of mine for a summary of some differences:   So seen within this spectrum rather than the American one, CDU is still right of center, and SPD is approaching right of center ever since the Seeheimer circle (of which Schröder is the most famous) took over party leadership and forced neoliberal or at least third way policies. 

Merkel has given no sign of being interested in less than business-centric policies, so she is still considered right of center here. That does not prevent her from sharing, to some extent, the pro-refugee attitude that forms part of society's consensus here, and which can be found both on the far left (Die Linke) and the far right (FDP). Until recently we did not have any party in parliament that was anti-refugee, as the nationalist NPD and its predecessors always failed to take the 5% hurdle. Also keep in mind that our constitution is unique worldwide in stating an unequivocal and individual right to asylum (and was written after WWII, at a time when Germany was hosting 12 million refugees on a population of 70 million, so "being overwhelmed" is not a valid argument to suspend the constitution on this matter). Refusing an asylum seeker at the border, before their case can be heard, rejected and the refugee has had a chance to sue against the rejection, would simply be unconstitutional.

We learned later that this was one of the reasons Merkel made that fateful decision in summer 2015: according to eyewitnesses, after police and military had already been withdrawn from other regions in order to reinforce the borders, she called a last meeting of the minister of the interior, heads of police, heads of military and so on, and asked for two guarantees: 1) that her decision to repel the refugees would not be deemed unconstitutional by a court, and 2) that there would be no ugly Nazi-evoking pictures of German militarised police and dogs against refugee kids. Since nobody was willing to give those guarantees, she called it off. Welcoming the refugees was in line with popular sentiment at the time - the police had to ask people several times to stop coming to the train stations and shelters with gifts because there were too many. There was a party atmosphere. A month later, among CDU voters, 47% were still in favour of opening the borders and 41% against. Of course this has petered out now with the media reporting more and more about the difficulties of hosting so many refugees, especially with the federal government not doing its part - relying entirely on volunteers to organise language courses, often not refunding municipalities for the extra accommodation and food expenses, and so on.

Franz Josef Strauß (former CSU leader) famously proclaimed that there must not be any democratically legitimated party to the right of the CDU/CSU. The article makes reference to that. In other words Merkel's party was supposed to absorb enough of the mild xenophobes so that no truly xenophobic party could enter parliament. They did this by including, under their big umbrella, the segment that might be called 'family values voters' in the US. People who are not just against foreigners but also against gays, against non-traditional gender roles, to some extent against the disruption of technology and so on. It's chiefly these people that turned against Merkel. But Merkel wouldn't have remained chancellor for 12 years and counting if she hadn't alienated these people by successfully co-opting issues to the left of these voters.

Whenever there was an issue that looked big enough to unseat her (and not a moment before!), she added it into her world view. One famous example is gay marriage. The CDU/CSU leadership has long maintained that civil unions are good enough for homosexuals and they don't need access to civil marriage. However, gay marriage is absolutely uncontroversial in Germany with some 70% in favour even among the CDU/CSU voters (and a small majority of CDU/CSU voters even in favour of adoption rights for homosexuals). Shortly before this year's election, it looked like SPD, Greens and Linke would make gay marriage one of their rallying cries for the election campaign - so Merkel quickly convened a vote, in which she said that personally as a Christian she still doesn't favour gay marriage but she doesn't want to prevent anyone else from voting for it, so Germany approved gay marriage just before parliament went on break and the topic could no longer be used in the campaign. 

Similarly with the nuclear issue after Fukushima. Originally the SPD-Green government had enacted a law requiring nuclear power plants to gradually shut down. This was the biggest victory ever for German Greens and quite left them without a purpose, no other big topic to rally around. Merkel essentially undid this law at the beginning of her chancellorship, allowing nuclear power companies to pay to keep the power plants online for decades longer. Then after Fukushima, she saw the huge movement against nuclear power - the Greens temporarily polled over 20% - and hastily decreed that the nuclear power plants have to shut down in even less years than the original SPD-Green plan. Of course since she's a friend of business, she also decided that the German government would pay power companies very handsomely for breach of contract, lost profits, disposal of nuclear waste and so on. The German population as a whole is more environmentalist than most Western societies (see the World Values Survey) but CDU/CSU and especially FDP have always played the role of defending big business against these interests, they never had any environmentalist policy ideas of their own that the population wasn't already loudly clamouring for, and sometimes not even then, as can be seen with the CSU's glyphosate vote just now, 2 million signatures against glyphosate, a SPD coalition contract obliging them to vote 'abstain', the European parliament also voting against, and yet the CSU minister at the EU level just approved glyphosate for five more years...

