“GroKo” Completed - Green Light for the Grand Coalition – Week 20 (By Christiane Lemke)

According to German law, parliament will elect the new government leader on December 17, 2013, and current chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) is expected to lead the government for another four years after her party won a decisive victory in September of 2013. The conclusion of coalition negotiations paved the way for Germany´s new government with a grand coalition between the two major parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, to form a Grosse Koalition (“GroKo”).

Negotiations about cabinet ministries resulted in the following share of portfolios for each party: the center right CDU will hold the chancellorship and fill five ministries (Interior, Finance, Defense, Health, Education, and Research), the Bavarian sister party, CSU, will have three (Agriculture, Transportation, and Development Policy) and the coalition partner, the Social Democrats, will head six ministries (Labor and Energy; Foreign Office; Justice and Consumer Protection; Environment and Nuclear Safety; Family, Women, Seniors and Youth). 

The outcome of the negotiations included some surprises. Ursula von der Leyen (CDU), the ambitious current Labor Minister, is ready to lead the Defense Ministry, a highly visible post, while the former Defense Minister will move on to be in charge of interior affairs.  She will be the first woman to head this ministry in Germany. Her new position will give von der Leyen, an experienced and tough female leader in German politics, a highly visible but also complex task, as the Defense Ministry has the reputation of being extremely difficult to lead and most ministers did not serve their full term due to personal or leadership failure and internal strife.

Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the Social Democrats and chief negotiator for the grand coalition, is the designated vice chancellor. In the new cabinet, he will head the Labor and Energy resorts, two key portfolios in German politics now merged into one department, thus becoming “Superminister” with significant influence on German domestic politics. His nomination is not only a personal success in his ambitious career; it moreover signifies the shift towards focusing on domestic social policies for the years to come.  Among other tax and social issues, Gabriel championed the minimum wage settlement in the coalition agreement, which is scheduled to take effect in 2017. And, as a concession to the party´s left wing, Andrea Nahles will lead the Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs. To underline the modernity of Germany´s new government, the coalition government will also include the first minister with Turkish roots, Aydan Özoguz (SPD), who will hold the special Ministry for Migration, Refugees and Integration, an office in the chancellery that was formerly held by Maria Böhme from the CDU.

To secure the inclusion of social policies in the coalition agreement, Gabriel had scheduled a referendum within the Social Democratic Party, a risky, but in the end successful, move that put pressure on the CDU to agree to this controversial piece of policy. With Gabriel taking on the role of vice chancellor, he will clearly shape Germany´s social and labor policies as he vows to speak for the “little people”, the common man, however defined. By emphasizing social issues with an appeal to its traditional constituency, the SPD hopes to move out of the twenty-five percent ditch the party has plunged into in recent elections and, potentially, to recapture the chancellorship in the next elections.

Aside from the chancellery, one of the highly important ministries is finance, and continuity will prevail here, as Wolfgang Schäuble from the CDU heads the Finance Ministry again. He is one of Germany´s most experienced conservative politicians and he is considered to be a close associate (and at times adversary) of the chancellor. Schäuble has been a staunch advocate of balancing budgets and policies and promoting economic growth and German exports. Moreover, he will clearly play a key role in future EU-policies. Schäuble, a promoter of European integration and long-time supporter of the euro, played a major role in the settlement about banking oversight in the EU, for example, and in the promotion of German interests in European bail-out policies in the past years.

Moreover, according to a common pattern in German coalitions, the Foreign Ministry will be assigned to the smaller coalition partner. The new Foreign Minister to be, Frank Walter Steinmeier (SPD), is no stranger in this office; he already held the Foreign Ministry in the former grand coalition from 2005 until 2009. Steinmeier is a Transatlanticist and he advocates a greater role for Germany in international relations. Expect, therefore, cooperation and continuity in external relations.

But overall, this is a government with few surprises. The coalition agreement, a document of 185 pages in which the parties outline the future aims and goals of the government, reads like a handbook of appeasement for different constituencies and contains neither a grand vision, nor a radical shift in policies. In the midst of a tumultuous Europe, due to the euro zone crisis, there is little indication that Germany may reinvent the future. But it may well pay more attention to long overdue internal reforms.

