The Lafontaine Factor.

In a state election (Landtagswahl) in the Saarland that was widely considered another benchmark for the approval of the German federal government’s reform efforts, particularly of the labour market deregulation programme known as “Hartz IV” – these elections are, often to a significant extent, second order national contests – the Social Democrats have been dealt the predicted crushing defeat, gaining likely just under 30% of the vote, losing about 15% compared to their 1999 result, according to early, but usually very reliable exit poll data from Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, broadcast by ZDF television (German labelled graphics here).


The incumbent Christian Democrats under ministerpresident Peter M?ller received about 47,5%, a gain around 3% compared to 1999, in an election with an unusually low turnout of possibly under 60% of the around 820,000 eligible voters, which was likely a consequence of the predictability of the result. Following national trends the Greens, the Social Democrats federal coalition partner, as well as the Liberals gained votes and will be represented in the new state Parliament.

In what some might consider a silent preview of what will likely happen in a far more pronounced version in the upcoming regional elections in East Germany, protest votes seem to have increased significantly, with “all other parties” getting roughly 7%, far more than usual, and the right wing – nearly banned – National Democratic Party getting around 4%, just one percent short of the 5% threshold for Parliamentary representaion.

Results for right wing protest parties are expected to increase more in the East although they will share the protest vote with the Socialist PDS. Polls for East Germany are less predictable than for the West due to more rapidly changing demographics, less polling experience and generally lower voter-party alignment.

Though held in one of the tiniest of German states, the Saarland election usually carried some increased importance beyond the state’s 3 votes in the Bundesrat, the German Parliament’s upper chamber, or it’s industrial age economic characteristics: the state is home to one of Germany’s most controversial politicians, Oskar Lafontaine: He was the Saarland’s ministerpresident from 1985 to 1998. Even though he lost the 1990 federal elections to Helmut Kohl, he became chairman of the Social Democrats in 1995 in a coup-like removal of party-chairman and later defense minister Rudolf Scharping.

Despite claiming to speak “with the heart on the left”, in 1998 he lost the SPD’s nomination for chancellor to Gerhard Schroeder, enterting Schroeder’s first cabinet as finance “super-minister”. After attempting to implement some economically and politically controversial policies in the grace-period of the first Schroeder term, he lost the internal power struggle and resigned all government and party offices over night in March 1999.

Since then the narcissist politician, who apparently wasn’t able to deal with the fact that he lost against the then seemingly overly shallow Schroeder, has become a public figure willing to exploit every means to embarrass the government. Within the SPD, of which he is still a member, he is as controversial as the government’s policies. Recently, Lafontaine has chosen to speak at protest rallies in the East, rather than supporting the SPD’s candidate in the Saarland, Heiko Maas. Strangely though, somwhow, the amount and character of coverage concerning Mr. Lafontaine might actually be considered a proxy for the state of German social democracy.

Regarding my personal opinion of Mr. Lafontaine, I was once taught to say nothing if I cannot say anything nice about a person, so whereof I cannot speak, thereof I have to remain silent. Oh, and if you ask me, right now and opposed to most people and pundits, I still think there is still a good chance Schroeder will win the next federal elections in 2006.

3 thoughts on “The Lafontaine Factor.

  1. Not being as well brought-up as Tobias I will go ahead and say that Lafontaine is a pompous and irresponsible git.

    There’s one thing to be noted in his favour, though. When he ran against Helmut Kohl, the election was in effect a referendum on German Vereinigung (it is wrong, in my view, to refer to it as *Wieder*vereinigung). Lafontaine warned that forging a united Germany out of the BRD and DDR would be time-consuming, costly and painful — especially for easterners. Kohl blew smoke up the nation’s collective arse about blossoming landscapes: unification will cost DM 3.50, be complete in 15 minutes and you won’t feel a thing. No prizes for guessing who got the votes.

    Now, with the west still spending ?27.3 trillion per minute on the east and (if you believe Der Spiegel) those easterners who won’t be voting for their old communist masters about to put nazis into the Bundestag, one wonders whether it might not have been for the best had the nation paid a bit of attention to Oskar back in the day.

    Well; given that it’s Oskar we’re talking about, probably not. Still…

  2. Having only a dim familiarity with Lafontaine I can’t claim much of an opinion. But, there is no shortage of politicians anywhere willing to start slagging their own party as soon as they think the wind is changing. (Zell Miller’s name comes to mind, but no matter.) It sounds to me like Lafontaine is carefully setting himself up to try to regain control of the SPD if it loses the next election.

    I remember a friend of mine in ’90 – a German studies major who introduced me to the words “Sex, Drugs and Helmut Kohl” – saying the same thing as Mrs T: Kohl wanted to get into the history books as the unifier of Germany, and consequences be damned. At the time, the global press seemed so firmly to believe that seemless unification was a no-brainer that it was a very contrarian thing for him to suggest that delaying reunification might be a better idea. But then, economic reporting in the mainstream global press has been so bad for so long that it hardly seems like a suprise now.

  3. Well, my take on Oskar’s recent poaitions and media coverage is that the global press seems so firmly to believe that the socio-economic reforms planned (by both Schr?der and, behind a populist mask, CDU+CSU+FDP) are a no-brainer that Lafontaine again finds himself in a contrarian’s position – and economic reporting in the mainstream global press is just as bad, only now adhering to a different set of delusions.

    But Oscar is a pompous git anyway.

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