The Nasty Side

So we did the wonk bit and the corporate finance tricks in this post, what about the dirty power politics?

One thing the leaked heads-of-terms doesn’t talk about at all is personal politics. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s getting which job? That’s all been left for the formal phase and probably to the final frenzy at that. It’s possible, though, to think through some of the issues ahead of time, especially as they’re strongly linked to the whole question of how to reconcile Green and FDP ambitions.

First up, the Greens will want a clear recognition of their status as the biggest of the other parties and one that was literally challenging for the status of Germany’s biggest party as recently as the spring. This is especially important as it still wasn’t that long ago that they weren’t considered a respectable entity. They will want to control the ministries that touch on their core issues. Control of the big investment programme will be a drop dead veto issue, not least because it looks like most of the discretionary spending available will be in it. It’s quite possible they might want to create a super-ministry for it, maybe linking environment and transport or even economic affairs. Being the second coalition partner usually comes with the title of Vice-Chancellor, not a powerful office in itself but a nice ego trip, although if the superministry was on offer it’s possible the Greens might trade it away.

Secondly, the FDP have been saying for ages they want the Finance Ministry as a drop dead veto issue. The policy consequences might be fixable with enough delicious fudge, but the problem is that giving it up is a big concession from the SPD at a time when they are the party in possession and surely feel they should be getting some reward for winning, and one that implies a similar concession to the Greens, who after all are bigger and more popular than the FDP. Handing over both Finance and the government’s biggest policy priority to coalition partners leaves the SPD element of the government looking a bit thin, reduced to its Mastermind specialist subject in social policy, the Foreign Ministry, and, oddly, the security portfolios like Interior, Justice, and Defence. The latter, notoriously, is a ministry nobody in German politics actually wants and Interior, like interior ministries everywhere, is one where it’s difficult to do anything popular and easy to be destroyed by events.

The real complexity here, though, comes from the Greens’ dual leadership structure and the slowly increasing animosity between Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. Usually, a coalition partner’s leader gets whatever top job is going, but if it’s the Greens there are two of them to look after. If Habeck got Environment++, Baerbock would have to get something similarly grand, implying that the SPD has to give up Foreign Affairs.

A twist on this is that since the election, Habeck has lost absolutely no time in asserting that it’s a co-leadership, dammit, and that the special role of candidate doesn’t have any further relevance now the elections are over and the Greens certainly aren’t going to get the Chancellor’s job. Seeing as he voluntarily gave up the candidacy when the party was doing better in the polls than the SPD did on election day, and Baerbock’s campaign turned into something of a Bärendienst*, you can see why. You can also see why that wouldn’t go down so well in roughly half the Green party. Very quickly after the election, Habeck got it leaked that he would get the Vice-Chancellor’s hat, before rowing back a bit, but it surely hasn’t helped that Baerbock lost the head-to-head in her direct constituency too. The quotes are vicious and the photo even more so.

A further twist is that, of course, the guy in this poster, even though it’s a spoof, doesn’t look like he’s immune to the glamour of international diplomacy and access to a squadron of VIP jets:

It’s also true that the FDP has something of a history of distinguished foreign ministers – Walter Scheel during the Willy Brandt years, even if Egon Bahr did most of the work, and the great Hans-Dietrich Genscher at the end of the Cold War – and it would probably help with a whole lot of coalition-making problems, at least from an SPD point of view. On the other hand it’s been a while since a German foreign minister has managed to “Profil machen” (name the incumbent – quick!) and the FDP’s clientele, although it does care about the EU and NATO, really loves tax allowances so Lindner would be well advised to cling to the Finance Ministry. Which, of course, implies digging into the bag for some more of that fudge.

An important detail here, of course, is that the Greens and the FDP were the first into the so-called soundings, the informal phase of talks. Seeing as both parties have a veto on either the traffic-light or Jamaican options, it was logical that they should come to an agreement between themselves before going any further. If you were looking for either the fudge, or the deal on personal politics, that would be where to look, and unlike the twelve-point plan, that was very much not leaked.