A Global Big-Brother-State? Surveillance is Not Only About Security – Week 19 (By Christiane Lemke)

As a German citizen I am accustomed to surveillance. At one point some years ago, police surveillance cameras caught me three times within one hour on their speeding camera in the reduced speed section of my Berlin neighborhood; I was rushing home from work, dashing to the store to buy groceries, and picking up utensils for my kids’ school projects. There was no denying it, as a portrait-like picture identified me as the driver.

Germans have become accustomed to cameras on the streets, in train stations and many other public spaces. Security surveillance is ubiquitous, tight and unforgiving.  Yet, because of the history of two dictatorships, Germans are highly sensitive when it comes to individual rights and respect for private space. It is a country in which census data collection is viewed with suspicion and citizens retain the right to refuse visual imaging by, for example, Google street view.

Any tendency towards the “Überwachungsstaat”, a type of Orwellian Big-Brother-State, is fiercely rejected and citizens are deeply concerned about using modern age technology for comprehensive data collection. Citizen initiatives monitor and fight any intrusion into the private sphere. According to legal theory, the inviolability of the home is a constitutionally protected right and, after experiencing the excesses of Nazi dictatorship and communist rule, the private sphere ranks among the highest goods in modern Germany.  A highly controversial law to fight organized crime by introducing new surveillance mechanisms through eavesdropping in the 1990s was criticized by legal experts as Lauschangriff, and a revision of the law in 2004 set strict limits for all of these operations, including the tapping of telephones. In 2008, an EU-regulation about preventive data collection (Vorratsdatenspeicherung) stirred a controversial debate in Germany. As a result, summary data storage practiced on a large-scale was declared unconstitutional in 2010.  

During my time as director of state parliament in Lower Saxony, constitutional legal rights were sensitive matters handled with great care. Committee meetings of parliament addressing legal and security issues involved a high degree of confidentiality, even secrecy. In some cases, surveillance of organizations or individuals who were deemed to be involved in international crime or other illegal activities was discussed. Judicial approval and parliamentary oversight were required to reconcile the contrasting goals of security and liberty. Surveillance in democracies is rule-bound and limited; even though technologically possible in the age of information technology, wisdom and reason inhibit the excessive use of these tools.

In any democracy, there needs to be a careful balance between confidentiality to effectively prevent crime and legitimate claims of citizens to be free from state surveillance. In international relations, such a balance lacks a global governance regime setting the rules and supervising the supervisors. We rely on states to control and correct surveillance where necessary. Transatlantic relations are in a crucial stage in the negotiations of a free trade agreement. Practices involving surveillance should be included in these negotiations to build the trust needed between partners in a global world. Citizens have a right to know that leaders will protect their legitimate claims for privacy and protection.

The German Greens – A Missed Historic Opportunity? – Week 18 (By Christiane Lemke)

After only a few weeks, negotiations between the CDU/CSU and the Greens about a potential coalition ended with no agreement on key issues. The Greens will therefore be in opposition in parliament for the next four years. The reluctance of their leadership to enter a coalition with the center right CDU/CSU not only speaks to the programmatic and habitual differences between the two camps. Beyond coalition constellations this outcome raises the question of how Germany will manage the energy transformation (Energiewende) with the major champions for sustainable energy in opposition. Did the Greens miss their unique chance to enter government and shape Germany’s energy and environmental policies?

In 2011, the German government passed legislation to make a transition to a sustainable economy based on renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable development with the goal to abolish coal and other fossil fuels as well as nuclear energy. This reorientation of energy policy moreover aims to shift from centralized to decentralized energy provisions, supporting the production of heat and power on smaller, communal levels. While discussions about new, sustainable energy resources have been ongoing since the early 1980s and the Red-Green coalition in 2002 already made an attempt to phase out nuclear energy, this legislation by the CDU/CSU and FDP government was at the time also influenced by the Fukushima nuclear accident. The eight oldest of the seventeen nuclear power plants in Germany were closed immediately in March 2011, and Chancellor Merkel announced that the life span of the other nine plants would be shortened.  The results were significant. Nuclear power in Germany accounted for 17.7 percent of national electricity supply in 2011, compared to 22.4 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, Germany´s share of renewables has increased from around five percent in 1999 to 22.9 percent in 2012 (in comparison: OECD-average is 18 percent of renewables).