CDU/CSU is not leftist in the sense of pro-refugee (more than AfD but not more than anyone else in Germany's party spectrum until now), definitely not leftist in the sense of environmentalist or civil rights, and definitely not leftist in the sense of welfare and workers' protections. The SPD however is considered to no longer be left, due to adopting CDU/CSU positions for the 12 years they were partnered...

Q: What else should Americans keep in mind when thinking about German politics?

A: I feel that our political ideas lead to a lot of talking past one another, probably because ideas like introducing minimum 3 weeks paid vacation would be considered socialist policy in the US, while it would be an attack on workers' rights here ;-) , where the state already guarantees 28 days' paid vacation and in practice 6 weeks isn't rare. We have to consider the direction of change and the ideological justification that parties use.

The biggest misconception is usually regarding the FDP. Think of them as libertarians, or as close to that as any dare to be without falling into political oblivion in Germany. We would place them to the right of CDU. They used to have the subtitle "Party for rich people" in their logo (!), they are extremely favourable to global trade deals, pro big business, against workers' protections, against regulation, against environmentalism... Like leftists, they were in favour of gay marriage and against mass surveillance, but that's no more than libertarians do in the US. Now after this year's elections they are pivoting to try to steal anti-immigrant votes from AfD...

Q: How significant do you think it is that the Jusos (the SPD youth group) have come out against a new grand coalition? There's no real analogue to the Jusos here in the States.

A: Wasn't it that Democrats under the age of 35 were overwhelmingly in favour of Sanders, while the party heads had early on decided on Clinton? I don't think our young people are so different. The young people of any establishment party always have stronger opinions and more idealism (or at least less pragmatism) than the old guard, who are used to doing politics a certain way and who have to consider their position within the party or their job in parliament in deciding what view to take on any issue and how strongly to defend that view. The only difference is that in Germany, every couple decades or so there is a new popular party that embodies the spirit of the new generation, as with Bündnis 90/Die Grünen embodying all the political views that the 1968 generation became famous for, and the Piratenpartei embodying a generation shaped by the internet, with party membership reflecting those demographics. 

An aside: the establishment parties in Germany, compared to those in other countries, were/are particularly tone-deaf about the internet in their utterances and in the policies they tried to enact. Also, even today none of the German government and very few MPs use Twitter. I wouldn't be surprised if a majority still had their secretaries print out emails for them. The Pirate Party peaked at 13% in the polls in 2012 and entered 4 state parliaments at 7-9%. Now however they have deconstructed for various reasons and the big parties are trying to absorb as many Pirate members and voters as possible, with digital campaigns that are a far cry from what we've seen in the US, UK or France even.  

With this understanding, the SPD members strongest in favour of a new Grand Coalition are those that are afraid of losing their MP positions at a new election, or those that supported Sigmar Gabriel and who are afraid they will lose their position in the pecking order if Martin Schulz prevails. Meanwhile the youth organisation Jusos has an innate desire to change the world (albeit those joining SPD for that purpose must necessarily be less ambitious, and more ready to accept existing hierarchies, than those joining Greens or Linke, which are more horizontal organisations and less satisfied with the status quo), and this desire is certainly amplified by the idea that a change in party direction would also bring other people to the top (the Jusos don't currently have anyone near the top). 

Four years ago, we already had this situation: some of the SPD were strongly against the Grand Coalition, and the Jusos were among the strongest opponents, welcoming Sigmar Gabriel with loud protests when he visited their assembly ahead of the coalition treaty being signed. In the end, the SPD membership voted 75.96% in favour of the coalition treaty (details on the vote turnout etc: This is possible because Jusos, and young people in general, are a very small part of SPD. The Jusos organisation counts ca. 70,000 members (stable, non-increasing for the past 10 years). Every SPD member under 35 is automatically a member of Jusos and additionally there is a possibility to sign up as a Jusos member without being a member of SPD, which was 20,000 people last time I checked. So Jusos might be 50,000 out of the SPD's current 443,000 members. (Aside: this is a huge decrease from the 70s: in the 70s, SPD had over a million members and Jusos had 300,000. The decline in membership is across all parties except the Greens) The average age of SPD members is now 60; only 32% of party members are women. 

