Friday, September 16, 2005

The German malaise: how deep does it extend?

Not much optimism in this IHT translation of a German editorial. I can't say I agree with much of his analysis, which strikes me as entirely too defeatist. Germans are remain highly educated, skilled, and adept at business. They only need a Ronald Reagan type of leader.

Too bad neither Schroeder or Merkel are inspiring. Nevertheless, the choice between the two is clear. Merkel will provide the necessary impetus to shake up Germany's--and thus Europe's--labor markets. German companies are doing quite well on the whole; allowing easier firing of employees during downturns makes it likely that workers will be hired during the good times.

One thing the article mentions but doesn't develop is the sapping effect of high unemployment. When a significant portion of citizens are unemployed, it becomes the norm to dwell on the challenges facing the nation. People with jobs tend to look forward to a better job, better life, better social standing, etc.
The driving force in this country is disappointment.

Right now, people are disappointed in Gerhard Schroeder and his coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. That's why, according to the current wisdom, they'll vote for Angela Merkel or the new Left Party on Sunday. Before, people were disappointed in Helmut Kohl and his coalition with the Free Democrats, and that's why they voted for Schroeder. Kohl was elected because voters were disappointed by Helmut Schmidt and his Social Democrat alliance with the Free Democrats. Disappointed for decades by East Germany, the people in the East at first voted Kohl. And so on. [...]

What Helmut Kohl first managed to tag as 13 years of Social Democrat mass unemployment, bankruptcies and debts simply became Christian Democrat unemployment, bankruptcies and debts, and slowly but surely bled his party. Schroeder, in his eventual turn, succeeded in making the disappointment with Kohl a mere memory: Christian Democrat mass unemployment once again became Social Democrat mass unemployment, and so on. [...]

In this campaign, the politicians all behave as if, all together, we could pull "it" off. As if Germany could again become "what it was." And of course, Merkel, just like Schroeder and Kohl before her, blames only this government for record unemployment and record debts, and so on. On the other hand, Merkel says, she doesn't want to promise anything. Perhaps that is really the achievement of maximum democracy: The candidate promises to promise nothing more, and then promises everything - to cut unemployment, to clean up the budget, but never to reduce pensions. And so on.

How soon are we going to be disappointed in Merkel?

The mood of change at the start of this campaign has long since dissipated. We're disappointed in the change before it has even taken place. Or, more precisely, it has already occurred - in the media, where Merkel has been chancellor ever since Schroeder announced new elections in May.

As the first media chancellor, disappointment is sure to overtake her. For there are good reasons to believe that the people who are disappointed in Schroeder and Red-Green are now bound to be let down by a Merkel government.

(Sven Hillenkamp is an editor at Die Zeit, where a longer version of this article first appeared. Translation from the German by the International Herald Tribune.)