Offshore Windpark, North Sea

Phasing out of conventional energy resources has been a hotly debated issue in German politics. Opposition from large energy providers is strong and it is not yet clear what the new energy policy holds for consumers. Business is not entirely opposed to the new model in energy production as several companies are not only benefiting from this transformation, but are actively involved in it. Ecological modernization in several states (such as in prosperous Baden-Württemberg) is to a large extent shaped by companies actively pursuing this transformation. But there are other issues as well. For example, the federal states have differing attitudes concerning the construction of new power lines. Also, industry rates have been frozen and so the increased costs of the new energy policy have been passed on to consumers. As a result, German consumers in 2013 had some of the highest electricity costs in Europe.

The Energiewende is not a clear-cut left-right issue. Some of its vocal opponents are prominent Social Democrats governing in states with coal and other conventional energy production. For example, the Minister-President of North-Rhine Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, has voiced opposition to this policy and, should the SPD enter into a coalition with the CDU/CSU, it is by no means clear that the 2011 legislation will be fully implemented. Therefore, several CDU politicians, such as former general secretary of the party, Heiner Geissler, favored forming a government coalition with the Greens in order to secure implementation of the Energiewende.

For the Greens, however, entering a coalition on the federal level would have been a highly risky endeavor. Two former coalitions between the CDU and the Greens on the state level  (Saarland and Hamburg) had not been a successful experience for the party. Having lost support in the federal elections with a disappointing 8.4 percent of the national vote, the party is currently regrouping and renewing its leadership. Strategically, there is no doubt that the Green’s influence on federal policies would have been limited in the current situation. But politically, a coalition between the Greens and the CDU should not be out of the question. Proponents of this model, such as Baden-Wurttemberg Minister-President Kretschmann, the first Green Minister-President in Germany, suggest that there should be a more pragmatic orientation on the federal level. The Greens may well reconsider their options in the future. But this would first require a refocus on their core issue of sustainable energy.

The Day After – Glorious Winner But Which Coalition? – Week 17 (By Christiane Lemke)

In the German elections on September 22, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) scored a stunning victory.  Winning about eight percent more votes than she did in 2009, the CDU/CSU narrowly missed an absolute majority of seats in the parliament. This outcome is a not only a victory for the CDU/CSU, but it is an even greater personal success for Angela Merkel. With her third term in office she will be the longest-serving elected female leader in Europe and the most powerful woman in the world.

The day after the election, the key challenge Angela Merkel is facing is forging a new coalition to govern. She is the winner, but a winner without a coalition. Her smaller coalition partner, the FDP, failed to make an entry into the parliament, and both the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens are reluctant to enter into a coalition, as they both fear being too close to the center-right CDU and losing support among their own constituency.  

The SPD, the second largest party, won 25.7 percent of the votes, slightly up from 2009, but clearly less than expected. Their goal of a change in government with a center left Red-Green coalition is out of the question after this election, and a Red-Red-Green coalition, which is theoretically possible, is politically untenable. Traditionally supported by labor, the unions, and parts of the middle class, the once powerful German SPD has lost support over the years because of its initiation of and support for painful welfare state reforms. Moreover, according to opinion polls, Peer Steinbrück proved to be an unpopular choice as chancellor candidate. It remains to be seen in the coming days if the party will, once again, enter a “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU, an option the party is hesitant about but which it may choose “for the good of the country”.

There were several other surprises on election night. For the first time in post-WWII history, the FDP will not be represented in the Bundestag after failing to surpass the five percent hurdle. Formerly described as the “kingmakers” in German coalition politics, the FDP is experiencing a historic shift and the poor showing casts light on a more fundamental question about the future of traditional liberalism in Germany. Once a party defending civil liberties, the FDP, for example, has failed to address voters’ concerns about surveillance and the NSA scandal this summer. Moreover, voters felt that the FDP had not delivered what they had promised regarding economic and tax policies. Most of the voters defected, or swung back, to the CDU, and some voted for the new party AfD. Leadership problems added to this dilemma and as a result the party is now only represented in two of the federal states.

