Special Reports / The most important elections in Europe

Pre-election Crosstalk

Małgorzata Ławrowska · 17 September 2013
To what extent does this year’s campaign tell us something about our neighbor’s political class and society?

The home stretch of the pre-election season began with a TV debate between the incumbent chancellor, AngelaMerkel,and her social democratic rival,PeerSteinbrück. The duel broadcast live during Sunday’s prime time by four German TV stations was to present the opposition Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)with an opportunity to rise in opinion polls.Both the moderation manner and the choice of journalists conducting the debate suggested an intension to allude to a lively and aggressive American style. But the politicians turned out to be impervious and the debate was „as usual”:serious and competent, devoid of charisma and panache. Such controversial subjects as the NSA scandal or intervention in Syria were given minimal time.

That is why, perhaps, an unquestionable winner that evening was … the necklace in the national colors of Germanywhich, owing to the cameras, decorously presented itself on the Chancellor’s neck for 90 minutes. There was an immediate response on Twitter with the number of comments in excess of several thousands. People wondered if Madam Chancellor was perhaps representing a covert Belgian element as that country’s national colors are the same.

TV debates are a short-established tradition in Germany.They are nowhere near the great American media events such as the acclaimed 1960 confrontation between the giants, Vice-President Richard Nixon and Senator JohnF. Kennedy. The TV Merkel-Steinbrückduel was the fourth one in the history of German democracy. In 2002 Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria’s prime minister, was the first to “throw down the gauntlet„in front of TV cameras to the incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. In the following campaigns the voters’ emotions ran high during the Schröder-Merkel and Merkel–Steinmeier debates. That is why Madam Chancellor may be viewed as the veteran of that media format.

It was a prevalent opinion that the debate did not give any of the partiesan unequivocal advantage and that its atmosphere was lukewarm. The PolitBarometerbroadcast by ZDF a few days after the last debate confirmed that voters’ preferences were not affected by that event. The CDU continued to enjoy a support of 41 percent and the SDP remained with its 26 percent.

Once in a blue moon and everyday politics

The commentators agreed about one thing: the debate may have not produced benefits to any of the parties, but it was undoubtedly favor done to democracy and civil society. The broadcast was watched by nearly 18 million viewers and made the Internet usershighly active. The German media, public institutions and nongovernmental organizations use the final weeks preceding an election to mobilize those who are still undecided or are to vote for the first time. It follows from a recent opinion poll that on September 22 the constitutional right may not be exercised by nearly one third of German citizens who have the right to vote. The nonpublic media, SAT 1 and PRO7, have launched a social campaign under a motto: „Gehwählen!”(Go to vote!).Public TV has been broadcasting series of feature programs andquizzes about democracy which owing to their attractive and intelligent form should be appealing to a young viewer. This year’s billboard campaigns are exceptionally restrained. It is likely that party spin doctors noticed that the society, which has been attacked by contradictory and aggressive messages during the Euro zone crisis, is tired.And hence, perhaps –contrary toall expectations –its marginalinterest in the Alternativefür Deutschland. In this campaign –as it is evident –the subject of Euro will not call for radical choices.

The parliament remains an everyday platform of political bickering. It was best evidenced on September 3 by a stormy debate, or rather a genuine verbal battle,in the Bundestag at the time of the last parliamentary session before the election. Chancellor Merkel had to stand up toan accusation that she had underachieved in running the country. It was a day when the opposition squared the accounts with the government and engaged in a heated debate with a view to mobilizing its own electorate. The temperature of that debate may only rise before the election.

Safe dispute limits

Apart from the typical political institutions – both the traditional and modern ones –the sphere of culture is an important area of the exchange of views and disputein Germany. Suffice it to mention the acclaimed documentain Kassel or the Berlin Biennial. The one in 2012, where ArturŻmijewski was a curator, awoke the German public’s thirst for everything that is controversial, political and committed, along with a parallel need to go deeper into the subject matter instead of sliding across the surface, thus slipping into clichés. Berlinale, the International Film Festival, is famous for its affection for committed films. It is there that small productions stand the highest chance of being noticed and appreciated. If not by the jurors then by the demanding public. It should be noted that in Germany culture is not for elites and it has not been commercialized the way it happened in many EU countries.Cultural institutions operate not only in major urban centers but also in small towns.

Naturally, the contact only with art or literature, whose „commitment is exposed” (to quote from JacekDehnel),would be hard to bear, but it creates a natural space for many views, for their resounding and rationalization. Therefore there are forms of behavior, tools of an open and safe interaction with people.

It was Josef Beuys whocreated election posters for the „Green”in 1980. In this year’s campaign the esthetic standards seem to be „slightly” lower. For their advertising spots both the NPD (the National Democratic Party of Germany) and the FDP (Free Democratic Party)purchased on the Internetthe same concept which had earlier been successfully used in the Finnish commercial of yoghurt…

The German institutions are valuable not only because they exist, but also because they are flexible and capable of self verification. Would the society that has been presented with such an offer by the state be willing to overturn them? I do not think so. Which by no means deprives it of its right to greater emancipation. The right to demand from the political class to forsake worn-out formulae, to publicize its recipes for the future in an attractive and also convincing way. A publicist said that today’s German voters are as unpredictable as the April weather. The reality we live in is the same. It is more difficult to be infallible and it is dangerous to voice irrefutable truths. Politicians are aware of that permanent variable and changeability, so as the voters. So what are we left with? It is again time to pass the maturity exam.


* Original text in Polish. Translated by EUROTRAD Wojciech Gilewski.