*I did not know this common phrase for screwing something up out of an excess of zeal is a reference to the fables of La Fontaine

When The Red Light Turns Green

The so-called soundings between the SPD, Greens, and FDP have been a success and the three parties are ready to start formal coalition talks, subject to a Green elected officials’ conference today and an FDP executive committee meeting tomorrow. They will kick off from a heads-of-agreement paper that Der Tagesspiegel published here.

The content of this twelve-point plan is not particularly surprising especially in the light of this Handelsblatt op-ed, published the day after the election, by economist Jens Sudekum. Sudekum argued first of all that a traffic light coalition was unavoidable because neither the Greens or the SPD nor really anyone else would agree to a government led by Armin Laschet or Friedrich Merz, and given that, the only remaining option with a majority was the traffic light.

The major barrier to it, something everyone has been talking about for months, is the FDP’s insistence on keeping the kinda-sorta balanced budget amendment and no new taxes, and having the finance ministry to make sure they get it. This is both difficult for the SPD’s social policy goals, and maybe even more difficult for the Greens, whose very purpose requires far-reaching changes that must be expressed in terms of infrastructure. The wider, global shift of emphasis in climate policy from cap-and-trade or tax-and-rebate options to infrastructure-based change makes this conflict even more jarring. Further, sheer personal power is at stake – implementing the Greens’ vision would require a powerful ministry with a large discretionary budget to push the projects through, and giving that to the Greens implies that the FDP must get something comparable.

Sudekum pointed out that there was a potential fix. The FDP likes the idea of the pension system investing in assets, like a sovereign wealth fund. This implies capitalizing the fund up-front, and hence the government borrowing money. The party squares the circle by excluding this from the deficit target on the grounds that the state is acquiring an equivalent amount of assets, ones that could be expected to grow, and therefore its net indebtedness hasn’t increased. As sauce for the goose could be sauce for the gander, perhaps the capital programme could be treated the same way? Further, although the FDP had been promising tax cuts all round for businesses, they had also shown willingness to accept more generous capital allowances instead of basic rate cuts.

Yesterday’s document looks a lot like the fix is in. The fund is in there, as are the capital allowances. So is the return to budget balance, although pushed off another year into the future under the emergency pandemic exemption. The Green, or green, investment programme is there, as is a big slug of public housing investment, the €12/hour minimum wage, and sweeping changes to the welfare state. As everyone has already noticed, this pretty much requires a lot of fudge in the financing, with things like new income under the global minimum tax regime, unspecified involvement of private investors, cuts to subsidies, and a crackdown on fraud and error (now there’s an old classic), as well as the expected post-pandemic revival of growth all chipping in.

This piece points out that the document promises to guarantee the necessary investments in climate policy, digital, education, research, and infrastructure, within the framework of the balanced budget amendment, and that this would cover anything from an investment carve-out, providing the lawyers could come up with a form of words to deal with the predictable appeal to Karlsruhe, or just using the whole of the emergency authorisation for 2022-2023 to pre-fund the programme, something which in itself could go as high as €100bn.

Robert Habeck, interestingly, gave an interview in which he said that the talks were more advanced on the financing issue in private than the heads-of-agreement reflected, perhaps a signal that he has a surprise up his sleeve. Perhaps the proposed sovereign wealth fund could even invest in the projects itself?

Germany: The Results in Data

So the results are in. The Base didn’t get 30 per cent and the Independent Voters didn’t get 20 per cent, and the Economist‘s prediction that the CDU would win because it always wins didn’t work out so well either. The SPD’s lead over the CDU did tighten a couple of points over the margin of error in the final week of the campaign, but not enough to flip the result or to keep the CDU/CSU from getting the worst beating in its history. Here’s a map of the winners on the party-list, proportional section of the vote, from Der Tagesspiegel‘s interactive.

The salient point here is that the usual split along the former intra-German border is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the much older north-south divide has reasserted itself, with an SPD hegemony across what used to be Prussia, a contested zone in the Rheinland (a territory that joined Prussia very late and remained in a special status), a Christian Democratic power base in Baden-Württemberg and a Christian-Social one in Bavaria, while the far-right has become a Saxon regional party, although unlike the CSU, one that hasn’t been able to win the regional elections that would actually give it power.

