“We’ve just seen it. Passion in political debate is alive and well,” a relieved German talkshow host told his audience after a 75-minute debate between five of the country’s smaller political parties Monday night.
He had a point. Germany’s federal election, just three weeks away, has been roundly criticized for being rather dull and boring to date. While that may be welcome for some observers after a couple years that included turbulent elections in France, the United States and Britain, it doesn’t exactly make for great viewing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her chief challenger, Martin Schulz, played their part in supporting the boring narrative of this year’s election in their one-and-only televised debate on Sunday night. Ms. Merkel, whose Christian Democrats hold a double-digit lead in the polls, was widely seen by the public as beating her Social Democratic challenger, who did little to distinguish himself on policy.
Leave it to the little parties to finally liven things up – and not just because it provides good television ratings and fodder for journalists. Germany’s economy may be humming along smoothly these days, but the country still faces major challenges that cry out for a serious and passionate political debate.
“I don't like this European populism, neither from the right, nor from the left.”
The sparks flew almost from the beginning. Sahra Wagenknecht, head of the Left Party, challenged her right-leaning Bavarian rival of the Christian Social Union (a sister party of Ms. Merkel’s CDU) on whether state-owned companies should be privatized. “I wish the CSU would understand that privatization achieves nothing,” she said, prodding for more government control.
That was met with a volley from the pro-business Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, who charged that Germany’s poor broadband speeds (one of many problems not really adressed in Sunday’s debate) are the result of a monopoly named Deutsche Telekom. Rather than more government, the answer was more competition.
These are real differences that could seriously affect how Germany is governed in the coming years. Even if Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz may agree on much, Germany’s political system is such that each larger party will likely need at least one coalition partner to govern the country after the September 24 election. That could mean Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats pick Mr. Lindner’s Free Democrats. Or, if the opinion polls should turn in his favor, Mr. Schulz’s Social Democrats could plump for Ms. Wagenknecht’s Left Party.
In fact, there are four parties currently vying for third place in the election, each polling around 10 percent (see graphic). On the farthest left is the aptly named Left Party, followed by the more center-left and environmentally-friendly Greens. Then there’s the pro-business, socially-liberal Free Democrats and the Alternative for Germany on the far-right. Unlike what happened with their two larger rivals, the differences between the smaller parties was sharply exposed in a host of areas Monday night.
Perhaps most interesting was the dynamic between Ms. Wagenknecht on the far left and Alice Weidel, representing the Alternative for Germany, on the far right. Ms. Wagenknecht pleaded for compassion for the families of refugees and challenged Ms. Weidel to condemn the neo-Nazi fringes of her own party, a charge reminiscent of some recent debates in the United States. Ms. Weidel countered by demanding Ms. Wagenknecht reject her own party’s fanciful pledge to work toward a future of “open borders” around the world.
Where the two extremes found some common ground was on Europe. Both condemned Germany’s costly bailout of its southern European neighbors, albeit for different reasons (Ms. Wagenknecht because it focused on bailing out unscrupulous banks, Ms. Weidel because she believes the euro should be abandoned altogether).
That, in turn, prompted an impassioned plea for European unity from the Greens co-leader, Cem Özdemir. “I don’t like this European populism, neither from the right, nor from the left.”
That may be true, but at least it made for a spirited debate.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global, currently based in Washington DC. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org