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Friday, May 15, 2009

The German parties in the lead-up to the European elections

The elections for the European Parliament in Germany as well as in the rest of Europe suffer from a lack of media and popular attention. Less than half of the German population even knows that European elections take place this year and only 43% - which still is above the European average – plan to vote. Ever since the the European Parliament has been elected voter participation has in fact steadily declined from 62% in 1979 to 47% 2004. This development and the glaring lack of attention in the lead-up to this year's elections has caused the European Parliament to unveil a non-partisan publicity campaign encouraging citizens to vote, while the European Commission has called for public TV stations to run non-partisan spots advertising the elections free of charge. Considering this sad state of affairs and the general nature of elections of secondary nature to national ones, it is far from surprising that the little campaigning that does take place concentrates on national issues.

This might be especially true for Germany where the European elections in June are followed by national elections in September and where, a striking German singularity, no truly euro-skeptic party is expected to gain support. The polls foresee a conservative victory with the Union (CDU/CSU ~ 35%) easily surpassing the Social-Democrats (SPD ~ 30%). Behind these two main parties (Volksparteien) were to follow the liberals (FDP ~ 11%), the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen ~ 11%) and the Left (Die Linke ~ 9). None of the extreme right-wing parties is expected to approach the 5% threshold.

The Union, consisting of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and its Bavarian sister party the CSU (Cristian Social Union), currently holds the majority in 13 of the 16 German Länder and on the national level. For the European elections both parties have established different electoral lists as well as differing election programs. At the head of the CDU-list can be found the President of the EP Hans-Gert Pöttering, the CSU-list is led by Markus Ferber. Their programs emphasize a privileged partnership with Turkey, implying opposition to full EU-membership, and oppose the harmonization of social policy in Europe. While both parties stress the importance of subsidiarity, the CSU is more averse to centralization clamoring for a Europe composed of strong regions. Differences between the two partners also arise in regard to the Lisbon Treaty, which the CSU unlike the CDU has given up on, and in regard to European referenda, which the CDU opposes while the CSU supports them.

The SPD, minority partner in the national government, has experienced a crisis of leadership ever since Schröder's government was voted out of office and is struggling to gain footing in the polls again. Its electoral list is headed by Martin Schulz, chairman of the Party of European Socialists (PES) group in the European Parliament, who gained celebrity status following his interaction with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, during which he was offered the role of a Kapo (an inmate serving as a concentration camp supervisor) in an Italian film. In its election manifesto the SPD argues for a Social Union in order to complement the already existing Economic and Monetary Unions. Among other things, this would include a Pact for Social Stability (mirroring the current Pact for Stability and Growth), a minimum wage in every European country and an increase in workers' participation in their companies decision-making (Mitarbeitermitbestimmung). Additionally the SPD stresses the role of the European Union as a civil power (Zivilmacht) for peace.

The FDP has had a hard time adapting to its new role in the opposition after the ouster of the Kohl government in 1998. Yet, it currently easily surpasses the other two special interest parties at the polls and, in January, enabled the reelection of Robert Koch (CDU) as Minister-President of Hesse with a record score in the regional elections. Its electoral list is dominated by the deputies that in 2004 had reestablished the FDP in the EP after a 10-year hiatus. Its election program is dominated by economic issues; deregulation, opposition to EU-taxation and in general an increase of European say over the economy. The FDP vocally supports the Treaty of Lisbon as the solution to the current lack of democratic elements in European decision-making and is, under the condition of institutional reforms having been enacted before, not opposed to the adhesion of neither Turkey nor, in the long-term, the Ukraine.

The German Greens originated in the peace and anti-nuclear movements from the 1970s and as the minority partner of the SPD were part of the national government for the first time. Their biggest priority lies with the protection of the environment – renewable energy as the only source of energy by 2040, the complete disuse of nuclear power and the creation of a Renewable Energy Community. In regard to social and economic policy the Greens demand a minimum wage in every member country, increased workers' rights protection, the introduction of quota in professions dominated by men and the equality of female and male salaries. Furthermore, the Greens defend the Treaty of Lisbon, support the adhesion of Turkey to the EU and argue for the right of European Union citizens to be able to vote in the national elections of their country of residence.

The Left has become the bête noire of German politics ever since the merger between the PDS (the ex-Communist ruling party of the GDR, based almost exclusively in Eastern Germany) and the WASG (a potpourri of union members and obscure leftist groups from Western Germany, unified by their opposition to the social reforms introduced by the Schröder government). Yet, recent electoral results seem to indicate that the Left has succeeded to establish itself as the fifth power on the national scene in Germany. It is the only major party positioning itself not against Europe per se, but loudly clamoring for a different one. It opposes the Treaty of Lisbon because of its militaristic consequences and has punished its outgoing EP-deputies in favor of that treaty by delegating them to low positions on its electoral list or not nominating them at all. The Left further argues for an economic government of the EU and wants to alter the the European Central Bank's regulations in order to include among its goals a low level of unemployment and sustainable development. Furthermore its program includes a provision demanding a EU structurally incapable of wars of aggression.

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