At first glance, Germany appears, economically, to be quite unusually successful. Despite the budgetary and financial crises affecting the other nations of the European Union, the German unemployment rate is declining. It has a positive export balance, and its own budgetary deficit is shrinking due to increases in national income and tax revenues. Indeed, the other European nations expect a relatively prosperous Germany to take more financial responsibility for the Union as a whole—a view not supported by a German majority. That majority thinks that the German welfare state, with health insurance and retirement pensions and considerable investment in culture and education as well as material infrastructure, is exclusively a national achievement. Having recently spent billions on domestic income transfers (from West to East after reunification in 1990), the German citizenry prefers to keep its money in German pockets. Disdain for Eastern and Southern Europeans serves as a solvent, washing away attention to internal differences in income and life chances that might otherwise move to the center of German politics. A truly yellow national popular press, television commentators as clueless as those we know here, and rigid professors of economics insist on austerity as the one true path to economic salvation. Austerity is prescribed not only for other Europeans, but for those Germans so improvident as not to belong to the upper income groups.
The German Left knows better. One problem is that, like Gaul in Caesar’s history, it is divided into three parts. The largest is the party of socialist tradition, the Social Democrats (SPD). It was the party of Willy Brandt; Helmut Schmidt; and, later, Gerhard Schroeder and is close to the trade unions. It is home, too, to much of the critical intelligentsia and its educated public. Its major voting groups are skilled workers, employed women, minor civil servants, and educators. It is strong in the larger cities and in the north and west of the nation. It has suffered major losses in membership and in the 2009 election had its worst result in more than a century. It has had special difficulty in attracting younger voters.
Its rapid succession of leaders in recent decades has blurred its electoral and ideological profile, and now three people are competing to be the candidate for chancellor in the 2013 national elections. One is the party chair, Sigmar Gabriel, who was Schroeder’s successor as minister president (governor) of Lower Saxony before losing a state election. He was environmental minister in the 2003–2009 coalition government of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats under Chancellor Angela Merkel. He is pugnacious, if not choleric; has acute tactical instincts, but lacks large political ideas. Another competitor is the chair of the party’s parliamentary group, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Chief of staff to Schroeder, he was a successful foreign minister as the senior Social De...
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