German Federal Elections, Sept. 22, 2013

source: infratest dimap

Another surprise was the strong showing of the new, Euro-sceptical party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Even though the party failed to surpass the five percent hurdle, no other party had scored such a result shortly after its founding. Formed in spring of 2013, the party won 4.9 percent of the vote, and their influence may increase with the European Parliament’s elections coming up in 2014. The AfD mostly captured protest votes; about a third of the voters said that they fully supported the party program while more than half said that they were disappointed with the other parties. Interestingly enough, the AfD received more votes in eastern Germany (5.9 percent), as compared to western Germany (4.6 percent).  Whether the AfD’s electoral victory will translate into the party’s standing as a permanent force in German politics remains to be seen, but it shows that Euro-sceptical sentiments in Germany are significant.

The two other smaller parties, the Greens and the Left, both lost votes since 2009, winning 8.3 and 8.4 percent of the vote respectively.  This result is particularly disappointing for the Greens who had scored very well in several state elections in recent years. In search for answers to the puzzling decline, analysts point to the lack of profile after the “Energiewende” (energy shift), which became the official policy of Chancellor Merkel, and their entrapment in a pedophile debate.  The Greens wanted to form a coalition with the SPD, but they were not able to carve out a convincing independent profile.  Overall, the elections strengthened the two major parties, the CDU and SPD. However, the results, especially for the smaller parties, also show more volatility in German politics.

The outcome of coalition negotiations will clearly influence the course Germany will pursue in foreign as well as European policy. Traditionally, the foreign ministry was held by the FDP, but will now, most likely fall into the resort of the coalition partner (SPD or Greens). In regards to European policy, continuity will prevail, and it is quite clear that Angela Merkel will continue to steer her course of putting Germany’s interests first. European neighbors will find a reliable, but reluctant “European” chancellor in the years to come.  

Are non-voters deciding the elections? Germany before the federal elections – Week 16 (by Christiane Lemke)

In the weeks before the general election in Germany on September 22, a specter is haunting political parties: the undecided voter. In addition, a trend seems to continue that has troubled politicians and political scientists alike, as a growing segment of the population is not going to vote at all. Voter abstention has increased dramatically over the past three decades; it is especially pronounced among the young and first time voters. Will non-voters decide this election?

Observing the election campaign in Germany over the past weeks I have been struck by the coolness about, even disinterest in, the upcoming general elections. No scandals, major slogans, and nearly no controversial themes have emerged so far. The NSA surveillance affair that dominated media reporting and private conversations over the summer seems to have had scant impact on voters’ preferences. According to opinion polls, employment and the economy have dominated domestic concerns of voters, followed by energy prices, and social security. Surprisingly the Euro crisis, which has upset political coalitions in all southern European and several Central European countries, plays only a marginal role in the election campaign. A majority of Germans approved of chancellor Merkel’s handling of the crisis, and about 52 percent are content, or very content with her leadership. The only TV debate between Angela Merkel (CDU) and Peer Steinbrueck (SPD) staged last week was slightly favorable to the opposition candidate, but it brought little change in voters’ preferences.

Less than two weeks before the general elections, the current coalition seems set to carry a majority. Yet, polls show that the majority for the center right coalition of CDU and FDP is slim at best. According to ARD-DeutschlandTrend in early September, the governing coalition of CDU and FDP would win 46 percent , and the oppositional parties together would receive 45 percent of the vote (SPD 27, Greens 10 and Die Linke 8 percent of the vote). This would be a rather slim majority for the governing coalition.

“Stay calm and carry on” seems to be the election strategy of the major governing party, the center right CDU. Their campaign is built around Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is credited with effective crisis management during the euro zone crisis. She is the most popular politician in Germany today, even though her coalition partner, the pro-market liberal FDP, has struggled to even stay in parliament in the state elections of recent years. It currently stands slightly above the five percent hurdle necessary to be represented in parliament. Voters may cast their vote for the FDP in favor of keeping the coalition in Berlin in power. Representing continuity, especially in European politics, and avoiding to rock the boat could be the winning strategy for the current coalition.

