Britain’s elections have center stage right now, and will probably continue to do so until a new government is formed, but there is a rumbling in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia that could have even greater consequences. With the precarious state of European finances and the German government’s role in it all, tomorrow’s parliamentary elections in NRW could shift the political momentum away from the bankers and business leaders of the political right and toward the trade unions and workers of Germany’s political left.
The current head of NRW is Jürgen Rüttgers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU). Anticipating the importance of tomorrow’s vote, the word back in early February was that Rüttgers and Merkel had a deal, which Der Spiegel described like this (emphasis added):
Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a deal with Rüttgers, based on the following principle: the party comes first, then Germany. Merkel wants to make sure that no unpopular decisions are made before the early summer. This explains why the debate over tax reform is currently on hold, why the government is not going to present any proposals on how to reform the healthcare system, and why there will be no announcements regarding the controversial topic of how much longer the country’s nuclear power plants will be kept in operation.
Rüttgers’ end of the bargain is to win the election. A defeat would mean that the CDU, CSU [Christian Socialist Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU] and FDP [Free Democratic Party] would lose their majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament that represents the country’s 16 states. That would leave them dependent on the goodwill of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party to get legislation passed.
Rüttgers is now such an important figure that he is always at the table when the leaders of the coalition government meet in the capital. He has become the specter at the feast of Berlin politics. “Not a single meeting is held in which someone doesn’t mention May 9,” senior CSU official Stefan Müller recently told fellow party members.
(Substitute “US” for “Germany” in that part in bold, and it certainly sounds familiar to anyone who watched the Bush White House at work. But that’s not where the parallels end, as Rüttgers is involved in scandal over an astroturf group that ran supposedly independent ads during the last campaign that were secretly funded by his CDU, and pay-for-play party fundraising exposed in February. Why do names like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove come to mind? But I digress . . . )
That was early February, but since then the Greek debt crisis arrived (served up with the clever assistance of the balance sheet manipulators at Goldman Sachs) and screwed up the deal. The tax reform plan is not merely on hold, but likely dead, and the election in NRW is up for grabs.
How up for grabs is it? Enter the Left Party.
The Left Party has two sets of roots. One is in the old East Germany, formed by glasnost-style reformers who wanted a Gorbachev-style state, rather than a Honecker-style authoritarian one, but in recent years the Left Party has grown to include a group of trade unionists and others in western Germany disaffected with the more mainstream SPD. These dissidents, led by former SPD party chief and German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, fled the SPD in 2007 and have given the Left Party more credibility in the west, including NRW.
There is lots of speculation about how the final results will come in on Sunday. The CDU and FDP might squeak by and keep their coalition alive. Alternatively, there are rumors that the CDU might try to work with the Green Party to remain in power — something they’ve never done before at the federal level and only twice at the state level (with two of the smaller states). The conservative base of the CDU is not at all happy with this prospect. Looking back at previous electoral failures, the head of the CDU’s Youth Organization and Bundestag member Philipp Mißfelder recently criticized Merkel for catering too much to the center and the left, demanding that Merkel must also “convincingly listen” to the conservatives in the party. (This from the now-30 year old who told Die Welt in 2003, “I take no stock in 85-year-old people getting hip replacements paid by social welfare.” Sounds like he’d be right at home at RedState, doesn’t he? But I digress . . . )
Failing that, the SPD might build a coalition of its own with the Greens, but this pair of parties might also come up short, and thus their coalition could also include the Left Party. Deutsche Welle is reporting that The Left is polling at 7%, which would get them over the 5% hurdle and into the NRW state parliament and make them a potential coalition partner with the SPD (as is the case in the city-state parliament in Berlin). Der Spiegel disagrees, and suggests that rumors of an SPD alliance with The Left could hurt the SPD at the polls.
Either way, it appears the CDU is losing its strength, which would force a shift toward the center-left, not only in North Rhine-Westphalia but also in the federal government in Berlin. At the same time, it looks as if the political clout of Germany’s unions and workers is on the upswing, making the bankers and business leaders very nervous.
If NRW’s Left Party leader Baerbel Beuermann — a special needs teacher — gets into the NRW parliament, the ripples will be felt strongly in political halls and corporate boardrooms across Germany. As she told Deutsche Welle, “There is money, we are a rich country, more than 2,000 millionaires in Germany, and there are a lot of people who are hungry.” That won’t go down well with the CDU and FDP folk who are pushing for tax cuts for the rich. Across the various state parliaments, the Left Party outnumbers the FDP and the Greens, and tomorrow’s election could increase their clout.