I believe that this year the opposition to the Grand Coalition is much stronger than in 2013, both within Jusos and in the general party, certainly among the voters. More people have understood that the Grand Coalition is harmful to the SPD, including to their own chances of being elected or re-elected. The party leader and candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz himself is strongly against the Grand Coalition. That being said, there is a penalty in German society for not being ready to play ball (the FDP is suffering now), so I think it's most likely that the Grand Coalition will be rejected by a party vote rather than the leadership accepting the blame for the talks failing. 

Q: Could you tell us a little more about what’s happening within the German left—broadly defined—these days?
A: I'm on the board of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a transnational pro-European anti-austerity movement / party initiated by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (with whom I work on a daily basis) and which also counts Noam Chomsky, Saskia Sassen, Susan George, Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek, Ken Loach, John McDonnell and others among its advisors. Due to my work for this organisation, I am particularly attuned to what is happening in the left-of-center in Europe. A broad breakdown of the movements within the German left parties:

SPD: neoliberal/pro-European or socialist/green/pro-European
Green: green/pro-rich/pro-European or green/socialist/pro-European
Linke: socialist/anti-European or socialist/xenophobic/anti-European or old-Communist/authoritarian or socialist/green/pro-European

So if the SPD goes the way of a Grand Coalition, it may find itself losing supporters to a new grouping, while if it doesn't, it may find itself renewed from within. Of course another important factor is of the leadership fight between Wagenknecht (socialist/xenophobic/anti-European) and Kipping (socialist/green/pro-European) in Linke. Germany may look calm so far but is unlikely to stay that way, no matter which way the dice fall.

Q: How should we understand the rise of the Pirate Party and similar formations in Germany and elsewhere?

A: As I alluded to further above, I see the Pirate Party's success mainly as a result of the other parties' failure to understand the concerns of internet users (e.g. protecting civil liberties on the net, greater transparency and opportunities for participation, very progressive views in general), along with a generational shift that might have been due anyway.

That being said, one interesting aspect that sets them apart from establishment parties is also "fun" (and it applies even more to DIE PARTEI, which doesn't have a program beyond "fun"). I am not sure if / how this plays out in other countries, but M5S (Five Star Movement in Italy) was founded by a comedian, so maybe they are more fun than the establishment parties, too?

In both the Pirate Party and DIE PARTEI, fun can be found for example in less-than-serious campaign posters. The Pirate Party uses some fun posters among serious ones, while DIE PARTEI's posters are all fun and not all have a message. Examples:

· (Pirates: "You can't go to work like that" ... "therefore universal basic income")
· (Pirates: "A wombat for every household!"  ... "we can do unrealistic campaign promises too")
· (DIE PARTEI: "Liberté, égalité, f*ck Afdé")
· (DIE PARTEI: "stuff [Berlin's former mayor] Wowereit, send [former head of Greens] Künast to a hairdresser and resurrect [the Zoo's favourite polar bear] Knut"

Apart from that, there are many ways that the Pirate theme could be (and was) used for fun. That involves e.g. costumes and theme actions (boat-based campaigning), but also one of the key party slogans of all times:  "Klarmachen zum Ändern" (make ready to change), a play on words with the actual pirate phrase "Klarmachen zum Entern" (make ready to board).

Even beyond the Pirate theme, party conventions would involve ball baths, and the rules of both party conventions and parliamentary group sessions recognise a right for anyone to demand a vote on immediate "pony time": the communal watching of the children's cartoon series 'My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic' in order to restore harmony at the time of infighting. For inexplicable reasons, this children's TV series is popular with (adult) nerds even beyond the Pirate Party. (

Some of the fun elements, especially the ones referencing nerd culture and online culture, definitely were a hindrance to the Pirate Party's expansion in Germany. Also there are a lot of people, especially among older Germans, who have a strict view of where jokes and un-seriousness are acceptable and where not (e.g. professionals like lawyers and doctors mustn't tell their clients jokes, all professionals must wear suit & tie or whatever passes for a uniform of the trade,...). But it seems that there is nevertheless a good share of German voters that likes the idea of more fun in politics, or accepts it as a distinguishing feature from the establishment.

Q: Thank you Judith!

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