Nov 162014
 

Much merriment in the Eastern state of Thuringia: 25 years after the fall of the wall, the Greens and the SPD in the state parliament are poised to form a coalition with the Left (die Linke), which would give the Left its first minister president ever.

What’s the Matter with the Left?

Predictably, this is creating all sorts of backlash. On the surface, it is all about Thuringia, and about the Left’s uneasy relationship with the past. But on another level, it’s about the prospects of triple left (or red/red/green) coalitions in Western states and ultimately on the federal level.

2310190122 0e07743880 m ddr The Math of Post SocialismPhoto by pdxjmorris cc The Math of Post SocialismThe Left is one of the strangest creatures in German politics. It was formed in 2007 by a merger of the WASG – a group of SPD dissidents who rejected the welfare reforms/cuts (delete as appropriate) introduced by the Schröder government from 2002 on – and the PDS. The PDS in turn came about by renaming (twice) East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED), the local equivalent of the Soviet Union’s communist party. Consequentially, the continuing role of the PDS after 1990 has been controversial. Right now, the Greens, the SPD and everybody’s hipster grandmother demand that the Left apologises for four decades of state socialist authoritarianism.

What is Left of the SED in the Left? (sorry, could not resist this one)

The other day, I heard Dietmar Bartsch on the radio, who played an instrumental role as one of the organisers of the WASG/PDS merger. Asked about the Left’s relationship with its state socialist past, Bartsch argued that the media and the Left’s political enemies had overplayed the issue: After all, only one per cent of the SED’s previous members were still enrolled in today’s Left. That sounds like a tiny fraction, right? Right, and this is because the figure (if it is correct) is misleading, to say the least. After all, the relevant question is not what became of the SED members, but rather how important the old guard still is today. So lets do the math.

In 1989, the SED had 2.3 million members, roughly 14 per cent of the GDR’s total population. After the wall came down and unification became a real prospect, they began to leave the sinking ship in their droves. Around the time of unification, less than 10 per cent of the original number remained, and over the ensuing couple of decades, many more left or simply passed away, as it were chiefly the elderly who had been loyal to the party.

2372055396 f498a95bab m DDR The Math of Post SocialismPhoto by pdxjmorris cc The Math of Post Socialism

Against this backdrop, Bartsch’s one per cent figure looks plausible, so let us assume that that many of the old SED stock still remain in the Left. That works out at 23,000. Is that a lot, or not? Over at the FU in Berlin, Oskar Niedermeyer has been compiling party membership figures since the dawn of time. In 2012 (the latest data available), the Left had about 68,000 members. So roughly one third of the current members of the Left were already members of the SED before the Iron Curtain lifted.

Obviously, this is indicative of a strong post-socialist streak within the party. That may or may not be a bad thing, but in my book, the politically relevant fact is that Bartsch built a smokescreen around this simple fact, and that the interviewer – a thoughtful and knowledgeable person – let him get away with it. The bottom line is of course that we need to promote basic statistical literacy: The probability of being a member of the Left, conditional on having been a member of the SED (p(Left|SED)) can be very different from the probability of having been a member of the SED, conditional on being a member of the Left (p(SED)|Left), unless both parties are of equal size. That is Bayes’ Rule for you, Dr Bartsch. Next.

 

Nov 032014
 

Even the Washington Post has woken up to the fact that 25 years after the uprising in the GDR, Germany stubbornly remains divided economically, politically, and socially. In the great scheme of things, this may matter less than you might think: In Western Europe alone, the UK, Spain, Belgium, or Switzerland – countries that have been around as nation states for much longer than Germany’s current iteration – are similarly diverse.

But it keeps the German Politics crowd busy enough. I’m currently working on a piece that looks at the latest federal election in comparative (east vs west) perspective – something that I have done previously for the 1998, 2002, and 2009 elections (2005 was someone else’s turn). The biggest difference is of course in the results of the Left party, which, compared to the West German districts, is about four times as successful in the East (this figure is down from a 20:1 rate in the 1990s). But here is another Bundestagswahl fun fact: The Liberals – not longer represented in the federal parliament for the first time since 1949, because their national result was just below the five per cent electoral threshold – barely scraped beyond this threshold in the old West, where they garnered 5.1 per cent of the valid votes. Based on the western results, the former Christian Democrats/Liberal coalition could have continued. Once more, the Easterners brought about political change.lonesome politician East Germans Killed the FDP

 

