Mar 142014
 

Are you politically neutral?

Here is a nice little conundrum for you. As a political scientist, you necessarily spend much of your time analysing, well, politics. If you happen to study the system you are living in, that makes for some awkward social situations.

Senior Citizens in Hesse (2030 projection)

Grey or Red Hesse? Distribution of senior citizens in Hesse (2030 projection)

I have recently completed a chapter on political culture in the federal state of Hesse (pro-tip: this is not the place that supplies the community with those pesky non-invertible matrices). This is a contribution to a collected volume on the political history of Hesse that is subsidised by the Hessian “Centre for Political Education” and edited by one of their staff. Every German state has a “Centre for Political Education”.1 They are government agencies that were set up after the war as part of the effort to re-educate the Germans and help building a democratic political culture. Because they are tax funded and work for the greater good, it is part of their job description to be as party-political neutral as humanly possible.

(Still) Red Hesse? Oops, Wrong Question

In my contribution, I deal (amongst other things) with the “Red Hesse Myth”: the idea (promoted by the Social Democrats in the 1970s) that the people of Hesse have an innate disposition to vote for the Left. This notion is somewhat ridiculous, given that large parts of the state are still very rural and shaped by conservative traditions. It is also hard to reconcile with the fact that Hessian state politics is rather polarised by German standards.

I thought my data-based rambling was innocent enough, but now, several months after I have submitted what I thought was the final draft, the editor has informed me that some passages could be misconstrued in a party political way and asked me to re-write them in a more neutral tone. Rather charmingly, she failed to tell me whether it was too left-leaning, too conservative or simply too much concerned with politics. So I asked her to clarify, but so far, she has not replied. If you read German, see for yourself and drop me a hint.

The annoying thing is of course that I will have to withdraw my contribution (specifically written for this book) if they demand changes that I am not comfortable with, which just goes to show that one should steer clear of edited volumes. Has something like this ever happened to you?

Footnotes:

1

German Politics aficionados will not be surprised: Obviously, there is also a Federal Centre for Political Education which has absolutely no say over the work of the state centres, although they often co-operate.

Jan 192014
 

CDU-Greens Coalition: No Rush Please, We’re Hessian

A mere four months after the Hessian state election, the new CDU-Greens (aka black-green) coalition has duly confirmed Volker Bouffier as Minister President after one tiny glitch (more on that below). While the guys in Hesse took their time, everyone is now very excited, because a successful CDU-Greens coalition would open up a whole host of possibilities beyond the entrenched 2+(2+1) pattern of party competition in Germany.

Home of the CDU-Greens Coalition: Hessischer Landtag Wiesbaden
Home of the CDU-Greens Coalition: Hessischer Landtag Wiesbadenmuckster / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

It is not, however, exactly a first: From 2008 to 2010, the city state of Hamburg was governed by a black-green coalition, and from 2009, an even more unlikely ‘Jamaica’ (black-green-yellow, i.e. CDU/Green/FDP) coalition governed in the Saarland before it collapsed in 2011. The media’s official excuse for getting overexcited is that Hesse is the first ‘Flächenland’ (‘area state’, i.e. not a city state) where the new coalition format is tested. But the real reason is that Hesse is at the same time the most likely and the most unlikely place for such an experiment.

Why is Hesse Special?

Hesse holds a special place in the heart of every red-blooded German Politics anorak because it is unusual. Although it has a huge rural core and its traditional industries have been in decline for a very long time, it was dominated by the Social democrats for decades. Back in the 1980s, it became the test bed for red-green coalitions when a young Joschka Fischer was sworn in as the first green minister in Germany, wearing his trademark trainers (now kept in a museum).

Then, the tide turned. In 1999, Roland Koch won the election for the CDU and became Minister President, an office he held until he resigned in 2010 in a surprise move to take a job in the industry. Koch survived a major donation scandal as well as various minor scandals, a lost election (after which he hung on as head of a minority cabinet) and an endless string of controversies over his rather aggressive and often (right-wing) populist approach to politics. During his reign, Hesse’s party system became even more polarised and segmented than it had been in the past. And CDU-led government in Hesse seemed all but inevitable.

What’s in a Bunch of Names?

Back in 2008, Koch, proud bearer of a proper German name (which translates as ‘cook’), authorised a series of posters highlighting the fact that two of the opposition parties were indeed led by folks with very foreign-sounding names (Al-Wazir of the Greens and Ypsilanti of the SPD), while the third opposition party (led by someone with a less suspicious name) was labelled as “Communist”. His attitude left a lot of bad blood. Nonetheless, his successor (hint: French-sounding name), though a long-term ally of Koch and widely considered a law & order politician, was able to embark on a series of talks with all political parties after the election, which had given none of the usual proto-coalitions an outright majority.

More importantly, he convinced Al-Wazir, his old political enemy from the days when Bouffier was known (or admired) as the ‘Black Sheriff’ of Hessian Home Affairs, to become his deputy. During the talks, Bouffier emerged as an unexpectedly shrewd political operator who presented his party – in Hesse, the other Länder and perhaps even in Berlin – with a new option beyond the unloved Great Coalition and the outdated CDU/FDP formats. If a CDU-Greens coalition can work in Hesse, it might work just everywhere.

So what was the glitch? In the first ballot, some MPs were given ballot papers listing the candidate’s name as ‘Max Mustermann’ (Sam Specimen), a popular placeholder for document templates. Allegedly, at least one person voted for this familiar character. Consequently, a second ballot had to be held. The current rapprochement not withstanding, names still seem to be a bit of a problem in Hesse.

Nov 262013
 

Coalition Talks: Not Quite as Speedy as Papal Election (and less fun)

It’s crunch time in Berlin: A mere two months after the election, both the SPD and Merkel’s CDU have announced that they want to resolve all remaining issues during yet another sleepless night of haggling (the Bavarian CSU is more reluctant). Tomorrow, they want to present the ‘coalition treaty’, a 170+ page agenda for the next four years. If the SPD’s restless rank-and-file will approve of this document is (quite literally) a question for another day.

The SPD kicked-off the talks with the announcement that they would no longer unconditionally rule out coalitions with the Left at the federal level (“but hey, no pressure”). It took the CDU some time to respond to this, but they did so with a vengeance: In Hesse, which held a land election on the day of the Federal election, the CDU has now entered coalition talks with the Greens. If these talk succeed, it would be the first CDU/Green coalition in a large non-city state (a coalition in Hamburg broke down relatively quickly, and so did a CDU/FDP/Green coalition in tiny Saarland).

Kanzleramt in Berlin
Werner Kunz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

First and foremost, this is a remarkable development in itself: Hesse has possibly one of the most polarised subnational party systems. Just a few years ago, then CDU leader and long-term minister president Roland Koch quite happily campaigned on the fact that the leaders of the SPD and the Greens had foreign-sounding names. But after the inconclusive election and four full rounds of sounding exercises involving all parties, a CDU/Green coalition is not longer unthinkable.

The Real Result: Less Segmentation?

But the Hessian regrouping also has a long-term, two-level strategic element (although all parties deny it): If the FDP does not rebound, the CDU needs an alternative. And much by the same token, the Greens don’t want to tie themselves too closely to the ailing SPD.

Black-green coalitions have been the stuff of political war games and academic debates for the last two decades. Now, they could become a reality. I’m not sure if the September election and this long, protracted negotiations in Berlin will indeed bring about a viable agreement between Christian Democrats and the SPD. But at any rate, they seem to have quickly reduced segmentation in the German party system.