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German election diary: Posters everywhere but no attacks (economist.com)
45 points by guruz 1512 days ago | hide | past | web | 47 comments | favorite

> attack ads, like Super PACs, are unimaginable here, legally and culturally.

Legally? There are laws preventing certain kinds of criticism of political parties, and we're celebrating this?

Perhaps it's because I haven't seen many attack ads (as a UK citizen who doesn't watch adverts), but I don't get the hatred for them. Is informing the populace of the downsides of your opponents' positions not better than putting contentless posters all over the city?

While I don't agree with silencing laws, I just wanted to point out that attack ads have been a real problem in the UK recently. In November last year the DUP party in Northern Ireland came under criticism for distributing thousands of leaflets attacking a council decision to normalise the regularity with which the Union flag was flown at the Belfast City Hall [0]. This raised tensions which eventually led to a series of attacks in December on the offices and homes of members of rival parties[1], and sustained rioting in January[2].

[0]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20317461

[1]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20619259

[2]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-21020296

The problem comes when some of the advertised downsides are fictitious and/or designed to appeal to people's irrationality.

Personally I think it would be great if there was some enforceable way of making it illegal for politicians to lie about each other. But then you have the problem of who judges that . . . which may end up being an easier problem to solve than the problem of electing good leaders in an American political climate. Not sure.

Well, Germany doesn't have really have activist judges, because they don't have Common Law. Because of this, it is rather hard (and especially hard to justify) to be political in one's judgement in Civil Law systems, so most judges (I obviously cannot say with absolute certainty all) in Civil Law countries tend not to be political motivated.[0]

[0] That is not ruling out them being corrupt, of course.

> Perhaps it's because I haven't seen many attack ads (as a UK citizen who doesn't watch adverts), but I don't get the hatred for them. Is informing the populace of the downsides of your opponents' positions not better than putting contentless posters all over the city?

Here in Canada the drum beat of attack ads is incessent. The Liberal party has gone through a terrible churn of leadership in teh past few years, and the Conservatives roll out attack ads the moment the leader is selected, regardless of how close we are to an election.

Even though the article make this impression it's not illegal in Germany to criticize your political opponent as long as you're not telling straight lies.

Germany politics are and have been for the last couple of years in a rather curious state where the opposition appears to have given up on attacking Merkel in any meaningful way. I think there are several factors that play into this.

First of all, after the 2005 election a grand coaltion between Merkel's CDU and the social democratic SPD was formed leaving only the three smaller parties with a combined 166 out of 614 seats as the opposition. This put the SPD in the position of the CDU's junior partner instead of their usual position of attacking the CDU's political agenda. What may be even worse from the SPD's perspective is that the are now in the position of having supported the decisions made in Merkel's first term which would make it less than believable to attack those decisions now.

In the 2009 election the CDU only lost a marginal amount of votes while the SPD suffered heavy losses to the benefit of the three smaller parties. This allowed Merkel to form the traditional coalition consisting of CDU and the liberal FDP thereby leaving 290 of 622 seats to the oppposition and allowing the SPD to resume their role as the main force in opposition.

Except they never did. Instead of mounting attacks on the government, they stayed tame and oftentimes even concurred with the government on decisions despite no longer being in power. I am not sure about their reasons. Their lack of charismatic leadership personnel may have played a role, but that can only explain so much.

The second and more important factor is probably Merkel's very specific style of governing. She tends to be extremely passive, never exposing herself and opening herself up to criticism. If possible, she avoids making decisions at all. If she has to make decisions, she will always take the popular choice. If hard or controvesial decisions have to be made, she never makes a proposal herself. A proposal is either leaked to the press or presented by one of her ministers. In case said proposals garners widely negative reactions, the minister takes the blame giving Merkel the opportunity to shield herself from the fallout. Should an extraordinary event like the Fukushima accident lead to a sudden reversal in public opinion (towards nuclear energy in this case), Merkel will immediately flip her position and take the opposite one. If you have paid close attention to German politics in the last couple of years, you will see these exact steps repeated over and over again.

The worst part is, it works. Her latest approval rating is at 60% compared to 25% for the SPD candidate. Somehow she has managed to lull not only to public but also her political opposition to sleep over her two terms in office. This leaves us in 2013, a month away from the election with an opposition that behaves more like her pet kitten than her political challenger. What is even worse, is the fact that it leaves the population without a real choice for political change.

If she has to make decisions, she will always take the popular choice.

Are you saying that this is a bad thing? I am always surprised when people demand from politicians to make unpopular choices. Isn't that a bit schizophrenic?