Although the map breaks along lines with a lot of historical depth, going back as far as the Thirty Years’ War, it’s important to remember that it also strongly resembles the electoral maps of 1998 or 2002, when the SPD broke through in the former DDR and were therefore able to form a government. The CDU seemed hegemonic in the east in the 90s and again in the Merkel years, but there was nothing god-given about this – it might be more accurate to say that the former DDR has been the swing voting bloc in Germany since reunification. This excellent piece points out that 76 per cent of the SPD’s lead in the national popular vote is accounted for by winning big in the East. It was, after all, a Superwahltag because there were regionals in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the same day, and the SPD did reasonably well in the first and absolutely triumphed with nearly 40 per cent in the second.

The obvious point here is that the CDU’s results in the east were boosted by Angela Merkel’s personal popularity and status as the first easterner in politics even more than anywhere else, and with that gone, all the cards were up in the air. The SPD’s focus on bread-and-butter social policy was a good call – the minimum wage hike, for example, would personally benefit 40 per cent of workers in the former DDR. The CDU doesn’t seem to have noticed any threat at all.

In a great twitter thread here, Dominik Haitz breaks down the correlates of the vote. Not remotely surprisingly, the rich voted for the FDP, the poor for the SPD, the young for the Greens, and the suburbs for the CDU. The extreme right’s popularity was strongly predicted by age, although interestingly, there’s a very different relationship between the percentage of old people and the AfD vote – strong, and linear – than between the percentage of young people and the AfD vote, which splits into two clusters. Ageing and emigration seem to have very different effects.

The Left party, meanwhile, does well either in post-industrial constituencies with high unemployment or else in Berlin kieze where everyone has a cargo bike but there are enough retired apparatchiks to keep the Greens from winning.

Age was an interesting split. There wasn’t a “boomers vs millennials” clean break, instead, different age groups agreed the CDU/CSU should go but chose different opposition options, with the Greens and the FDP both doing much better with the young and the SPD better with the old:

My bet is that the 18-34 market isn’t very interested in the politics of care – their parents are still working, they’re young, they don’t have kids yet – and that’s the SPD’s Mastermind specialist subject. Looking at the data with more granularity, though, it turns out to be more accurate to say that the SPD did well with the old and acceptably with the young, while the Greens and the FDP did sensationally with the young and poorly with the old.

As well as the young, the Greens won the cities, nicely shown by this Tagesspiegel graphic from the Berlin city elections:

Rather than an East-West divide, Berlin now has a divide running around the S-Bahn ring route with the SPD and CDU competing outside it and the Greens dominating within. (The referendum on whether or not to nationalise Deutsche Wohnen AG followed a similar pattern, with a two-thirds majority inside the ring and a narrow majority outside it.)

In terms of social class, it’s probably most telling that the SPD was No.1 among industrial workers (“Arbeiter”) and also among private-sector, white collar employees (“Angestellte”), and maybe also interesting that the Greens did best among civil servants (“Beamte”):

(From here)

Sans Merkel, the CDU/CSU lead among women evaporated.

Wählerwanderung data from the exit poll shows the magnitude of the CDU/CSU catastrophe very clearly. They lost voters, in size, in almost every direction except for a few, baffling, pickups from the extremes:

Also, a million of their voters from last time have simply died without being replaced.

The SPD gained from everyone, including 1.3m over the middle from the CDU, 590k from the Left, and 320k from increased turnout, but lost 320k back to the Greens.

The Greens net-gained from everyone:

The other winner of the day, the FDP, picked up votes from the right and lost them to the left:

This one is probably significant as the FDP now has to make a deal with the Greens before it can talk to anyone else, and you know, it picked up 400k votes from the Right and another 100k from the Left party. Hipsters who landed in a higher tax bracket or taxphobic old Prussians from the east? Meanwhile, the Left party got absolutely spanked in every direction and the far right lost to everyone but did pick up 110k round the horseshoe from the Left, something its left-twitter fanbase outside Germany should probably have a think about.

Finally, 55 per cent of Germans wanted the SPD to lead the coalition, compared to 36 per cent for the CDU.

