The European Left seems on the rise. With left-of-center parties doing very well in elections in France, Greece, and Germany, it is tempting to read these elections as part of a broader repudiation of the conservative EU project of fiscal stability and indifference to unemployment. And surely, no election in Europe these days is removed from the question of where the EU is going.
Yet, the German elections, in the provinces/states of Schleswig-Holstein and North-Rhine Westphalia, were primarily provincial elections about provincial problems. At the same time, the recent election in North Rhine-Westphalia reveals interesting dimensions of how people negotiate the financial crisis at the provincial level.
The elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) had become necessary because the liberal party inadvertently brought down the minority government of the Social Democrats and the Green Party. The occasion was a fight over the budget in which the liberals wanted to appeal to their anti-tax constituency and at the same time support their minority government. Germany is not used to minority governments. Hence, those who deal with minority governments do not necessarily understand the arcane legal and political rules involved in keeping minority governments alive.
The elections worked well for the two parties that had formed the minority government: the Social Democrats received 39.1% of the vote (up by 4.6%) and the Greens 11.3% (down by 0.8%). The Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Merkel, received a disappointing 26.3% (down 8.3%). The Liberals, whose grandstanding had caused the election, came out with a surprisingly high 8.6%. The Pirate Party, barely visible in the last election, scored a strong 7.8%. What do these results mean? Who and what has won?
First, women won. Hannelore Kraft and Sylvia Löhrmann, the leading candidates for the Social Democrats and the Greens, respectively, converted their minority government into a solid majority. This is not just about gender, but about gender in an interesting way.
Kraft and Löhrmann won not in spite of their gender. They used it, by mobilizing a non-confrontational and caring form of femininity that resonated with the voters. They did not campaign against one another. From the beginning, they were committed to form a coalition. Hence, Kraft did not engage in the macho politics of first trying to get as many votes as possible and then trying to woo an attractive coalition partner. Both women were also aided by the fact that Norbert Röttgen, the candidate for the Christian Democratic Union, had only committed to moving to NRW if he won the election. In the case of a loss, a possibility that has turned into reality, he would stay in Berlin as the Federal Minister of the Environment. Kraft, in contrast, seemed committed to the province instead of maximizing career opportunities.
The elections not only vindicated a non-confrontational and caring style of politics. The minority government’s impressive record on social issues, centering on school reform and support for youth and families, impressed the voters. For example, the minority government managed to solve a conflict on schooling that seemed intractable. The classic German school system segregates students by perceived ability starting in grade five. This system exacerbates existing social inequalities. Conservative parents stridently oppose the closer integration of the different forms of schools in the name of meritocracy. Kraft managed to diffuse the conflict by allowing municipalities to decide between different models of secondary schools. This compromise is likely to improve the conditions of schooling for many children from working class and immigrant families.
The election signals support of German voters for the welfare state, but it is the local, provincial welfare state at home. It is far from clear that these same voters would support the conditions of possibility for a welfare state that need to be present at the EU level or a general commitment to the welfare state in the EU. The voters would like a caring, anticipatory welfare state in NRW, but probably not similar provisions in a Greek state that is financially dependent on the EU.
Crises often breed new parties, or they buoy extremist parties that have existed on the fringes. What is to report on this front? The Pirate Party is on the rise. It is now represented in four German provincial parliaments. The Pirates bundle the energy, skills, and values of young voters and combine it with the enthusiasm of older citizens who feel that no party properly represents them. The results are promising. The party’s core issues are copyright, civil liberties, internet regulation, and general transparency in politics. They field candidates that have only recently begun to be active in politics. They are, in a political way, cute. And they are important. They compete with the old liberal parties that have focused on lowering taxes rather than defending civil liberties, as well as with the leftist parties that have become too entrenched, used to compromise, and unimaginative. One Pirate demand, for example, is to provide free local public transportation in order to reduce traffic and make the right to mobility real for low-income people. The Pirates are a product of the crisis; their membership is made up of people who did not feel at home in the other parties. Given their outlook and their radical democratic practices, I can only hope that they are here to stay, to remind us that democracy can be more meaningful if we can participate more meaningfully and take up the opportunities we have.
What, then, can we make of the NRW election? It was not a vote on the EU, on Greece, on the Euro, or even on the future of the welfare state. It was a local election. Yet this election gives the hope for a style of politics that is cooperative, post-macho, open to compromise, and committed to social justice, with a good dose of new inventive Pirate politics. It is still too early to say how much of this spirit carries over into the 2013 German national elections.