This election season’s been kicked off with a lot more style than substance, but tough economic issues will demand real discipline and focus from the parties.
Symbols of political capital
The numbers say it all.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy is home to nearly 4 million unemployed workers, and that figure’s been rising. Some 2.68 million welfare recipients received $19 billion in aid last year, and that’s due to rise, too. Yet the state is nearing a crucial spending limit, the Eurozone’s 3 percent deficit mark, dangerously close at 2.6 percent in 2001.
The simplest solution is higher taxes, but that could hurt the economy when it’s down. And many Germans, including the middle class and those who have fallen below it, already feel overtaxed. Workers earning more than 325 euros a month must pay into the federal republic’s state health and pension programmes – an exceptionally low threshold for taxation.
Those programmes, once a key to the country’s wealth, risk becoming a drag, as the country’s demographics change. As couples have fewer children, the population ages and burdens on the state purse, especially for health care and pensions, increase.
Germany remains a prosperous country, but it is in a real budget pinch, and with the economy dominating this year’s election season, political parties will be hard pressed to offer plans for comprehensive reform.
But don’t ask for them yet. Leading candidates have emerged for parliamentary elections scheduled for September – Chancellor Gerhard Schröder leading the Social Democrats, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer for the Greens, and Edmund Stoiber, conservative pick for the coalition of Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union.
Telegenic individuals at their parties’ helms – a phenomenon unfamiliar to German voters until the previous election, billed as a man-to-man match-up between Schröder and Helmut Kohl – will top the ballots this year, again.
This time it's Schröder versus Edmund Stoiber, the conservative Bavarian premier.
They were confirmed as top candidates weeks ago, long before the parties release campaign manifestos detailing their stances, issue by issue.
This new stress on individual personalities is one sign that Germany is becoming a "television democracy" – a political theatre in which the audience participates, first as media consumers and then as voters. Critical German political observers warn that American-style campaigning is transforming this democracies, as they say it has done in Britain.
But can this sort of campaign address issues substantively and intelligently? That’s up to voters as much as it is to the parties who court their minds.
Either way, the budget pinch won’t just magically disappear. If Germany’s leaders don’t attend to it, voter frustration is likely to increase, and the European Union is poised to cause a fuss.
In the end, it comes down to the numbers.