If they simply declare that they are servants of the people and that they will do as the people will despite sometimes disagreeing, that's fine.

But what many politicians do (no idea about Merkel, but I've seen it a million times elsewhere) is take the public opinion as their own. If public opinion supports X, they will say that they believe X. If public opinion shifts and then support Y, they will not only say that they now believe Y, but imply that they always believed Y.

I realise that this is a tricky question, but I think that politicians should act in the best interest of the country for the long run and this may necessitate making unpopular decisions in the short term that may even go against the majority's opinion.

Let's view this from the other side. A politician promises to cut taxes for everyone by an amount of x after being elected. Doing so will require cuts in other budgets. I don't think the majority of people will reason that although it would be nice to have a bit more money in the pocket, it is a better idea to spend that money on say the educational system.

My experience is that very few people are really interested in seing the bigger picture and much fewer even in solving those issues.

I think it's more of a attack on the two-faced deceptiveness that politicians usually exhibit, and the demand for "unpopular choices" is more of a demand for consistency in the face of opposition looking to score political points on a hot-button issue.

Interestingly, Thatcher was known for ignoring pre-election opinion polling statistics (she personally identified herself as a 'conviction politician') and instead pointing at her unbeaten election record. This stubbornness was in fact key to her downfall, and the rest is history.

There are alot of good long term decisions that are unpopular in the short term. Merkel mostly optimizes for a positive short-term outcome, especially this close to the election.

Thats more like a global problem with the current form of democracy though.

Yes, and there are lots of popular short term decisions that would be terrible in the longer term. Lower taxes, yay. Block immigration, hard on crime with long jail terms for minor offenses, deregulate banking etc. Just recently I had a friend who voted for the party that promised to lower taxes complaining about the lack of staff, being overworked and not having a pay rise. He works in a publicly funded institution. People don't seem to think even 2 steps ahead.

Exactly...most of the countries with really high taxes are the most stable financially for example.

It certainly has been very odd, especially considering there was a very noisy and shrill uproar around NSA/BND -- and I use the term was tentatively.

Merkel is a backseat driver, to put it bluntly. When the ride get bumpy then she can defer outrage to whomever she has employed as the driver, however when all is well then she receives nothing but praise for her careful stewardship.

"Should an extraordinary event like the Fukushima accident lead to a sudden reversal in public opinion (towards nuclear energy in this case), Merkel will immediately flip her position and take the opposite one."

I think you mean "away from nuclear energy" ;-) though I dont't think public opinion was ever for it, most people just didn't care enough to make it politically untenable to support it. That changed drastically with Fukushima. And to be honest, I'd rather have a politician in power who is able to change their opinion in response to important events than one who will not admit being wrong whatever happens.

Nuclear energy is a prime example for her usual MO. The people didn't really like nuclear energy but apart from some small groups of activists there was no real opposition. So, in summer/autumn of 2010 she let her people present plans to abandon the phasing out of nuclear energy. Once those didn't meet any meaningful resistance, Merkel sprang into action and made her coalition pass a law to that effect. Then spring of 2011 arrived, the accident happend and public opinion turned into staunch opposition of nuclear energy. Merkel immediately flipped.

Don't get my wrong, I am not opposed to politicians admitting they were wrong, but Fukushima didn't change any facts about nuclear energy. Merkel was operating on exactly the same facts in autumn as in spring and yet her decisions were polar opposites. The only thing that changed was public opinion and that is what I criticise.

Perhaps this is partly due to the multitude of parties, which in turn is due to the nature of the electoral system?

In a two party system, a lot of people feel like they are voting for the lesser of two evils, so negative campaigning is presumably far more helpful to your cause.

If you have to compete with multiple parties for votes, you need to offer more than simply criticism of the opposition.

There are a lot of people protesting the current multiparty proportional system in Bulgaria. They don't like the coalitions, the lists of candidates as opposed to individuals, the indirect election of prime minister (biggest coalition appoints one).

However I am very skeptical that changing the political party structure changes much. Aren't in the end the Republicans and Democrats just two big coalitions of movements that tolerate their coalition partners? If you had a multiparty system you'll get a liberal party, a conservative party, a far-right party and maybe a libertarian party. And they'll form long-run coalitions just like they do in multiparty countries.

In a multi-party system you are still probably voting for the lesser of two or more evils. In Bulgaria between 4 and 7 factions in parliament so its definitely a multi-party systems, although parties like to place themselves on a left-right spectrum and ally accordingly.

Did it have attack ads in all the elections? Absolutely! Ads target everyone, including smaller parties, to get votes from them and create guilt-by-association to their actual or potential coalition partners. You obviously don't target you partners, so thats why a right-left divide seems to appear... so you can claim you get a two-party system, you just have the primaries during the actual election.

