Last week, I moved to Berlin, Germany for a two-year postdoctoral fellowship. This is my first post from overseas. On the bus from the airport, I was already noticing the abundant political signs posted along streets all over the city of Berlin. That's because a big national election is coming up here in Germany. And, believe it or not, Election Day is on the WEEKEND! What a strange concept...I have to admit, it certainly makes it easier for working people to vote--I can't imagine the Republicans would ever allow that in the USA. So next Sunday, September 18th, Germans will be heading to the polls in a closely contested election.
When I first arrived, the out-of-power (and more conservative) CDU was in the lead, but now the race seems to be tightening, as the incumbent SDP, led by Gerhard Schroeder, catches up. Last time, rumor has it, Schroeder squeaked back into office despite high unemployment by riding the wave of discontent with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now things aren't too much better (or worse) economically, so the end result is hard to predict.
One interesting development is the emergence last summer of a new party called the Links ("Left") party, which consists of a combination of former SDP members upset with social reforms and the remnants of the former East German communist party. Led by populist firebrand Oskar Lafontaine, the Links-Partei draws lots of voters in the former East Germany, especially those who want to maintain social spending for unemployed people, as I understand it. They are also not afraid to call more aggressively for preserving German jobs for Germans, which makes lots of better off people nervous, both for good (anti-ethnocentric) and bad (working-class mass movement threat) reasons. In the East, they seem to be drawing at least as much from the CDU as the SDP, interestingly enough. Just like in the USA and elsewhere, disaffected workers seem to draw from either the left or right, not from the center, thus once again compounding the conventional political spectrum believed in by elites.
If the CDU wins, as was predicted confidently until the last week or so, it will mark a major event in German political history. The CDU leader, Angela Merkel, would be the first female head of state. (She's also from the former East Germany...) To make it even more interesting, the CDU would almost certainly have to govern in coalition with the Liberal (what we would call Libertarian) party, whose leader is an openly gay man. So a conservative victory would result in a female and gay co-leadership. Funny how things happen sometimes. (I can't imagine the Republicans in the USA ever tolerating a coalition with a party led by an openly gay man...so at least culturally, Germany is a quite different place!)
I haven't even mentioned the other sizeable party, even though it is the one I would probably vote for if I could. That's the Green Party, which has been in coalition with the SDP and stands to remain in the governing coalition if the SDP wins. I do have to admit some attraction for the Links party and its firebrand populism, but I would probably stick with the Greens if only for their less ethnocentric style. Plus, the Links and SDP hate each other and won't go into coalition, so they say.
My favorite possible outcome has been described to me by a German as the "traffic light" outcome (I forget the German word for it...everyone in Berlin speaks English so it's been hard to learn much of the local language!) That would be if the SDP (associated with the color Red) and Greens (Green, believe it or not!) don't have enough to govern, but can together with the Liberals (Yellow, who knows why?) Then Germany would have a triple Red-Yellow-Green coalition...yippee!!