Economic Crisis Defines German Election

Germany's Social Democrats will launch their election campaign Sunday. By steering to the left and attacking Angela Merkel, the party wants to score big with voters. Its strategy will also force the conservatives to inch leftward. In the midst of a global downturn in which stimulus is the buzzword of the day, economic prudence could take a backseat.


A woman holds up playing cards with caricatures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opponent in this year's election, Foreign Minister Frank-Walther Steinmeier.

On Sunday, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party plans to announce its manifesto for its campaign in the run-up to the country's Sept. 27 national election. Aides of the party's chancellor candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, expect the foreign minister and deputy chancellor to "give a major speech." Like a boxer in the ring, Steinmeier will be standing alone in the middle of a ballroom, surrounded by 2,000 cheering guests, in a scene reminiscent of American presidential campaigns. His campaign managers apparently hope that some of the energy surrounding the 2008 campaign of US President Barack Obama will rub off on Steinmeier.

FROM THE MAGAZINE Find out how you can reprint this DER SPIEGEL article in your publication. For the SPD, the kick-off of the campaign is truly a reason to celebrate, notwithstanding its poor standing in the polls. Social Democrats love election campaigns, which they perceive as the highlight of party life. Infighting between the party's two wings has been temporarily laid to rest, as party members come together behind a common purpose.

The conservative Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and its sister party -- the Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), which is also part of Merkel's power-sharing grand coalition government with the SPD -- take a more anxious approach to election campaigns, which they could just as well do without. The conservatives assume that they hold sway over a natural majority within the population, but they see campaigns as a threat rather than an opportunity to expand this perceived majority -- this year in particular.

The SPD's event at the Tempodrom will be the official prelude to a duel that strategists describe as the biggest adventure in German election history. A campaign held during a crisis is a novelty for Germans -- it's a situation they have not experienced yet. The two major parties are currently assembling their platforms for a race that will be fought against the background of a shrinking economy. Never before have two candidates for the chancellorship entered the campaign under such grim economic conditions. The German economy has been in free fall for months. Many jobs have not been cut yet because employers have been able to resort to short-time work as a temporary fix. Nevertheless, unemployment is expected to grow steadily, heading for a figure of 4 million, as each month leading up the parliamentary election passes.

GERMAN POLL BAROMETER SPIEGEL ONLINE SPIEGEL ONLINE's Poll Barometer shows current German political trends based on the latest surveys. The economic research institutes that met last Monday to begin preparing for their spring forecasts are not optimistic. It seems inevitable that they will predict a 5 percent contraction in the German economy for this year. Experts at the International Monetary Fund paint a similarly gloomy picture. In the draft version of their World Economic Outlook to be released at the end of April, they also predict that German economic outlook will decline by 5 percent in 2009. This, the report concludes, will lead to drastically higher unemployment and a bigger government deficit.

Under these conditions, the burning question in the upcoming campaign will be whether one of the two major parties can convince voters that it is the right choice to lead Germany out of its doldrums. Another important question is how a campaign waged in the midst of a crisis will change German politics.

Could an economic populism emerge that may even exacerbate the effects of the downturn in Germany? Will the opponents burn through billions, creating a financial burden for generations to come? Or will they pin their hopes on German citizens electing a restrained manager who will not promise them everything under the sun?

"Leadership strength will be the key variable in this election campaign," says Richard Hilmer of polling and market research institute Infratest dimap.


Graphic: Waning economic competence

To put a dent in Merkel's reputation, the chancellor candidate and the SPD chairman have agreed to a distribution of roles. While Steinmeier plays the statesman, Müntefering will take every opportunity to question his rival's leadership qualities. "Ms. Merkel doesn't lead," Müntefering likes to say. "She won't even commit herself."

Officials at SPD headquarters are convinced that constant repetition of this characterization of Merkel as a weak chancellor -- like a slow-acting poison -- will in fact force her to take clearer positions early on in the campaign. But this is a dangerous strategy. The notion that "he who denigrates his opponent damages himself" has been a guiding principle in past campaigns, says Michael Spreng, who managed conservative former Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber's campaign for the chancellorship in 2002. But in times of crisis, says Spreng, voters do not reward mudslingers. "The negative campaigning of recent years is worthless," he says.

It is already apparent that the election campaign in a time of crisis will shift German politics to the left. When bankers and family-owned companies are receiving billions in taxpayer money to protect them from bankruptcy, it is hard to explain to voters why skilled laborers who have lost their jobs should have to make do with the Hartz IV program, which dramatically reduces jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. This sense of dissatisfaction already emerged during the Grand Coalition government's previous attempts to handle the crisis with economic stimulus programs, and the trend will only become stronger during the campaign.

The SPD, in particular, is marching steadfastly toward the left. The campaign it will unveil at Berlin's Tempodrom Arena on April 19 is intended to not only reflect the tastes of its own base, but also to capture the zeitgeist.


Volkswagon employees, like those at most other German carmakers, are worried about losing their jobs. And in an election year, German politicians are spending billions of taxpayer money in stimulus to ensure that they don't.

With the SPD, on the other hand, turbo-capitalism based on the Anglo-Saxon model could be fettered by a "state capable of taking action." Deputy Party Chairwoman Andrea Nahles of the SPD's leftist base sets the tone for the campaign when she says: "The present economic model carries the seed of failure. It isn't enough for Ms. Merkel to engage in a little bit of crisis management. We must make fundamental changes."

The Social Democrats hope that the crisis will act as a contrast agent, clearly highlighting the differences between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. In this vein, they are promising voters that they will eliminate tax havens and impose sharper regulations on the financial markets and tighter controls on executive compensation. They also promise to secure existing jobs and create new ones. This includes advocating for minimum wages, strengthening protections against wrongful dismissal, defending free collective bargaining and, if necessary, supporting government bailouts for ailing companies, like automaker Opel.

The SPD also advocates a top-down redistribution of wealth, including plans to increase taxes for higher income brackets. Another possibility is the introduction of a "millionaire tax" to replace the former wealth tax. In return, classic SPD voters in middle and lower income groups could expect to see their taxes lowered. Other expected campaign issues are equal pay for men and women, as well as education and environmental policy.

The Social Democrats are not losing any sleep over the notion that the government's role must be strengthened, at least temporarily, to combat the recession and the banking crisis. Many in the CDU/CSU, on the other hand, are convinced that laws nationalizing banks or capping executive pay are the precursors to socialism. This is another reason why Merkel and her party are doing their best to avoid laying out their agenda.

NEWSLETTER Sign up for Spiegel Online's daily newsletter and get the best of Der Spiegel's and Spiegel Online's international coverage in your In- Box everyday. CDU party boss Ronald Pofalla is refining a document that will be most strongly characterized by its absence of commitment. It would be best for the CDU/CSU to dispense with a campaign platform this time around, says one of Merkel's advisors. "But we have to be able to hand people some sort of literature at our campaign booths."

The chancellor believes that any clear statements of position would lead to discord, which explains why she has decided to delay unveiling her campaign platform for as long as possible. "Let's hope we get it done by election day," says one CDU/CSU politician facetiously. According to the current plan, the leaders of the CDU and CSU will approve the platform on June 29.

The conservatives are betting that by showing their cards late in the game, they will narrow the window of opportunity for attacks. Besides, within the Union, opinions diverge widely between the CDU and CSU on almost all key issues. If Merkel opposes tax cuts, the CSU will cry foul. And if she advocates cuts, she will face criticism from CDU/CSU state governors, who wield tremendous power within the political bloc.


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