Ok, now that Edward has already mentioned it, I might as well explain in a little more detail what I meant by saying that “on some level, the CDU might be afraid to win.”
Last Saturday evening, strolling through Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, Edward asked me about my gut feeling concerning the outcome of the German election next week. I told him that, while it was rather entertaining, this campaign has also been confusing – and confused – in many ways, particularly when looking at the CDU. And I believe the confused and confusing campaign the CDU is conducting is even more an expression of the way the German establishment is puzzled about the way ahead than the fact that Schröder “called” the elections a year too early, too early for any of his reforms to have any perceptible impact on the economy, not even in the West.
While his decision, as former CDU “whip” (Fraktionsvorsitzender) and President of the Bundestag Rainer Barzel stated immediately after the announcement, may have been a patriotic act – given the internal state of the Social Democratic Party, their apparent unwillingness to govern when governing doesn’t entail being able to control “the market”, as well as Germany’s institutional “joint-decision-trap”, and the CDU’s super-majority in the upper federal chamber, the Bundesrat that will make a CDU chancellor more powerful with respect to the state premiers even of her own party than has been the case in a long time – it also means that there are no more instutional excuses for a chancellor presiding over a CDU-FDP coalition from next Sunday on. A Chancellor Merkel, once elected by the Bundestag, would indeed be much more bound to do what she promised than most politicians like.
That, on the other hand, made many within her party realise that calls for radical reforms are no longer simply opposition politics. They may actually get what they called for, and many suddenly realised that they were – to put it this way – apprehensive about what exactly they would do to the country by doing what they said they wanted all along.
Citing Ronald Reagan is one thing when there are no institutional consequences, it is something entirely different in a campaign that has, despite being fought almost entirely on economic issues, brought back the notion that there is more to the German economic future than the internalisation of social externalities. It is one thing to believe that radical labour market reforms will right many of the wrong incentives, that the gains from ridding an obscure tax code from transaction costs will create a more just tax system, and to actually be faced with the prospect of having to do so. The CDU realizes right now, governance matters, the state matters.
Certainly, Schroeder and the SPD’s campaign have been quick to spin the images from New Orleans and the CDU’s internal debate about a “flat tax” (that is not really a flat tax) that was brought into the debate by Merkel’s nomination of Paul Kirchhof, a professor and former constitutional judge, who has pursued tax reform as a pet project for years.
Of course, the fact that she brought someone like him into her “shadow cabinet” is indicative of what she believes will be important to succeed after the election. While she’s the leader of the party and certainly in a stronger position than she has ever been in since she took over following the campaign financing scandal of 1999, it is hardly a secret that her base within the party is not as strong as would be useful. It’s not her fault – hailing from the East she never had the opportunity to build the kind of network some of the West German state premiers have been able to build over decades. Her power will certainly be much more dependent on public support for her reformist drive. Thus, having a complete outsider like Kirchhoff, someone without an internal power-base yet with strong convictions, run the most important ministry is clearly making a lot of sense from Merkel’s point of view.
Merkel’s intuition is probably right in “the long run” – as, for example, a very interesting recent paper by the always very readable Wolfgang Streeck of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies about new elite discourses and perceptions in Germany indicate. Yet it’s a risky game and it appears to be one that might still blow up in her face. Last year, there was a movie called “How to get rid of a guy in ten days” – this year’s CDU campaign is a collection of amateur mistakes that is reminiscent of a potential screenplay for the film “how to lose a non-surplus-coalition majority within two weeks.”
It’s not that the CDU is not attempting to win in the sense that they do not want to govern. They do. But I think many of them, certainly within the league of state premiers would be relieved with the prospect of a “grand coalition”. One without Kirchhof, with more labour market reforms, but a less radical model of tax reform, and a new, less bureaucratic, model of health reform designed to include non-wage income into the public health redistribution system.
In some sense, in her political need to be more reformist than the rest, Merkel may have been forced to outrun the CDU’s rank and file, whose conservative instincts may have been reactivated at the “wrong moment”, offering her internal – not just the external – opposition an opportunity to attack her.
That’s why I think the CDU’s campaign is as bad, confusing and confused as it is. And I’m not even talking about their posters…