There’s been a lot of comment about Germans wanting change but not voting for it, but the simplest explanation might be that their definition of change included changing which party would lead the government.

German Elections: Roundup

Clearing out the link trap.

If the CDU’s results are anything like the polls, its leadership is going to be cleared out willy nilly, with numerous top politicians losing their coveted direct mandate parliamentary seats. The classic pol’s solution to this problem is to have your party put you near the top of the proportional list section of the ballot – if you don’t win your direct mandate you’ll probably get in as a list candidate, and although direct mandates trump, if you do win one of your party colleagues will just “nachrücken” and move up the list one spot. However, Armin Laschet’s personal numbers are so dreadful even being the no.1 on the CDU list might not save him.

Wolfgang Schäuble probably won’t need that – his lead in his own patch is over thirty percentage points – but he might not last as speaker of the Bundestag, seeing as the CDU isn’t going to be a majority, the CSU is deeply bitter at him about Laschet’s nomination, and people are angry he hasn’t condemned Hans-George Maaßen enough. Maaßen himself looks likely to be a problem that solves itself, by losing.

The FDP is trying very hard to condemn things while also not actually ruling out any coalition option, even one with Laschet as chancellor and the CDU isn’t the biggest party. With the Left party on 6%, though, the FDP’s chances of being in the coalition are strong pretty much whatever they say.

The distinction between the direct and list candidates always leads to interesting shenanigans. If a party overperforms, not only does it need extra list candidates to get its proportional whack, it also needs to fill the slots that went to direct candidates. This guy is 60th on a SPD regional list but is now unexpectedly faced with power. There will be quite a few like him; the workings of the electoral system mean that the size of the Bundestag varies with the relationship between direct and list candidates, and this year promises to take it well over the current 709 MPs, already a record.

The Greens had a party conference with a week to go and it was awkward, as Robert Habeck could only just restrain himself from saying he should have been the candidate. Fortunately the coalition-making process will probably put off the night of the long cargo bikes reckoning for quite a while.

Here’s a look round the odds and sods. 47 parties are taking part this year, down to the Gardeners’ Party, the Party for a Humane World, and The Base. This is mostly important because the more votes that go to parties that fail to get the necessary 5% or two direct seats, the fewer you need to be a majority in the Bundestag. The biggest and really the only one likely to come close is the Independent Voters. This will be most familiar to AFOE readers as the CSU’s Mini-Me coalition partner in Bavaria, but it’s had a weird pandemic, morphing into an antivax protest group and winning state-level seats outside Bavaria for the first time. Polls put it at 2-4% nationally, but at least on the regional level, the CSU has found it necessary to call it out by name. The Base, meanwhile, is a frankly disturbing collection of virus quacks, Holocaust deniers, and a celebrity hatter practising as a lawyer under a false name, and I have questions as to why it chose a name that’s a literal translation of “Al-Qa’ida”, although its leader is almost certainly wrong in predicting it will get 20 per cent of the vote.

YouTube star Rezo issued his final pre-election rant, denouncing all parties as corrupt and encouraging viewers to vote – presumably for the gardeners or someone? He does seem to be the only actor in the election to mention the whole thing where ice-cream king August von Finck just paid for the whole opposition to doing anything about the Eurozone crisis, other than me.

Candidates are older, richer, and more likely to be men than Germans in general, which isn’t much of a surprise.

Geschlossenheit

So we blogged about the CDU’s successful blitz on the Greens, and Armin Laschet’s subsequent no good very bad campaign. We talked about Laschet’s team for the future, now with added Friedrich Merz, and what was becoming of the political constituency Angela Merkel put together. It’s probably time to deal with the Social Democrats and their sudden surge into the lead. After all, even if the 2017 Martin Schulz spike reversed very quickly and the Green rocket came back down like the proverbial stick, the SPD is holding a lead of between three and six points into the final week, so if anything’s going to reverse it better do it sharpish.

