Friday, July 2, 2010

New Guy at Bellevue

Germany has a new president.

For the past several days, two events have captured most people’s attention here to some degree - the World Cup in South Africa, particularly German’s victory over England and what that means next for the German team, and the presidential election.

I noted many Germans yawning over the election, and I have to assume it will be of even less interest to most people outside Germany. But I got to watch Cristina Kirchner get elected president while I was living in Argentina, and now I just happened to be in Germany for their latest presidential election. Not that I’d ever go there anyway, but it sure takes away any temptation to think there is anything sacred, or even particularly smart, about the way we do it.

In the German case, the difference lies mainly in the fact that, unlike in the U.S., where the president is both head of government and head of nation and state simultaneously, these roles in Germany are separated. The chancellor is head of government. The president is head of state. He or she - so far it has been ten men only - has an honorary role and functions more like the back-of-the-hand balcony-wavers in the world’s monarchies than a political figure, although he does usually come up from the political ranks and his election is profoundly political in importance. In fact, rather than celebrating his victory on Wednesday, most news sources are going on about what a blow the election process was to Angela Merkel’s prestige.

Merkel’s candidate won, but it took him three ballots to do so, and in the first two rounds it was evident that many from Merkel’s ruling coalition were voting for the other guy, Joachim Gauck.

As I said, there was some yawning. One news program the other night made the point that many Germans didn’t even know the election was going on. Man on the street interviews turned up the usual twits who came out with things like, “The president? Do we have a president?”

But that, I think is the media playing around. The people who read and write and think in this country were certainly paying attention. After all, there were a lot of things at stake. If Gauck had won, the Merkel government would have fallen, for starters.

Some background here.

The Christian Democratic Union, the longest ruling party, Angela Merkel’s party, is generally taken to be right of center. The CDU works hand in hand with the CSU, the Christian Social Union, so for all practical purposes, they function as one unit, known as “the Union,” or “The Blacks”. Together, they have about a third of the seats in Parliament (the Bundestag). Presently, they have joined forces with a third center-right party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), or “The Yellows”, which got about 15% of the seats in the 2009 election, but whose popularity has dropped dramatically recently to around 5%. You’ve got to love the idea (if not the reality) that the country is governed by blacks and yellows, even if the names stem from the colors of the flag and not from racial markers.

On the center left are the socialists, the SPD, aka “The Reds”, with about a quarter of the seats in the Bundestag. And the merged Alliance and Green Party, now known simply as “The Greens.” The Greens have about 10% of the seats and that means the two center-left parties balance out the center-right parties, each with about a third of the seats in the Bundestag.

But that’s not all. There is another party, known as “The Left” (Die Linke), made up mostly of what’s left of the communist power structure of East Germany. They too, very confusingly, are called “The Reds,” and that means this leftie combo is usually called the Red-Red-Green Coalition (Rot-rot-grüne Koalition), even though the true reds (as in commies) and the also-ran reds, the socialists, are not the best of friends.

There are also some fun parties like “The Violets” – whose goal is to make politics more spiritual, the Party of Bible-abiding Christians, the German Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), the Communist Party of Germany (Marxist-Leninist-Hoxhaist), the Bavarian Separatist Party, and the Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany. But they don’t amount to a hill of beans, singly or collectively, and mostly, it’s just these colors of the German flag, plus Green.

Couple of side points here, just to break the didactic tone for a minute… Remember that cool Vietnamese-German guy, Philipp Rösler, that I wrote about in my blog of April 8? The guy from the FDP who was made Minister of Health? He’s not doing too well, I’m afraid. All those ambitious plans. Can’t tell you whether it’s his fault. I suspect it’s because the coalition is on the rocks, but he’s having a rough time these days. As I said, with ratings at 5%, they’re going down with Merkel, it would appear.

Another part of the FDP story, one which appeals to me personally, is that its leader, Guido Westerwelle, is a gay man. I can hear your envy from here, Log Cabin Republicans. A gay man in a conservative party as part of a ruling coalition. OK, never mind that it’s a coalition going down the tubes. And never mind that right of center in Germany is still left of center in the United States. It still indicates a freer political society than we’ve got. I just read in this morning’s paper, by the way, that Westerwelle and his partner have decided they have to postpone adopting a child for now because they need to live apart for practical reasons – to say nothing of having a career which requires long hours away from home.

OK, so back to the presidential election. The President is not elected by popular vote, but by a federal convention of electors set up for the sole purpose of electing the president to a seven-year term. The convention consists of all the members of parliament plus an equal number of anybodies selected by the state governments – politicians, celebrities, whoever. In Wednesday’s election, there were 1242 electors, and that meant the winner had to get 622 votes – 50% plus one. It took nine hours.