The oppositional SPD with chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück has had a hard time moving out of the 25 percent ghetto. Once Germany’s major political party, it has lost support in elections over the past years. Its core message of social equality is popular, but not energizing enough in a country that is economically doing well. The culture of contentment inhibits large gains for the center left SPD. Moreover, in an electoral system in which credibility plays a major role, the SPD is associated with the controversial reforms of the welfare state, such as Hartz IV, which were introduced by the Social Democrats under Chancellor Schröder in the early 2000s and continued during the grand coalition of SPD and CDU (in which Steinbrück was finance minister). As both parties, the CDU and the SPD, have moved toward the center, it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to determine which party might best represent their interest.

But the SPD’s weakness also stems from the problem that voting abstention seems to be spreading among the less well-to-do, the “prekariat”. In addition, the party has a strong contender on the left. Once a mere regional party in post-communist East Germany, the left has made inroads among young voters and in urban areas by offering an alternative to “ruthless capitalism” and the power of banks and finance capital. The other center-left party, the Green Party, with its new democracy model, continues to be popular with good showing in state elections. Their environmental policies have been “mainstreamed” into politics. Its support seems to be holding strong, as their constituency is most likely to vote.

Political parties in Germany are suffering from greater voter volatility. Once shaped by a milieu in which parties flourished and voting was a habit, voters today cast their ballot strategically, with more parties to choose from than in previous German elections. The increasing number of political parties is, moreover, accompanied by a growing distrust in established political parties in general. More people participate in protests and public events in Germany than ever before, but this political activism does not translate into higher voter turnout. About half of first time voters express the intention not to vote at all. Polls show a high percentage of undecided voters and many voters say they will make their decision at the last minute (“Spätwähler”). So there could be some surprises on election night.


Go Vote!    Foto: Private

For more analysis see the proceedings from the Max Weber Chair conference 2013 at New York University on “Germany Before the Elections: Powerhouse at the Crossroads” online:



German Eurosceptics on the Rise – Week 15

The Euro, introduced as a symbol for Europe´s unity and integration after the fall of the wall, has recently become the focal point for disunity and discord among Europeans. Since the Eurozone crisis began, support for Eurosceptic parties has risen across the European Union. Up until now, Germany had been an outlier case with no major anti-EU party so far. That has changed with the forming of the Eurosceptic “Alternative for Germany” („Alternative für Deutschland“, AfD) in April of this year. Because of its’ formation only months before national elections in September 2013, media attention has been high. What is the importance of this new party and how can it challenge the current government coalition? Is Angela Merkel´s government coming to an end with a powerful Eurosceptic contender on the right?

The AfD is a typical single-issue party with a clear message coined in the phrase „Germany does not need the Euro”. The party sees itself as an alternative to the prevailing pro-euro politics among Germany´s mainstream parties and political elites. Founded by a group of professors and professionals in business and law (the vast majority of the first signatories hold PhDs), the party promotes its anti-Euro campaign by positioning itself as a bourgeois protest party to the right of the CDU/CSU, but without an ideology. Its speaker and most founding members are defected from the governing CDU, but also from the left and the FDP. The party platform uses a mixture of economic arguments, legal interpretations of EU treaties and populist democratic claims that draw on fears and concerns about European integration. While most of the arguments are by no means new – several of the supporters already lobbied against the monetary union, the EU-Constitutional Treaty and the European Stability Mechanism – the forming of the party, which was professionally prepared and orchestrated, marks a new step in anti-EU opposition in Germany.


Opinion polls conducted in Germany over the past few weeks vary greatly in their assessments of potential electoral support for the Eurosceptic party. Just three percent of Germans currently intend to vote for AfD according to the latest polls, but another showed that 25 percent would consider voting for a party advocating German withdrawal from the Euro. According to another poll published by the business daily Handelsblatt, more Germans approve of the Euro today than when it was first introduced; 69 percent of Germans supported the Euro, while only 27 percent wanted to return to the D-Mark.  And a study conducted by the independent Bertelsmann-Foundation in April 2013 shows that Germany is benefiting greatly from the Euro due to the reduction of transaction costs and the elimination of currency risks. Yet, nearly two-thirds of Germans believe that they would be better off with the old D-Mark. Depending on how the questions are being phrased, surveys are somewhat inconclusive regarding the Eurosceptic party’s potential among Germans. But, it is quite clear that the new party is tapping into a growing field of disenchanted voters. Party volatility and anti-establishment sentiments have prevailed for some time and an increasing fragmentation of the German party system have made coalition formation more difficult.  The rise of Eurosceptic parties in other countries has encouraged similar formations in Germany, with a nationalist and protectionist agenda, and the rise of anti-German sentiments in many EU-countries may further fuel the nationalist backlash.