A lot of commentary about the SPD uses the concept of “PASOKification”, the idea that Western social democratic parties are all doomed due to their compromises with neoliberalism. You can see where they’re coming from – at least you could when they weren’t No.1 – but the concept is a huge stretch. To state the glaringly obvious, Germany’s experience across the Merkel era was not very much like Greece’s. The comparison is positively offensive. And the SPD was in government for quite a lot of it. The party’s membership has halved since 1990, but it’s worth noting that it lost almost as many members in opposition as it did in government, and the count has levelled off since 2015 around 400,000, a little more than the CDU. In terms of its share of vote, the thesis holds up a bit better – the first grand coalition, 2005-2009, hurt much more than anything else. This ignores the regional level entirely, though. Throughout this period the party has routinely led state governments and realized shares of the vote as high as 40%. They’re not back because they never went away.

The bigger problem with this argument is the decline of the CDU and indeed the CSU. Germany, the country of the small and medium-sized business, has developed a system of small and medium-sized parties. The CDU/CSU polled 40% as recently as 2015, came close to that during its pandemic bounce, but is now struggling to keep above the 20% mark while the Greens try to establish themselves over it. The CSU’s own special powerbase in Bavaria is again under serious threat.

This is the kind of party landscape you might expect in a country with a strongly federal, parliamentary, and proportional constitution reflecting strong particularist local traditions, and of course, those things are all true of Germany, being major features of the 1949 constitution (constitutions, thinking of the states) and really of its deeper history. Politics as it is practised, though, often doesn’t look much like that. Instead, in most German campaigns until now, there were two big parties of which it was expected one would win, quite possibly taking over 40 per cent of the vote, just like Conservatives and Labour or Democrats and Republicans. Coalitions were common, but they either took the form of a dominant party plus a small party, or else of a grand coalition of the big two. Campaigns focused on the party leaders as if they were electing a president, although only the relatively few voters in each party leader’s patch would actually have them on the ballot.

This phenomenon is common in parliamentary systems – the practicalities of mass communication and campaigning tend to make for a presidential style, and so does the brute fact that the point of the election is to choose who rules – but the contradiction is more marked given how far the founders of 1949 went to design anything but a presidential two-party system. A lot of this is related to the way political techniques like opinion polling, TV interviews, and public relations spin-doctoring were introduced from the West in the post-war years in parallel with the construction of the formal institutions. So one way of looking at the German political scene is that voter, and party, behaviour is converging with the way the constitution works. A top-three party share of 60% sounds a lot more like you’d expect in a country with Germany’s constitution than a top-two share of 80%.

A party that aims to poll over 40% must be a broad coalition in itself. At 20%, though, faction is an unaffordable luxury. This shift is likely to put a premium on internal unity, and to shift the coalition-making process from within the major parties to the post-election phase. Ironically, the need to turn out the party base in order to have a chance at the No.1 slot and hence to lead the post-election phase is likely to make the parties try harder to emphasize their distinctive identities and hence their differences, which is then likely to make the coalition phase harder or at least more dramatic. (I think this is what Adam Tooze is driving at here?)

The SPD’s strength here is that it has managed to be much more compact and united – geschlossen in German – behind Olaf Scholz than any of the other parties. Here’s a poll of preferences for chancellor by party identification:

Not only would a third of conservatives and half the Left take Scholz, more FDP voters would take him than their own candidate. Meanwhile, 84 per cent of SPD voters are sticking with their guy. And the secret is pretty simple, if not easy to implement. Although Scholz is literally Merkel’s finance minister, his response to losing an internal party election to the enragé left was to stick with the style (as someone quoted here says, Scholz may have the charm of a paperclip, but in Germany that can be a good thing) but load up the policy agenda.

Zukunftsteam: the future of the Merkel coalition

Under increasing pressure from his own party and his own terrible campaign, CDU candidate Armin Laschet decided to include more faces in his campaign and present a “team for the future”. Not surprisingly, the execution wasn’t great.

The mise en scéne left him standing alone on stage for long, awkward gaps between each one, the status of the team is completely unclear, and its composition included an odd combination of apparently promising second line politicians from the states and, ah, Friedrich Merz. This points to deeper, structural issues. For a start, if the idea was to show that the CDU has a deep bench of talent, what was 66-year old Merz who’s been a politician since Dad was a lad doing there? Is it just that his notoriously enormous ego won’t let him pass up publicity of any kind? If so, is it just that Laschet is too weak to say no to him?

