There is a Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.” And by God we Germans are. We get to decide who benefits from our prosperity and who simply gets a mini-job or a television to keep them occupied. We get to reclaim our privacy rights and understand the Neuland that is the Internet. We get to set up windmills and thousands of kilometres of energy grids to ensure our independence or to save polar bears from drowning. We can afford to empathise with the Greek shop-owner and make up for our harsh and misguided austerity policies.
Despite all of this, the German election campaign has been vague and terminally, terminally boring. This is no accident. Rather, it’s the tactical brilliance of Angela Merkel, who will win this election by default provided she ensures that visions and policy issues have no place in this campaign.
In her eight years as Chancellor, Ms. Merkel has created a political culture that leaves no room for criticism or political debate. She does this by presenting all major decisions as being involuntary acts of necessity. Whether she is creating Europe’s largest renewable energy market or signing guarantees on Greek debt, Ms. Merkel has depicted herself as a curator, not an agent.
Caught up in Merkel’s Game
If it weren’t for Fukushima, we would still have nuclear energy. If it weren’t for the mistakes of the SPD, Greece would not be in the Eurozone, and she wouldn’t have to impose austerity on its people. Since she governs without personality or conviction, her choices are characterised as necessities and her mistakes are easily rebranded as systemic problems rather than failures of judgement. In summary, she is an anti-visionary and, in this respect, an anti-leader. Her electoral campaign leaves no room for policy choices about Germany’s future. If you accept her terms, there is no room for meaningful opposition either… and it is almost impossible for the leader of the opposition to portray himself as the “anti-Merkel”.
This doesn’t, of course, remove all blame from her opponent Peer Steinbrück. Nothing stood in the way of him swamping this campaign with personality, vision and a grand political alternative to the current state of affairs except his lack of personality, vision and a grand political alternative. Any great opposition leader with political convictions of his own, strategists and a desire to win might have caught up with Merkel’s game. But only a brave opposition can profit in such circumstances: the seats for the party that rises from the grave merely to scratch at the surface of the issues have already been reserved for Merkel’s liberal coalition partner, the FDP.
The real tragedy of this campaign is that it de-politicises the German people and robs the electorate of their democratic agency. Voters are not being given the opportunity to participate in a process that could bring about change and have been given no material by which to pass value judgements. Of course, as a voter, you have the right not to hold an opinion on political issues that do not concern you directly.
But this negative democratic freedom is one afforded to voters, not their leaders! The function of an election is the crystallization of issues – no matter how complex they may appear – into the policies and principles that underlie them, allowing voters to make value judgments on competing visions, and so to decide on their future.
No Vision, No Future
Whilst the next Chancellor, or let’s be honest, Ms. Merkel, inherits the good fortune of economic growth, making domestic affairs and social policies easier to deal with, the greatest and historic challenge lies in addressing the question of Europe. Germany’s approach is still grossly insufficient. Perhaps Ms Merkel would not have let the entire southern periphery into the Eurozone. Perhaps she would have never signed the Maastricht Treaty either or turned the EEC into the EU. Who knows? But it does not follow that she has no agency in any of the decisions she has made since then or that her actions have no political consequences. Equally feeble is the opposition leader’s grand counter-narrative: “Eurobonds! Eurobonds!” Whatever that means.
German voters are not being provided with enough information, or any vision of what the future might look like. This applies to every aspect of this election. Leaders that are willing to govern without the involvement of their people, leaders that have no time for debates or new ideas, have failed their electorate.