Hey, Bulgaria, want to trade?

Here in Canada, the government goes to the party with the most seats, and each seat is handed out in a small regional FPTP election. What this means is that our elections go through two first-past-the-post filters instead of one. In 2008, the Conservatives faced all the other parties aligning against them to throw them out and, through a trick of procedure, they managed to keep control of the government. They were elected with only 38% percent of the vote - the minority ruled as a majority.

Lots of people unhappy with the Conservatives seem to have this idea that a minority government means they have no mandate to rule, etc. Personally, doesn't it represent the country better to have multiple parties with non-majority representation? If you keep winnowing down until you give most of the power to one group which the majority of people don't mind, they can push through whatever legislation they want with impunity. I would rather have the population represented proportionally by MPs who share their views, so that legislation lives or dies by what proportion of the general populace supports it.

As an (extreme) example, you could have parties with different opinions on disjoint issues, like abortion (A) and legalizing marijuana (B). You could then have four parties, AB, A'B, AB', A'B', and some of the populace would vote for each of them based on their support of those issues. If you require that some party 'wins' and gets a majority, people have to work to rank the parties by least distate, by preferring some issues over others. With a whole bunch of minority parties (ideally 2^n, with n binary issues), every voter could actually encode their whole stance on a set of issues, and bills on that issue would pass or fail proportional to the support of the populace.

My point being, FPTP might not be the best at the riding level, but there's no reason to mess with which party becomes 'the government'. The country is well served by the existing Parliamentary system. The Senate, on the other hand...

Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

Agreed. I think having more than two parties to choose from would resonate with many Americans.

Currently we have only to choose between a douche and a turd. It would be nice to at least get different shades of douche and turd to pick, and who knows, we may get to pick something that isn't horrible.

Unfortunately there is no good solution. I followed Indian politics for a while, and the danger of multi-party elections is the dreaded 'coalition' where a bigger, more mainstream party, in an effort to come into power, will align with a smaller, more extreme/fringe party. In this manner extremist views start to gain ground, and gain influence beyond what the simple vote gave them.

One of the reasons why in Germany there's a 5% quorum to enter parliament. The only downside is that your vote is lost if you happened to vote for one such party.

That could be fixed by a preferential system similar to what's in Australia (if the first pick is <5%, take the second, ... repeat until all votes are accounted for in a party that's actually present).

The current power dynamics are in favor of large parties (people voting for the a "safe" party that is the closest to them, instead of risking to lose their vote), so it's unlikely to change.

Indian politics - at least the Lok Sabha - follows a FPTP system which largely forces politicians to coalesce into a two-party system (in this case, a two-coalition system).

In most of Europe, PR systems tend to avoid permanent coalition.

That being said; most European governments are formed by coalitions. But they are seldom the same. And of course, PR is not perfect, there will be some coalitions where small fringe parties do get a larger say than they should. But is not very common.

In Denmark, often we form minority governments (that is a government formed from fewer mandates than half the parliament), but usually with a 'support party'. This support party is sometimes ignored, because they are likely too fringe to have the actual government, and thus reaching across the aisle is necessary.

Doesn't the game theory for this sort of always point to the last, smallest member to join the coalition gets to make the most demands relative to it's size?

If it's get my party with it's 4 seats on board or fail and hold new elections, I can make demands way in excess of what those 4 seats should get me, right? And then once the government's installed, why not just hold them hostage again?

I mean, assuming your parliamentarians have no sense of shame. Maybe that's my bias from watching American legislators.

In some circumstances, yes, but in general, no: game theory doesn't say that.

If the coalition's large parties have alternative small parties to choose from, the smallest party has to compete for entrance with the other smallest parties.

This 'reverse auction' makes it possible that a small party would end up with net 0 power when the right to govern is taken into account (could be itself negative).

An agreement that excludes a new election from being called should be possible at this point (e.g. Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement).

The fact that we normally observe smallest members having outsized power might be explained by, e.g.: 1) Coalition in a two/three-party Westminster-style system tends to mean the third party is essential and doesn't have competition 2) Regression to the mean: we would observe this anyway if power in coalition was independent of party size.

Some of the support parties have tried that, and have been shut out, so the government reaches across the aisle on certain laws. Our previous government tend to do the budget with the opposition party rather than their support party, for these reasons. And the same with our current government.

The only problem is that if the government cannot find an agreement across the aisle, they have to go to their fringe support party. So the opposition always have to wager this when negotiating. If they don't want to find an agreement with the government, the result might be worse than a compromise. So it is an advantage to the government in negotiating positions sometimes.