If they’re meant to be a shadow cabinet, there are other problems. For a start, Laschet is only going to make it as part of a coalition, and probably a three-party coalition, so he can’t really promise individual jobs. And there are, of course, perfectly good CDU federal ministers currently in office. Promoting anyone for a specific job that’s already held by a CDU minister amounts to promising to fire the incumbent and disavow everything they did.

Here’s the rub. The biggest issue for the CDU at this election has been whether to own the Merkel legacy or distance the party from it. The choice of candidate revolved around whether to go with a wholehearted candidate of continuity (Norbert Röttgen, or perhaps the post-2017 version of Markus Söder) or a clean break (Merz). The party of compromise decided to compromise and that’s how we got here.

The problem, really, is that Merkel created a new political coalition, on which her success is founded.

This coalition runs diagonally, as the Germans say, across politics including a chunk of the SPD’s traditional voting bloc and mobilizing women, immigrants, and non-Catholics, groups with whom the CDU usually struggles. I wrote about this here, arguing among other things that the coalition’s organizing principle was that it set its own European or global outlook against nationalists or even local particularists. Diagonal coalitions in Germany go back to Bismarck, and the importance of particularism much earlier, but despite this transformation of the CDU electorate, there was no such transformation of the CDU as a party. The three candidates for the succession, all men, all Catholics, and all lawyers, all came from a 90km triangle in in the northern Rheinland.

Keeping this coalition together requires owning the Merkel legacy, which shouldn’t be that hard. Albert Funk writes that the team showed the CDU as Merkel left it – more liberal, more diverse, and more open to the world. The problem, though, is that the party is unwilling to fully own this even though it remains popular. To take the limiting case and the one Merkel initiative everyone asks you about, 62% of Germans think the country will cope just fine with another wave of refugees:

Statistik: Wenn wieder deutlich mehr Flüchtlinge kommen: Kann Deutschland das verkraften? (Anteil der Zustimmenden; nach Parteipräferenz) | Statista
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And if you’re in the Merkel coalition, there’s an obvious choice. The SPD was often criticised for being too close to the coalition, but with Merkel gone and the CDU unclear about whether it really believes in what it’s been doing since 2005, that logic now cuts both ways. The coalition exists, and you can run towards it!

Sommerloch ade: what happened in Germany since our last episode

We left the German election campaign with the Greens in the lead under Annalena Baerbock, an outbreak of small and medium-sized scandals, and Armin Laschet ambiguously triumphant as CDU/CSU candidate. Over the silly season, the so-called Sommerloch, stuff happened.

Here’s some polling for the last 7 years from Der Tagesspiegel‘s aggregator. You can see the slow decline of both major parties, the SPD’s 2017 false dawn, the rise of the Greens, and the pandemic reset. You can also see the CDU/CSU’s crisis in the spring as the pandemic boost wore off and the Greens spiked, and then its reset.

A sommerloch is defined by the absence of serious content, and that was how it started. The CDU/CSU campaign management responded to the Green breakthrough by shaking out everything they had in their opposition research file. That turned out to mean getting very angry about Annalena Baerbock’s CV, which was inaccurate in places on trivialities, and claiming that not all of her insta-book (a campaign essential, one of the American tropes imported into German political practice) was wholly original. Some of this was risible – one of the quotes in question was a list of the EU’s member states, not the sort of thing where originality is usually prized, while a lot turned on insinuating that a master’s degree from LSE was somehow not real – and some of it wasn’t, but the main point was that it was at least something. Following politics in a foreign language can provide a kind of Verfremdungseffekt where the half-truths are more glaring and the vacuity of the talking points more obvious, and it was very clear that the CDU management had an option set up to do a bit of dirty and now they were pressing the button.

There was some blowback – it turned out Armin Laschet’s own campaign book wasn’t any better – but the CDU also had a big ad drop set up complaining about “Anna and the 10 Bans” (Verbote – similar to Gebote or commandments) and its outriders were ready to start complaining about cargo bikes (this is a culture war thing for some reason). Some people speculated about swapping Robert Habeck back in as candidate (see this savage TAZ piece), but the Greens chose to tough it out. The CDU’s blitz worked, up to a point, knocking the Greens back to around 18 per cent and briefly reversing the CDU’s descent.

