Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Germany just had an election, and the New York Times thought it was kind of boring. Although I can see their point sometimes, for example, in the fact that this guy got 34.4% of the votes in his constituency (although he didn’t win!)—
(Does anyone get excited thinking about voting for the guy who’s “humane, binding, and competent”? To his credit, I don’t doubt that Hartwig Fischer is any of these things. It just makes me wonder what my Fulbright application would have looked like if I had been a CDU candidate. “Writes mediocre column for college newspaper of uneven quality. Speaks adequate German. Offers unique ideas.”)
(On that last: my German family always uses “Ja, du bist anders als die anderen” [“Yes, you’re different from the others”] where I would say “And aren’t you a special little snowflake?” I love how understated it is.)
Hartwig Fischer is a distraction, because new lines have been drawn, my friends, and the boring period of German politics doesn’t seem to have lasted for very long. Already in the post-election roundtable last night (and that’s a seriously weird thing—an hour after the results are in, the top candidates all sit around a table with two journalists and talk about what the results mean), we saw more fireworks between the opposition than we had in the pre-election debates (when “Yes, We GÃ¤hn!” [Yawn] became the headline of the day), and a coalition of free-market liberals headed by a woman and a gay guy has got to have some exciting times ahead of it.
First, a few words about how German voting works. Germans don’t directly elect their prime minister—they elect parliamentarians, who then elect the prime minister. Germans also get to elect their parliamentarians in a special sort of way—they make two marks on their ballots, one for the “Direct Candidate” they wish to represent their district, and one for the party they wish to have power in parliament. So you could theoretically say “Well, I’ve got to vote for Hartwig of the CDU because he’s the only competent guy in my district,” but give your second vote to the Greens or the Pirates, who didn’t happen to be running anyone competent, but who you liked a lot anyway.
There are 299 direct elections, and everyone who wins a direct election gets to sit in parliament. Then the rest of the seats—at least 299 of them, more if necessary to make the ratio balance out right—are distributed based on the second votes, so that each party has representation according to the percentage of second votes it received.
In this election, for example, the FDP did not win a single direct election, but they got 15% of the second vote, so they will have a lot of seats in parliament. Parties need to have either 5% of the second vote overall or win three direct elections to be entitled to representation—this rule was put into place to ensure that the parliament didn’t splinter into dozens of tiny parties, but to still allow small parties to claw their way in.
There are five main parties currently represented in the parliament, and a “Grand,” but shaky and ineffectual, Coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD, currently governs the country. I give you colors because you can’t understand ninety percent of German political discourse without colors—people are always talking about the “Jamaica Coalition” and the “Traffic Light Coalition” and the “Black-Yellow Coalition.” It’s cute.
1. The “Black” CDU/CSU [Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria: One party operates in Bavaria, which is sort of like the South of Germany in that everyone else makes fun of how slow they are, plus they’re in the south; the other operates in the rest of the country, though they sit together in the parliament], is Angela Merkel’s party. They find a middle ground between socialism and laissez-faire economics, and are strong in Catholic areas of the country.
2. The “Red” SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany], has sort of lost its identity in the last few years while governing in the “Grand Coalition” as the junior partner to the CDU/CSU, which is why they lost big time yesterday, but they like to think of themselves as the working class party and are all about the social welfare state. A lot of their campaign material was about how the Black-Yellow coalition would slash social benefits, and a strong SPD was the only way to keep Germany a social welfare state.
3. The “Yellow” FDP [Free Democratic Party], has the most libertarian, economically liberal and pro-business policy of any of the parties, and they were the big winners in yesterday’s election, presumably because in times of economic crisis, you look to people who can convincingly promise that they can manage the economy.
4. The “Green” BÃ¼ndis 90/Die GrÃ¼nen [The Greens], are, surprise, the environmentalist party of the bunch, and have also supported LGBT rights and progressive immigration politics. They are home to the man some call Germany’s Obama, although dude just lost his election to a gay Christian Democrat.
5. The “Purple” Die Linke [The Left] is controversial because they’re direct descendants of an East German party, and they are the most radical of the five main parties. They don’t exactly have a consistent party program, but most of them hate capitalism in one form or another. They are also the only party demanding an immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.
On some issues all of these parties are way left of American politics. Like health care. I was at an SPD campaign event last weekend, and somebody stepped up to the microphone to ask if the candidate was planning on getting rid of private health insurance (which something like 5% of Germans use), because public health insurance was becoming a “social contract of the poor,” and meanwhile the asshole private insurance holders were running rampant over everyone else by cutting them in line for medical services.
That was a question, and the candidate answered it seriously.
Two days later, I actually became one of the members of the “social contract of the poor.” In order to register at a German university, you have to have health insurance; Fulbright provides us with private health insurance, but if you want to use that as your health insurance, you need to go to a public health insurance office and sign a document saying that you have opted out of the public health insurance system for good (or at least until you’re 30). I’m planning on coming back in a few years, and I don’t know what kind of funding I’m going to have then, so this didn’t seem like the best idea. Plus the private health insurance isn’t the best—no dental, no preventative care, and you have to pay upfront and get reimbursed later.
So I walked up to a booth in the student union, showed them my passport and Fulbright ID, and said I wanted to be on public health insurance for the princely sum of 63 Euros per month, and a 10 Euro co-pay for the first time I visit the doctor in a quarter—that’s it, that’s everything, that’s all. (And Fulbright still pays!)
And guess what? Despite the fact that I have only been a drain on German society, that I mangle their language on a daily basis, and that this right here is the apex of my contribution to transatlantic relations, I didn’t just get public health insurance, I got a keychain, a pen, and two “energy-sugars” to put in my water. (The SPD also gave me energy-sugars, with the slogan “Ohne Konservierung-Stoffe,” which means “preservatives,” and the German pun should be obvious. It’s tasty stuff.)