And therein lies the real story that Germans are interested in. Merkel’s guy, Christian Wulff, currently the governor of the state of Lower Saxony (think Hannover, if you don’t know Osnabrück) – the handsome dude with those sexy rectangular rimless glasses that grace the faces of most German businessmen – was supposed to win on the first round. If he had, Merkel’s government, now seen to be crumbling, as I said, would have gotten a necessary boost. But he didn’t. And he didn’t win on the second round, either. Only in the third round did he get 625 votes, three more than an absolute majority.

The scandal is that the black and yellow coalition has 644 seats. The SPD and the Greens have 462 seats, but their candidate, Joachim Gauck, got 499 votes on the first round and even 490 on the second and 494 on the third. Which means an awful lot of the ruling coalition members voted for the opposing party’s guy.

Merkel tried to put a good face on things. Ende gut, alles gut, as they say. All’s well that end’s well. Wulff will move his family into Schloss Bellevue, the president’s residence, and the conservatives will still call the shots. But there will be lots of grumbling and wondering who the disloyal bastards were who bailed ship.

The process raises so many questions. One is, if you’ve gone and separated the political job of chancellor from the job of representing the nation the way the monarchs of Britain, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Spain do, to mention just a few, why then would you allow his or her election to become a means of building up or tearing down a chancellor’s ruling coalition? When I think of German presidents, I think of people like Theodor Heuss, the first of ten, and of Richard von Weizsäcker, the sixth, known for his intellectual skills, his criticism of a political system where politicians think more of reelection than of running the country, and his work on reunification. Big men, who soar over the political scene to raise expectations of the nation and appeal to people’s loftier selves. What does this political spectacle have to do with that?

Another fascinating aspect of the German political scene is what is going on on the far left. Since the Greens and the Socialists could have been a solid counterweight to the Black and the Yellow (the ruling coalition CDU/CSU and FDP), if the Left (die Linke) had thrown their weight behind Gauck as well, he would have won. In the first and second rounds, many CDU/CSU voters went over to Gauck, remember. But, as in the United States, where the conservatives understand the power of loyalty and discipline and the left are splintered, the far left Linke just can’t seem to find it in their hearts to join the left of center parties, even to win an election.

In the U.S., political dysfunctionality is felt most clearly at the right end of the spectrum, where Republicans, and more specifically, the Tea Party libertarian wacko splinters on the right of the spectrum, seem most of the time to be for nothing and against everything. Here in Germany, it’s the far left that is better at making things not happen.

But the reasons for the dyfunctionality are totally different. Die Linke can’t support Gauck because too many of their members are still holding tight to their DDR communist ideals, and Gauck knows entirely too much about where the bodies are buried.

Many are astonished to note that Die Linke couldn’t work with the other parties on the left, the socialists and the Greens, to get Gauck elected. Why, they wonder, don’t they see that their dogged insistence on not supporting Gauck is what opened the door to Wulff? Why this inability to work with progressives to keep a conservative out of the job?

I think the answer is die Linke are not progressives. They are diehard holdovers from the DDR old guard. One of them, Diether Dehm, explained that choosing between the two candidates, Gauck and Wulff, was like choosing between Hitler and Stalin. That pretty much makes poor Diether leading candidate for Dumb Nuts of the Year Award. At least he quickly apologized as soon as he could get his foot out of his mouth.

Remind you of Nader supporters? All our opponents are indistinguishable from one another? In Nader’s case we got W instead of Gore and the whole world became a nastier place. This time the consequences are arguably less momentous, but look what they missed. Gauck is not only an East German, he worked in East Germany from the inside. His children escaped to the West, but he stayed. And when reunification came, he devoted his life to cleaning up the mess. Germany has an East German chancellor in Angela Merkel. A conservative. It could have had an East German in Gauck as president as well. What a gift to the nation that would have been symbolically, what a good twenty year anniversary gift after the challenge of putting these two diametrically opposed nations back together to have both offices filled by former citizens of the DDR.

But maybe it’s not an irony, but just further confirmation of how difficult that task is, that it didn’t happen because those who might have supported the best of the DDR were still clinging to the worst of it, running and hiding from exposure and responsibility.

OK, so much for the shady stuff. Let me focus now on what strikes me, as an American used to American politicians, as a ray of sunshine.