Oct 042014
 

The rise of Germany’s new far right party AfD has been nothing but meteoric. Founded only months before the 2013 General Election, the party came tantalisingly close to the electoral threshold, delivering the strongest performance of any new party since the 1950s. Eight months later, they made it easily into the European parliament (outperforming the Liberals (FDP)), and this summer, they won representation in three East German state parliaments, further startling the establishment.
The biggest problem for any far-right party in Germany is respectability: Any (open) display of extremist language or symbols, any link to the Nazi past will make a party unelectable for the vast majority of the population and may even lead to prosecution under Germany’s anti-Nazi laws.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the NPD managed to retain a degree of decorum for some years before jumping the shark in the 1970s. Similarly, the Republicans started out as a CSU breakaway but quickly morphed into yet another extremist group in the eyes of the public. Later attempts of the new leadership to return to a more moderate position came too late to remedy the situation. More interesting was Judge Schill’s attempt to create a modern right-wing populist party in the early 2000s, but they never did well outside Hamburg and quickly collapsed due to Schill’s erratic behaviour.
The AfD leadership, on the other hand, has so far managed to keep well-known extremists out of the party (or at least out of the limelight). But recently, the party’s image has suffered two significant blows. A couple of weeks ago, the AfD in Brandenburg was forced to expel a newly minted state MP who had posted an antisemitic cartoon on Facebook, alongside a link to an extremist propaganda site. This week, it transpired that a party leader in the Eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern  has been charged with inciting racial hatred over (anonymous) posts on the interwebs.
Whether this is actually true remains to be seen. Either way, both events in isolation will not hurt the party, which is doing very well in the polls. But they will help to strengthen the cordon sanitaire that Merkel has created between her own Christian Democrats and the AfD, and resonate with the extremism frame that the left is deploying against them.

May 242014
 

Those old enough to remember that Bill Murray had a career before Lost in Translation (or to remember Bill Murray) will instantly recognise this scene: Punxsutawney Phil is predicting six more electoral cycles of political misery for Germany’s Liberal Democrats. Granted that the animal is a bit on the small side, but first, This is not America, and second, the choice of rodent is rather apt: Aren’t we all guinea pigs when it comes to policy making?

rodent e1400933785803 222x300 The Weirdest Campaign Poster Yet (Groundhog Day Edition)

Punxsutawney Phil predicting six more cycles of electoral Misery

The hopeful candidate molesting the furry bugger promises  that he will listen, not ignore (whom?). He might change his mind once the beast sinks its front teeth into that yummy finger.

May 222014
 

The Pirates are running a rather cheap electoral campaign: No faces (models or not) but only drawings in their trademark orange/blue tones. Their stinginess even extends to the meaning of their slogans. I was a bit thrown off by “Borders are so 80″, then discovered the small “er”, so borders are so 1980s, apparently. Well, yes, I get the implication for Europe. But why is there a “Herzschlag” (heartbeat? or heart attack???) between fear and courage, and why would that make me vote for the Pirates? I have a feeling that Literal Campaign Video Clips might become a thing very soon.

pirates 300x216 Pretty Perplexing Pirates Posters

Pirates Posters: Say what?

 

May 212014
 

The local Liberal Democrats never fail to amaze me. Just when I thought it could not get any better, I found another gem for my ever growing collection.

losing grip 225x300 More Silly Election Posters

Local Campaigns: The Hour of Amateurs

“Höhenflug” is the act of (figuratively) ascending to some higher plane (not an imminent danger here) but losing touch in the process. “Bodenhaftung” is literally grip (get one, please!) or traction, so best illustrated by sitting on a tractor. What better way to show that you are down to earth (pun intended) and in no way out of touch than riding this nifty little machine in your best dark suit, as any local farmer would? Bonus points for gratuitous use of “frischer Wind” (a breath of fresh air), quite possibly the most overused phrase in German politics and code for not being incumbent.

May 172014
 

There may be a European election on, but around here, the big one is the local elections. In the plural: On my last count, I will have to vote for town mayor, town council, municipal mayor, municipal council, district council and perhaps even leader of the district council, though I’m not 100 per cent sure re the last one.

Important as they may be, local elections are the domain of the amateurs, as the old saying goes amongst German Political Scientist.1 To make things slightly worse, councillors are elected under an open list system (with not threshold), so there are some incentives to cultivate a personal vote, and quite some margin for error. So far, I have spotted few real howlers but then the Liberal Democrats (FDP), wiped out in the last Bundestag election and poised to do badly in the EP2014, decided to go for this year’s Bad Pun Award.

fdp 211x300 The Local Liberal Democrats Illustrate Some German Idioms for Us

Another Campaign Poster from Hell

So the guy on the poster is literally fishing (or at least holding a rod while wearing a suit) in clear water (im Klaren, which, if you push it, could be read as a pun-within-the-pun on alcohol), as opposed to fishing in murky waters (im Trüben fishen). The latter used to mean “cheating” but has also acquired connotations of being lost. Say what?

But there is more. The candidate is also “ortsnah” (local, in a technical sense that never, ever applies to persons), as opposed to “weltfremd” (unworldly, stuck inside an ivory tower). One might argue that, on some level loosely attached to logic “ortsnah” and “weltfremd” are not exactly opposites but rather awkwardly related concepts. But quite possibly someone sensed a tension between “ort” (the local place) and “welt” (world) and decided that nothing says “local guy” quite like a misguided rhetorical flourish. With PR guys like this, who needs political enemies?

Footnotes:

1

I’ve made that one up.

Apr 072014
 

You could not possibly make this up. Amidst a legal-constitutional battle over the NPD’s survival, the General Secretary (top executive manager) of Germany’s oldest right-wing extremist party NPD resigns over what is by now affectionately known as the Saarbrücken Penis Cake Affair. The story (as ridiculous as it gets) also involves Miss Nationalist Santa, and a lot of backstabbing hidden behind the moral outrage. Publikative has the full story and the original reporting (in German), whereas Spiegel Online (also in German and apparently a bit lax on the reporting part) has the pictures (if you absolutely have to see them).