TV pundits love it when a political candidate gives opposing answers to the same question. Voters don't. In Germany, an old-fashioned political tool forces political parties to define their goals in crystal clear terms.
On a street in Berlin-Mitte, a campaign sign hangs crookedly on a streetlamp. Next to the smiling face of a politician is a slogan that reads, "Father, Father, Child."
The office of Renate Rampf is just a few steps away. The leader of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany (LSVD) retrieves a list full of red and green smiley faces. They represent the position and legislative priorities of various political parties in Germany with regard to the rights of gays, lesbians and transgenders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party receives a frown when it comes to same-sex couples adopting children, while the Social Democratic Party (SPD) receives a smiley for its support of equality for "rainbow families."
The smiley faces are based on answers given by political parties to a questionnaire sent by the LSVD. Such catalogues of questions are called "touchstones," and they're received by press offices in the months and weeks before federal and state elections. The SPD has answered 713 of them thus far, a spokesperson said; each one must be answered before federal elections on September 22.
Election touchstones are created by diverse groups and organizations, from the German Society of Pre- and Early History to vegetarian groups, in order to give orientation to members during elections and to demand that past promises be kept by politicians.
A 'personal judgment'
A sense of direction, and one that is definitely "more interesting and entertaining than election manifestos," is what Wenzel Michalski at Human Rights Watch promises. His human rights organization created a touchstone questionnaire for the first time this year. The questions focused primarily on German foreign policy, anything from human rights violations in China and Russia to EU asylum policy. They're topics that Human Rights Watch has dealt with extensively in recent months but which haven't really played a role in the current election campaign. Human rights violations abroad have a direct effect on Germany, Michalski said, in times that see waves of refugees from countries "in which human rights… are trampled upon."
Under no circumstances would the director of the German chapter of Human Rights Watch give a specific electoral recommendation. Instead, he told DW, every voter should read the answers and form a personal judgment.
That said, he will attest to the fact that some parties have some "serious catching up" to do. Amongst the answers, there are often a few which are shockingly ill-prepared. At times it's clear, he said, that due to ties between former party leaders and large businesses in other countries, "one party or another" is "simply muzzled" and cannot speak out on human rights issues in certain countries. "In every party there are influential members who do lobby work for the Putin regime," he said.
Within a party, whoever is responsible for answering the questionnaire plays a substantial role, Renate Rampf of LSVD told DW. "Sometimes the words are weaker than what's in the program," she said.
The SPD, for example, has done more with regard to intersexuality than what the smiley faces might suggest. Positive surprises come often. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU), signaled they would campaign for the rights of homosexuals and transsexuals at the UN and throughout the world.
Rampf smiles. It's the CDU/CSU union, she's noticed, known for its moderate opposition to gay marriage, which has tried to formulate its answers as positively as possible. According to Rampf, elections are also advertisements.
Still, touchstone questionnaires are a meaningful political tool. Answering them requires work, forcing parties to look carefully at their political programs and comb through individual topics. As a result, answers are often delegated downward, landing in the hands of activists within the party.
"Sometimes, progressive powers within the parties try to use an answer from a touchstone question to nail their party down to something the party might not have even been ready for yet," Rampf said.
The LSVD has been publishing the results of its touchstone questionnaires for the past several years. It has heard on more than one occasion that disputes within political parties resulted from specific touchstone answers.
And while touchstones might be an old-fashioned instrument, they shouldn't be underestimated, Rampf says. Just recently, she advised activists in Nicaragua on how to use them. They can also play a positive roll in other countries - even where the survey wouldn't result in a smiley face, such as Russia or Uganda, where homosexuals are persecuted.
"One should never underestimate the role that communication plays," she said.