And then there were events.

Germany experienced a major flood disaster – mostly around areas with old mine workings that could fill up and fail, a telling reminder of the country’s relationship with coal – the Taliban conquered Kabul, and there were some more small and medium-sized scandals. Laschet, meanwhile, launched an astonishing series of campaigning disasters. First up, he was caught on camera laughing uncontrollably as President Steinmeier conveyed the nation’s condolences to the flooded. Then he spoke to one of them, in pouring rain, as a underling held an umbrella over Laschet’s head but pointedly not the flood victim’s. Going for the hat-trick, Laschet then delivered a major speech in front of a gigantic and unavoidably symbolic pile of rubbish. Not satisfied with that, he challenged his rivals to an “inhaltliches Wahlkampf”, a campaign over content, and followed up by announcing a three point plan for Germany’s future consisting of digital, less bureaucracy, and…what was the other one? The whole performance was powerfully reminiscent of Theresa May’s 2017 party conference speech with its coughing fit, irrepressible heckler, and that sign that lost a letter until it announced a country that orked for everyone. It’s probably worth taking a moment to appreciate the visual side of this, as it was precisely the visual quality of the thing that bit so hard. Images are from the round-up here.

So, the laugh:

The brolly (is it even possible to use one with dignity?):

The rubbish (if it wasn’t everywhere):

The three-point plan:

You might object that this is mere froth, but then that’s what a sommerloch is like. Further, if Laschet wanted a campaign about content, he could have damn well come up with some. In a genuinely important sense, the campaign has been dominated by CDU/CSU internal backstabbing, whether or not MLA or APA citation rules apply to a general-audience book, and Laschet’s inability to carry out a simple photocall without humiliating himself precisely because he’s offered so little either in terms of policy or personality.

And even the consummately well-executed blitz campaign against the Greens should be seen as part of the same phenomenon. Raking out the bottom of the oppo-research drawer won the CDU some political space and headed off the immediate crisis, but at the end of the day it was far from the worst allegation an oppo-research team has ever come up with and Laschet did nothing to follow up. Further, the smear dump could be done once, and once only. You can’t unring a bell, but neither can you redrop a bomb, and once the bomb bay was empty there were still three months to go until polling day. In hindsight, it looks like they acted out of panic and wasted a move better used in the last week before the polls closed, which doesn’t say anything good about Laschet.

Although, neither does that time he taught a course at the Rhein-Westfalen Technical University, lost the grades, made them up, made up more grades than he had students, and lied about it repeatedly to the university’s increasingly sarcastic administrators. Maybe German politicians should just keep away from universities.

Superwahljahr Roundup

So, our previous instalment saw the Greens surging into first place as Annalena Baerbock was installed without fuss as the candidate and the CDU/CSU ripped itself apart. They’re still in the lead, but the Greens have since had some minor but characteristic setbacks lately.

For a start, there’s Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen, who’s in the national press for being tiresomely controversial most weeks. Palmer specializes in being a Green but also doing a bit of populist; this might have been an interesting plan a few years ago but has turned out to be a bit of a blind alley. This time, he’s really screwed up badly, by wading into a truly asinine spat between two footballers and as a result posting the German equivalent of the n-word on his Facebook page. There’s probably an interesting question of translation as to whether it really is the German equivalent – both Nazis, and German rappers, use the English original when they want maximum rhetorical escalation – but an election campaign of all things isn’t the time or the place for it, and in any case Palmer didn’t do anything of the sort but went right for the shitpost, following up by some truly cringey efforts to defend himself or half-apologize.

So, Baerbock and Habeck decided to kill the story as rapidly as possible, to say nothing of getting rid of a competitor/troublemaker, and he now faces expulsion from the party. This being Germany – and this being a political party internal disciplinary process, something that brings back traumatic memories of the Labour Party in 2016-2019 – that will involve a succession of painful committees starting at the district level and working up.

