Monday, August 15, 2005

I would tell you about my vacation in and around Campiglia Marittima, Italy, but it was too cool for words. Google the town if you want to find things out about it (but only if you are cool).

I will, however, tell you that it dawned on me that this was my first ever real extended vacation. I have had weekends now and then, of course, but this was a genuine vacation. By this I mean that I set out to do nothing more than go somewhere and luxuriate in having vacated, whereas all my previous (and frequent) journeys to various and sundry parts of North America and Europe have been in connection with visits to friends and/or family or some form of study, research, or quasi-professional outing. Sure, as a child I did this, but this is the first time as a non child. It was a interesting experience.

I will also ad that a sideline experience in our vacation was two nights in the home town of both Pliny the Elder AND Pliny the Less Old. Also from that town, more recently, came Giusseppi Volta, for whom the country of Upper Volta is named (Lower Volta was named for his father, oddly enough) and who was the inventor of Voltron.

But seriously. Germany is on the cusp of an election, as the regular reader of this blog knows. Infrequent or first-time readers may also have stumbled upon this information via news outlets. I will now update you on the situation as I see it.

[My fellow US citizens might be interested to learn that there are missing white girls, from time to time, in Germany, but sadly no shark attacks.]

Our story began when the governing party, the SPD (nominal socialists with hints of Blairite New Labour and Clintonite New Democrat) got smeared in the election of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (where I reside). This was bad for them for three reasons. One: NRW is the biggest state in Germany. Two: NRW is the historic heartland of the SPD. Three: The victory gave the opposition CDU (nominal conservatives with hints of Tory and Republican) the whip hand in the upper house of the federal parliament (the Bundesrat, made up of state governors). Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor (SPD) called a snap election in response.

Snap elections often happen in other parliamentary systems but there was some question as to whether Germany's constitution allows for it (at least in this circumstance). In the end, Schröder got his wish.

Why did he do it? Opinion is divided. It might be that he is just tired of the gig and wanted to go down fighting sooner rather than later (scheduled elections were for next year). The conventional wisdom is that he knew that he would be hard pressed to get much governing done in the new reality so he wanted a sort of referendum on his leadership. It follows from this that if he loses, he doesn't lose much, but if he wins he has a mandate of sorts.

My take (and I'm not alone, but I am in the minority) is that he figured, as above, that he had little to lose and much to gain AND that he reckoned on winning. Basically, by calling these elections he forced his opponents to dance to his tune. They would have preferred to have more time to sort things out, basically, and he looked decisive and like a risk taker. This boosted his personal popularity and wrong footed his opponents.

Lets look at them, then. The CDU was forced, by Schröder's decision, to move quicker than they would have liked to pick a lead candidate AND to work out what it is they stand for. They have been cruising since the end of Kohl, in 1998, as the nattering nabobs of negativity party. They have struggled to come up with plans to take to the voters, as Schröder must have known they would, and this has hurt them. As to the lead-candidate issue: they ended up having to settle for their general secretary and parliamentary leader, Angela Merkel. She is problematic for lots of reasons, not least of which is that there were other folks angling for the gig who are now expected to pull oars for her.

Short version of Merkel's problem: She is a protestant - the CDU is heavily catholic. She is a woman - the CDU has a strong "traditional values" strain (including sexism). She is from East Germany - the CDU is a very West German party. And it doesn't help that she's not particularly charismatic and has never been identified with anything approaching a political philosophy or even a pet issue.

But it gets worse for Merkel and the CDU. Edmund Stoiber was the party's candidate last time and wanted to be again, is the governor of Bavaria, put the "smu" in "smug", and is very charismatic. Lately he has been noted for having, in large and small ways, insulted the entire former East Germany and, less directly, all parts of Germany to the extent that they are not Bavaria. Other CDU politicians (technically Stoiber is CSU, the Bavarian "sister party" of the CDU) have made similar comments. This has not helped the campaign.

Another interesting twist to the whole thing is that Oscar Lafontaine (a charismatic former SPD leader) and Gregor Gysi (a charismatic leader of the PDS, which is the "reformed" East German communist party) joined forces to create a new left-wing party.

You would think that this would hurt the SPD (and their allies, the Greens) more than it would the CDU (and their allies, the neo-liberal FDP) and you would, sort of, be right. The SPD is not going to do well, and this Links Partei is one reason (although things are looking up). But the Greens are actually doing OK. A coalition again seems possible. No. It turns out that lots of protest voters who are less than pleased with the SPD-Green government are thinking of voting for the Links Partei instead of the CDU-FDP. The CDU share in polls is dropping like a rock (especially in the East) and the FDP face the real possibility of not even getting back into the parliament.

And if you still don't believe that Schröder has reasons for optimism, cue George W. Bush. Bush helped Schröder win re-election in 2002 by rattling the sword at Iraq. Germans thought he was nuts, and Schröder articulated and rode on that (the CDU would support Bush, as everyone here knows). So Dubyah has conveniently announced that he would "not rule out" using ultraviolence on Iran. Not popular here. Schröder is on the case.

I, for one, would not be surprised if the SPD-Greens (and perhaps the Linkspartei) scrape out a coalition victory in September. Its pretty doggoned interesting.

(Having said all that: The SPD is only good compared to some alternatives. Their policies have not been to my liking, by and large, since 1998. They deserve to lose, but I'd rather they didn't. I think I would vote for the Linkspartei or, perhaps, the MLPD [Marxistische-Leninistische Partei Deutschland] or, perhaps, the Greens.)

Oh, and Japan (the other supereconomy) will have a major election around the same time. The circumstances are shockingly similar but, since I know dick-all about Japanese politics, I will refrain from saying more about it.

Oh, and I had a nice vacation.


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