I’ve already called a doctor and made an appointment for the middle of October.
I find the experience disconcerting, even when it occurs to me later that maybe it makes good economic sense to enroll as many Americans as possible so that we can pick up the tab for the Germans, all of whom seem to smoke a pack a day. I have done nothing to deserve your largess, I want to tell the Germans, sometimes I even make nasty jokes about you. I’ve spent enough time in your country that I’m probably going to end up with lung cancer too. You don’t want me! Please let me give this insurance back.
Maybe I’ll be less grateful when I actually go to the doctor, but for the time being, I’m just surprised. Surprised and glad that nobody in the new German government wants to take my insurance away from me.
What does the new German government want to do? I have no idea. I do know that yesterday the two parties currently in power both posted losses, while all the smaller parties gained, which continues a trend towards the disintegration of the formerly stable two-major-party system, although none of the really tiny parties, like the Pirate Party, managed to overcome the 5% hurdle for representation in parliament.
Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU lost a few percentage points and finally came in at around 34%, but the SPD lost a lot, going from 34% of the vote to 23% of the vote, which is the worst result in the history of the party. When a third of your former voters disappear between elections, you’re doing something wrong. (And I don’t care if you like the SPD or not, your heart has to go pitter-pat for them, too.)
The Left and the Green parties both picked up a couple of the voters fleeing the sinking SPD, and came in at 12% and 11% respectively, but these parties, too, were disappointed by the ultimate result. This was because the big winners were the pro-business FDP, who came in with around 15% of the vote and thus secured a majority in parliament for the CDU/CSU and FDP and a future of German-style free-market capitalism. (Which is to say: they’re not going to take my health insurance away. But there will be nuclear power, and tax cuts.)
Another piece of evidence for Germany being different from the States? Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP and Germany’s new vice-chancellor and foreign minister, is gay, and in a coalition with the Christian Democratic Union. And probably Germany’s new face in Washington. And gay. It’s a “Wow” moment for me, but it doesn’t appear in very many of the headlines I read today.
It’s not that nobody’s thinking about it—I think a lot of Germans woke up today, thought “The gay politician who went on Big Brother is going to be our foreign minister? I feel sick…” But it seems to have happened without much rabidly anti-gay fanfare, although I have heard a few jokes about how Guido and Angie sounds more like a Will and Grace spin-off than a leadership team. But those are funny.
[Just edited to add: while I was doing more research on this, I discovered that at least two lesbians were also elected yesterday, and that one of them goes by Biggi Bender.]
Germans are also stressed out about yesterday’s record low voter turnout (around 73%), which is confusing to me as an American who gets excited about 63%. To be fair, Americans who think it’s important that you vote are just like “Hey, even MTV thinks it’s important,” whereas the Germans I’ve spoken to usually invoke the Nazis, saying “Voting is one way for us to show that we’re not Nazis and that we’re thankful that we’re not Nazis.”
They have a point, since if Germans don’t show up to vote en masse, the Nazis might actually pass the 5% representation threshold.
I’m a big fan of using historical descriptors accurately, and I assure you that I’m being accurate in this case: I am talking about Nazis. Because if you think that sending a letter to immigrant politicians detailing a five-step bureaucratic plan for them to leave the country is an acceptable election tactic, you’re a Nazi.
If you put up posters that say things like “Good Education… through fewer Foreigners,” you’re a Nazi, and I take small comfort in the fact that the only reason you weren’t banned last time was because your inner circle was composed of too many government informants.
I’m actually presently living pretty close to the NPD’s national headquarters, an nondescript building which only announces its function by way of “Die Nazi pigs!” graffiti on the front. (To answer your question: I’m also pretty sure the Nazis don’t want to give me health insurance, unless I invoke my German grandmother, stop studying Turkish, and maybe get ten times better at the Muttersprache overnight.)
So I was glad to hear that there are no longer Nazis in the state-level parliament in Brandenburg. There were also two state-level elections yesterday, in addition to the national elections, and one of those was in Brandenburg, the donut of a state around Berlin. There used to be DVU members [the other Neo-Nazi party, I’m not actually sure how they differ except by regional strongholds] in the Brandenburg parliament, but yesterday, perhaps in part because of higher-than-usual voter turnout (since voter turnout is higher when you’re also having a national election on the same day), the Nazi vote dropped to 1.2%. There used to be three state-level parliaments with Nazi representation. Now there are two.
Victory, in short, for democracy, victory for attractive gay libertarians, victory for my health.
A catastrophic loss for the Social Democrats, which, if there were a Swarthmore in Germany, would probably make us very sad. This brings me to another place where Germany and the USA are different: in Germany, major political parties hand out this kind of stuff.
That’s a ruler, which says “So that Education won’t be too short,” a box of matches, which says “You also only need the red ones here,” and a bicycle seat cover (but that’s not even the crazy part!) which says “You can shove tuition fees up your ass.”
Can you imagine a major political party in America handing out anything with the slogan “You can shove tuition fees up your ass?” Because I can’t. As an American I am also confused by the alarm—some universities are charging 500 Euros a semester, oh my god, is it really the end of the world?—but I admire them for it anyway.
So I’m happy to report, most of all, that clever sloganeering in Germany? Is still thriving after all these years.
(That’s the side of a church in GÃ¶ttingen: the official text says “Hanging placards forbidden,” and then somebody has chalked “And what of theses? Please advise.” It’s the greatest thing I’ve seen so far.)
Your German Correspondent