Palmer attention-seeking was always on the cards. Something else also on the cards: that the party’s Berlin regional branch would try its best to really get inside its own stereotype. 300 of them signed a petition to remove the word “Germany” from the federal Green manifesto on the grounds that it could have negative associations and in general was kind of cringey (I summarise). As far as I can see, the party leadership has kind of patted them tolerantly on the head while cracking on with a draft climate program, including more solar panels through the planning process, changes to the tax regime for aviation, that kind of stuff.

Probably they’ll cause some drama at the party conference, but the Berlin Greens could probably spend their time more effectively reflecting on the epic fiasco with their name on it. The red/red/green coalition’s ban on rent increases was struck down by the supreme court. For some reason a lot of English-speaking left-wing people think this has do with Wilhelmine or even Nazi legislative survivals, but it doesn’t at all – the judgment is here and surprisingly simple as German constitutional court judgments go. The “Leitsätze” or governing principles at the top are really all you need. The division of powers between the states and the feds is defined by the 1949 constitution. Individual issues can be state (like education), federal (like foreign affairs), or mixed (like housing). In the mixed ones, the states have to defer to federal legislation where it already covers the issue in question. The feds legislated to set an upper limit to rent increases in 2015 (SPD minister Heiko Maas’s “Mietpreisbremse”), and therefore, the states can’t overrule it.

This is pretty elementary stuff – as one of the newspapers said, the judgment is a very basic lecture on the structure of the federal state – so you wonder what the hell the Berlin statehouse coalition thought it was doing, as it’s resulted in people being billed for tens of thousands of euros in back rent on pain of eviction (by Bild Zeitung editor Mathias Döpfner’s buy-to-let vehicle, no less!). Tell me they weren’t trying to heighten the contradictions by shoving their tenant base under the bus?

This column points out that the party has a tendency to try to be on both sides of important issues in order to hold its internal coalition together, but then, who doesn’t? Baerbock’s husband is going to look after the kids if she’s elected.

Jens Spahn finally published a list of politicians who tried to sell him masks. Friedrich Merz made a fool of himself by not knowing what a liquidity trap is, and further by setting the CSU a target of 40% when the CDU is likely on 17%. There might be quite a serious scandal at SAP. The FDP wants term limits for the chancellor but obviously not for its MPs, no sir.

Superwahljahr: Green Leader

So Markus Söder says the Greens are the most intellectually interesting party, and that they’re the CDU/CSU’s main competitor while the AfD is its enemy, a somewhat ambiguous statement. They’re the leading political party in Germany, going by the current polling. And they had to pick a candidate, too!

Essentially everyone commented on the contrast between the drama consuming German conservatism and the absolutely unremarkable nature of the Greens’ choice. So will I. Co-leader Robert Habeck agreed to step aside, their federal executive signed off, Annalena Baerbock is the candidate, something they literally announced while the CDU and CSU presidia were busy eviscerating themselves. Baerbock signalled, and as far as I know everyone assumes, that Habeck has been promised a major ministry, possibly finance. That was that.

The new candidate’s personal polling is pretty great, and the party is experiencing a wave of new members, while even a poll of 1500 business people put here first (or possibly second after “don’t know”). The CDU tends to be very attached to its status as a “Volkspartei”, even the last one in Western Europe, compared to the small and medium-sized parties around it, but at 28 per cent and going higher there’s absolutely no reason why the Greens can’t clear whatever arbitrary hurdle defines this.

Habeck spoke about his emotions in standing down and confirmed incidentally that the Greens were determined to have a woman as the candidate. If there’s a good argument against Baerbock it’s unquestionably that, unlike Habeck, she has never had ministerial or executive responsibility for anything. An interesting point here is that the Baerbock/Habeck era at the Greens has often been marked by dealing with one of the party’s identity conflicts by being more ambitious on the others – for example, trying to transcend the realo/fundi split by running to the left on social and economic policy and arguing for the exclusion of capital investment from the so-called debt-brake – and picking Baerbock could be understood in this light.

In a cynical electioneering sense, the best counterargument to the point about experience might be this extraordinary SZ interview conducted through the medium of mime, which hits off exactly that tone, of being new and young and exciting but just conventional enough to come off slightly cringey to those of us with a twitter-jaded palate, that the most infuriatingly successful politicians master.