Far-right parties such as Ronald Schill’s 'Law and Order' are gaining votes in Germany. In the run-up to parliamentary elections, the political landscape is increasingly polarised.
Fighting for swing votes: "Judge Merciless" alias Ronald Schill (RPO) vs Mr. Gregor-"Take-it-Gysi" (PDS)
Last October, after Germany’s Social Democratic Party won the most votes in the Berlin election it agreed to form a coalition with the Party of Democratic Socialism.
Their names and initials may be almost identical, but despite belonging to the political left, the gap between the two parties could not be greater.
As the PDS – renamed, but by no means entirely transformed successor to the former East German communist party - appears to be gaining ground in the distribution of political power on state level, a debate has sparked on the current increase in popularity of both left – and right-wing parties.
Parallel to the PDS’ new role as member in Berlin’s governing coalition, the populist Hamburg-based party for Law-and-Order Offensive, PRO, formed a coalition with the Free Democrats and the Christian Democratic Union after harvesting more than 20 per cent of the votes in the Hamburg elections in September 2001.
More in common than meets the eye
Both parties have proved an attraction to swing voters in the various states, and to those unhappy with the government’s failure to reduce unemployment.
And both parties have rather striking, but at the same time controversial leaders. The PDS’ top candidate in the Berlin elections, now Berlin’s economy minister, Gregor Gysi, is a sharp-witted lawyer who a committee of the German parliament once concluded had been an informer for the East German secret police.
Gysi, and most of the PDS leadership, may have adopted a new, non-communist approach, but a large part of the party remains stubbornly nostalgic.
Ronald Schill, who set up his Law and Order Party in 2000 and is now interior minister in Hamburg’s city government, is a former judge who came from nowhere and has now come under fire for devoting too much time to Hamburg’s trendy night clubs than to the city’s acute problems.
Dubbed "Judge Merciless", Schill once put a mentally disturbed woman in jail for scratching cars. Schill is regarded as a right-wing populist, with no obvious policies other than fighting crime but who managed to snatch a large chunk of the votes in last year’s Hamburg elections.
And the RPO's success has had its effect on the conservatives too. As fears arose that Schill could dent conservative hopes of ousting Chancellor Schröder in September, the union chose Bavarian hardliner Edmund Stoiber as their candidate, not least because Schill promised to run if CDU leader Angela Merkel was chosen.
So far Stoiber has rejected talk of the RPO as a possible coalition partner. But the RPO could prove useful if it came to dead heat in the coming elections.
Same on both sides
Since the PDS’ sudden rise to power in Berlin, rumors that the party could join a coalition with Schröder's SPD and the Green Party on a national level have already begun circulating.
Last week, Kerstin Müller, parliamentary co-leader of the Alliance 90/the Greens, said she could foresee the PDS sharing power with the ruling coalition.
The rumors have unnerved both SPD and Green party leadership, who don't want the specter of PDS partnership casting a shadow over their re-election hopes.
Schröder has ruled out a national coalition with the PDS, and the Greens have dismissed Müller’s statement. But conservative chancellor Edmund Stoiber pounced on the remark saying that a renewed debate over a possible coalition role for the PDS should be seen as an "alarm signal" for Germany.
The Berlin election clearly reflected the PDS’ rising popularity in the east, a development which is closely tied to rising unemployment and the current economic downturn in the former GDR.
The depressed former east, with many swing voters, could also provide rich pickings for populist Ronald Schill.
In the last state election in Saxony Anhalt in 1998, the far-right German people’s union, DVU scored 12.9 per cent. The DVU has now announced it will not run candidates in the 2002 April election. But it is now feared that Schill’s Law and Order Party could take its place.
And both the PDS and the RPO benefit from from their main rivals' political performance - a stagnating economy, burgeoning budget deficit, and series of cabinet blunders.
"The focus has shifted from foreign policy and Afghanistan and back towards domestic policies and that is hurting the mood. All these problems in various ministries are not helping," said Richard Hilmer, director of the Infratest polling institute.
And according to the political scientists Joachim Raschke and Ralf Tils, Schill has benefited from the shaky state of the CDU which is still recovering from a slush fund scandal in 1998.
"The right flank of the CDU has never been more open," they said.
A flank which Stoiber is trying to cover.
Stoiber is no economic liberal. The Bavarian hardliner, dubbed "pitbull" by the Guardian, Stoiber opposes Mr Schröder's proposals to ease immigration and is no fan of scrapping Germany's restrictive laws on shop-opening hours.
"Stoiber stands for a move to the right in the CDU. His comments on the topic of immigration are irresponsible," Hesse's Social Democrat leader Gerhard Boekel said.
And author Günter Grass compared Stoiber to Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider on Monday, saying Stoiber bore some responsibility for rising far-right sentiment in German.
Beyond party boundaries
As the elections near, the outlook is not rosy. Recent opinion polls have indicated the Law and Order Party will win a possible 10 per cent of the vote in the federal elections.
Both left and right can smell danger from both far-right and far-left. In the run-up to the election, Germany’s party landscape is slowly shifting, as the two big political camps attempt to win the votes of those beyond their party boundaries.