The most obvious good stuff is Germany’s more open, more democratic, more human acceptance of difference. At least in politics. Berlin has a gay mayor. So does Hamburg. The leader of one of the conservative ruling coalition parties is gay. The man who just got elected president is a divorced Roman Catholic who will live with his own two children and another one from his current (Protestant, by the way) wife’s first marriage in the presidential palace, and the Germans are talking about it as an inspirational family scene. OK, so she will be the first First Lady to have a tattoo.

His opponent in the election is a Lutheran minister who is separated from his wife and living with his girlfriend – and nobody worries for a minute that if he had been elected this minister living with his girlfriend would have brought her to live in the presidential palace as well. In fact, that would have been just fine with most people.

Even the relatively conservative… (and I feel the need to keep pointing out that what is considered conservative because it’s relatively right of center here, in the U.S. would be left of center.) Even the relatively conservative Christian Wulff appointed a Turkish-German woman, Aygül Özkan, this last April, to be minister for social affairs in Lower Saxony. And what did this Christian Democratic Party member lady then do? She made people take down the crucifixes in the classrooms, giving Christian conservatives all over the country reason to wonder if their breakfast beer will ever taste the same.

Then there is this refreshing lack of sleaze. Everybody, but everybody, was falling over themselves all the time to say nice things about everybody else involved.

I mean look at these two candidates. The worst you can say about Wulff is that he is boring. He smiles a lot. He has managed to amass a lot of power, but when people suggested he should seek the chancellor’s job he demurred. “I’m not enough of an Alpha male,” he said. No kidding. Actually said that. You might have a whack at him for divorcing his wife and marrying a much younger woman, but this is Germany, not the American Bible belt, and people are quick to take note of the fact that, a) his second wife is really a lovely woman and they make the hardest hearts melt when they have their picture taken with their little two-year-old boy; b) he and his ex-wife are apparently on very good terms and she says, publicly at least, very nice things about him; c) nobody thinks that’s anybody’s business, just as it’s nobody’s business that this divorcee is a Roman Catholic.

When you turn to the other guy, you really see something to sit up and take notice of. Joachim Gauck is an East German whose father, after surviving the war, was arrested, charged with being an enemy of the state, and shipped off to Siberia. Gauck grew up an ardent opponent of the communist system and, unable to get into journalism as a result of his political views, went into the church instead. And then dedicated himself to working from within to clean up the DDR. And it only gets better. Since reunification he has led the investigation into the abuses of the Stasi, the East German secret police.

Gauck is also a powerful speaker and can bring people to tears. Years of giving sermons, I suppose. His personal story moves people and his ability to put into words the emotions of so many Germans over the fall of the Wall and Reunification makes people want to hear more. Nobody doubts his sincerity, and even Merkel can’t hide her admiration for the man. Polls show a majority of Germans would like to see him become president.

But Gauck is old and Wulff is young. Gauck has the support of the socialists and the Greens, but they don’t have the votes and Wulff is the Golden Boy of the Ruling Class. The only thing Wulff supporters have been able to lay on Gauck is that he is a divider (because he would bring down the current power structure?) and that his focus on remembering the sins of the past is “not what Germany needs today – they need a young guy who makes people think of the future, not the past.”

Geschmacksache (question of taste), I say. I’m with the majority. I’d take Gauck any day. He’s clean as a whistle, honest as the day is long, has seen it all, paid his dues in life, and somehow still gets up and goes to work in the morning. (He also deserves more than a string of clichés for praise, but it’s time to wrap this up.) But the people don’t decide, their parliamentarians do, and that, boys and girls, is what representative democracy is all about.

Having described Gauck in pretty heroic terms, I also want to point out that Wulff too has some pretty amazing things going for him. He was stuck at age 16 with a mother suffering from multiple sclerosis after her husband, Wulff’s stepfather, ran off. Wulff took care of her himself the rest of her life, and raised his little sister, as well.

If this were fiction, nobody would buy this political battle between two heroic figures. But it isn’t fiction. It’s amazingly real. But then look what I’m working with. I come from the land of Tom DeLay and Ron Blagojevich.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so naïve as to think Germany does it all right and America does it all wrong. This is a highly selective cherry picking of the two political cultures. And I’ve left out tons of detail – how the left chose Gauck not simply as a good guy but because he would (and did) appeal to conservatives in lots of ways, (he supports troops in Afghanistan, in contrast to the socialist party line which is in strict opposition, for example) and they would vote against their own guy and bring the right down.

But still. How civilized it all was. Absolutely no name-calling. Genuine expressions of respect and even affection for people on the other side. An open democratic election ( the issue of direct elections of a president aside), for the world to admire.

One could do worse than spend a little time watching a well-functioning democracy at work.

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