While the Eurozone crisis has deepened a North-South divide in economic growth and development, there is no clear regional pattern in the rise of Eurosceptic parties. Even before the Eurozone crisis, Eurosceptic parties gained support in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, and Ireland. Starting with the sovereign debt crisis in 2010, however, the impact has been to double, and in some cases, such as Italy, Greece, Finland, and the UK triple the combined support for those countries’ various Eurosceptic parties. If Germany is just embarking on its Eurosceptic odyssey, then the recent experience of the rest of Europe suggests that support for the Eurosceptic parties could rise further .  The European elections in 2014 will provide an important test case and an opportunity to expand the power base of Eurosceptics.

The five percent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag may prove too high for the Eurosceptic AfD in September´s federal election and the party may end up competing with other minor parties in the field. There is also the risk of early disintegration since the world of politics is quite different from the world of academia and the party may suffer from its heterogeneity.  But, there is strong indication that they may drain enough votes away from the CDU/CSU as well as from other parties and act as the election spoiler for Angela Merkel in which case the formation of a grand SPD-CDU coalition after the federal election might be unavoidable.




Will Angela Merkel Lead Germany Beyond 2013? (Christiane Lemke) - Week 14

On September 22, 2013, Germany will elect a new federal government. These elections are not only crucial for the 80 million citizens living in Germany, rather, these elections will have important consequences for the course of Europe in the years to come. In the following blogs we will therefore focus on the German elections.

Will Angela Merkel (CDU) continue to lead the country beyond 2013, or will a Red-Green coalition come into power? What are the chances for the Social Democrats, and will the Greens continue to be so popular? How will the smaller parties, such as the Free Democrats, currently in coalition government with the CDU, fare and what about the smaller parties, such as Die Linke and the newly formed libertarian Pirate Party?

A first indicator for the course of this year´s federal election was state elections (Landtagswahlen) in Lower Saxony, Germany´s second largest state by size, on January 20, 2013. It also happens to be my home state. The outcome of these elections received high attention and was widely linked to the fate of the chancellor.

imageFlag of Lower Saxony

While Angela Merkel currently enjoys an impressively high popularity in Germany, the outcome of the state elections speaks a different language and casts serious doubts on her chances to lead the next government in Germany. Even though her party is still the strongest party in Lower Saxony, it lost considerably in a dramatic and very close count (2013: 36 percent; 2008: 42.5 percent).  Its smaller coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), which was facing a series of crisis and lost in several previous state elections, scored a surprisingly good result and is represented in parliament despite predictions to the contrary (9.9 percent; 8.2 percent in 2008). Obviously, the FDP benefited from defecting CDU-voters who cast their second vote for the FDP to ensure that the current coalition would continue. A much needed slight boost for the FDP, which suffered through an image and identity crisis with their luckless leader, Philipp Rösler, and his anti-EU rhetoric over the past two years, the result gives an upwind, but not a guarantee for passing the five-percent hurdle in September.

Despite the good showing of the FDP, the majority of CDU and FDP, a coalition that ruled in Lower Saxony for ten years, was lost and even though SPD and Greens now hold only a slim majority of one seat in the Landtag, there will be a Red-Green coalition in Lower Saxony with Stephan Weil (SPD), mayor of the city of Hannover, most likely elected as minister president.

Lower Saxony in many ways mirrors choices to be made domestically on the federal level. The fourth largest in population of the sixteen federal states in Germany, Lower Saxony has transformed from a predominantly agrarian to a highly modern state. It is not only home to machine manufacturing and to one of the most successful automobile plants, VW, but also to aerospace industry such as EADS and Airbus production. The relative strong showing of the SPD with 32.6 percent of the votes (30.3 percent 2008) and its base is rooted not only in urban areas but also in industrialized regions of the state. Moreover, the state has a long history pioneering energy production. Home to the first and oldest nuclear power plant in Stade  (closed down with Germany´s Atomausstieg, or phasing out of nuclear energy, in 2003), and a controversial radioactive waste disposal facility in Gorleben, nuclear energy has long been a highly contentious issue, stirring vocal protest movements across a broad range of citizens since the 1970´s. Today, the state is a pioneer in renewable energies, featuring the major off-shore wind park in the North Sea supported by research projects at universities, and it promotes bio-fuel projects in rural communities.