Makes sense. In Finland the only constant between parliaments seems to be the Swedish People's Party. One or two cabinet seats since 1979 (support ranging from 4.2 to 5.5%). They basically exist to maintain the Swedish language's position in Finland. Since their demands are predictable and relatively trivial, they end up in all combinations, even the current mongrel six-party coalition.

@jbooth - possibly, it sometimes depends on the smaller party. In Irish politics, typically coalitions are formed with one large party and another smaller one. In some cases (a rightwing party known as the progressive democrats) they have been very effective, while in others (the Greens) they have been completely pointless.

Normally, the smaller parties take the blame for the decisions of the larger one, which is a facet of irish politics which I have never been able to understand.

If we stay in Europe, you can see what you just described in the last 70ish year of Italian history.

That seems to happen anyway in US. A lot of extremists, especially in the Republican party.

But what Germany's parties are offering instead of criticism is generic, meaningless feel-good slogans. Better than smear campaigns, to be sure, but still rather disappointing.

The true problem is that most parties flat-out refuse to state a vision for the future of the country. This election season it has become so bad that "having a plan for the future" and "fringe party" have become synonymous.

All parties that have a chance of being in a government coalition only talk about the past, the now, or nothing at all. It's a declaration of intellectual and ideological bankrupcy.

Actually, some of the posters from Die Grünen (Green Party) have a rather personal taste to them. See [1], which shows Merkel and Röstler (figureheads of the current ruling parties) with the caption "It's always someone else's fault". And then of course, there's the fringe parties, like [2], saying "Which ass will you choose this September?".

[1]: http://www.gruene.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Bilder/Webbanner/... [2]: http://img01.lachschon.de/images/153979_WelcherArschdarfsden...

Of course, that's still kittens and rainbows compared to the rabid, poisonous insanity that is considered normal in the US.

I'm from Canada, and there are attack ads everywhere. I can't stand them. Instead of using your money, your time and your effort trying to destroy another candidate, tell me why you're better. I think it's by and large one of the major reasons I have little faith or interest in the politics of my country.

What is there to attack, when they are all exactly the same? Germany will hop between SPD and CDU forever. With 0 change. The greens and FDP are merely helpers to fake some noise in our mindless american-style media apparatus. I don't even bother with voting. Politics only distracting you from what is real.

Does any candidate support closing US military bases in Germany?

They are irrelevant and a non-issue on the federal level (I cannot remember when they were last publicly discussed there, much less controversially discussed). They are about equally irrelevant on the state level and certainly also not controversially discussed there.

On the very local level (city, county, region) they can be an important issue – but the perspective is nearly always an economic one: The base as a large employer in a region that might grow or shrink or close down. Best city marketing approaches for getting Americans from a nearby base to come visit and buy stuff. It’s always stuff like that.

Ok, I guess I can think of one current somewhat heated issue that was recently discussed and that I noticed, living somewhat close to a base and all – but, again, only on a very local level: the US Army being allowed to fly drones for testing purposes (also outside of and between two of their bases). But even there the discussion is not exactly a shouting match and never even connected with any kind of argument to close bases.

I think the general consensus in Germany is that having the US as a tight ally is a good thing. And you don’t throw a tight ally out of your country, especially if what they are doing there is (at least perceived as) completely harmless. Sure, there might be widespread general disagreements with the US military strategy as a whole, but that does not, in general, lead people to want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to say.

I think you might be able to rally quite a few people around a hot button issue like the stationing of nuclear weapons in Germany (but I’m not even sure whether the US still does that), but throwing out the US? Not really.

If you are an American who wants to close all US bases in Germany quite a few German politicians would be indifferent or worried about the US-German relationship and many local politicians with a nearby base would be furious about you taking away all those jobs (not that the bases matter for the German economy in general in any significant way).

>especially if what they are doing there is (at least perceived as) completely harmless

Umm. The citizens Iraq and Afghanistan might disagree with you.

Sure, but there are not many left anyway. There has been some anger because of US spying and the US ignoring German law (flying people to torture centers via Germany).

Maybe the far, far right or far, far left.

But I think they're universally liked because of the economic upswings they bring to the regions (often rural).

not sure that would be possible. their right is based in ancient legal agreements after losing ww2.

It's as easy as just asking them to leave. While the bases re strategically useful for the US, they'd have a hard time labelling them necessary, given the current US-German relationship. But Germany won't ask, because they do some good and little harm.

A relevant point I think is that the bases survived the Iraq fiasco which Europe was broadly against. If the bases survived that, they will be there for a while yet.

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