I’ve been in Berlin for a few days now in the run-up to the general election that takes place on Sunday. One of the remarkable things about the campaign, which has been lacklustre even by German standards, is the way that the two leading candidates, the Christian Democrat chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who have shared power in a grand coalition for the last four years, have carefully avoided discussing the key issues facing Germany. Case in point: the war in Afghanistan.
The Europeans love Obama, and all of the Europeans, the Germans love him the most. That is one of the not altogether surprising but nevertheless interesting findings of the 2009 edition of Transatlantic Trends, an annual survey by the German Marshall Fund that tracks attitudes to the transatlantic relationship in Europe and the United States. According to the poll, 92% of Germans approved of President Obama, compared to only 12% who approved of President Bush this time last year – in other words, a whopping 80-point “Obama bounce”, as the authors of the report call it. (In Britain, by contrast, support for the US president jumped from 17% to 82% – a mere 65-point difference.)
The case of Zeca Schall, a 45 year-old black German politician, got a lot of publicity during the election campaign in the eastern German state of Thuringia last month. It all started when the Christian Democrats featured Schall – until then a little-known local party official – on an election billboard along with Dieter Althaus, the Christian Democrat prime minister of Thuringia. The far-right NPD called Schall a “Quotenneger” (which means either “token negro” or “token nigger”; the German word Neger is ambiguous) and Schall was given police protection. Most of the media coverage outside Germany (CNN even covered it) focused on the persistence of racism in the former East Germany, but I actually found two other aspects of the story interesting as well.
Back in 1985, the Social Democrats and Greens in the state of Hesse formed the first ever “red-green” government in German politics. When it collapsed less than two years later, it seemed destined to be a footnote in German political history. In fact, it turned out to be the prototype for a string of other “red-green” governments and ultimately for the national government under Gerhard Schröder in 1998. In the city-state of Hamburg the Christian Democrats and Greens are currently negotiating an agreement to form a “black-green” coalition under Ole von Beust that may eventually re-draw Germany’s political map in a similar way to that first “red-green” experiment. It also parallels other recent attempts elsewhere – for example by David Cameron in the UK and by former Bush speechwriter David Frum in the US – to formulate Green conservatism.