The strong showing of the Green Party, which increased its share of votes from 8.0 (2008) to 13.7 percent reflects the mobilizing power of environmental issues. Aside from Lower Saxony, several other states witnessed a strong showing of the Greens in recent years, and the party is in coalition government in Baden Württemberg, Bremen, Rhineland-Palatine and North Rhine Westphalia, forboding excellent chances for the federal elections in September.

Finally, smaller parties did not fare well. Die Linke, the leftist party with strong roots in eastern Germany, lost and did not surpass the five-percent hurdle, and the recently founded libertarian Pirate Party (represented in four state parliaments) did likewise not score above the five percent of votes required to gain seats in parliament.

The most dramatic result of the expected leadership change in Lower Saxony will be that the majority in the upper house on the federal level, the Bundesrat, will change. The chancellor, who has a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, will no longer have a majority in the Bundesrat, which will make it nearly impossible to get any legislation passed. Moreover, the loss of power of the CDU in Lower Saxony is also a loss for Angela Merkel on the federal level, since one of her younger hopefuls in the party, the current minister president David McAllister (CDU), will no longer be a strong candidate for future leadership positions in the party.

Reinventing America: President Obama’s Second Term in Office (Christiane Lemke) - Week 13

Over the past five months, this blog has focused on the US-elections and I have commented and reported about key topics in the election campaign. As a Political Scientist currently living in New York City, it has been a fascinating experience to witness the struggle for power and representation, the controversies about government’s role in shaping modern society, and the twists and turns of the electoral campaign. Now that President Barack Obama has been sworn into office, attention shifts to questions about how he will lead the country in his second term. His starting position seems more promising than in 2009, in the midst of the economic and financial crisis. In his Inaugural Address on January 21, 2013, President Obama struck a confident cord: „A decade of war is ending. Economic recovery has begun.“ Different from his speech in 2009, however, the President focused more on his political approach to key questions than on specific reforms. In the tradition of American progressivism, he framed his appeal to embrace collective action to solve future issues as the „gift of reinvention“ - „hard work and self-reliance requires collective action”, a progressive version of the American Dream.

Inauguration Day on January 21 coincided with remembering Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington in the heydays of the civil rights struggle. Indeed, America has come a long way to improve race relations, and while the president himself did not explicitly elaborate on the importance of this commemoration in his speech, civil rights figured prominently in his speech. Aside from women’s rights, safety for children, and the rights of immigrants, he was indeed the first president to mention gay rights in an inauguration speech.

Despite the progressive philosophy laid out in the speech, expectations for his second term are much lower than at the beginning of his first term, when the president emphasized reaching across the aisle and sought bi-partisanship for his reform bills, a goal never reached in his first term. Aside from style, the substance seems also different. While in 2009, the newly elected president chose a „big bang“ approach to long-overdue social reforms, a more sober and pragmatic approach seems to characterize the start of the second term. Still steeped in battle with the Republican dominated House of Representatives over budget cuts and tax policies, he will, most likely, tackle immigration legislation, an issue Republicans badly need to move on. Hopefully, some compromise might be feasible. Other topics, however, seem more elusive, but the to-do-list is much longer.

Will a second Obama-Administration fight for a climate change policy, a challenging task considering that the climate change bill failed early in his first term and powerful interest groups oppose any kind of regulation? In his speech, the president not only promised to respond to the challenge of climate change (with storms, draughts, and fires in 2012 still in fresh memory), he vowed to “lead the transition”. Whether the US will now take a more prominent place in global climate change policy efforts, or concentrate mainly on the domestic agenda, remains to be seen. In fact, as some commentaries suggest, the goal of the US to become energy independent may not only impact relations to oil producing countries in the Middle East, but lead to a more “inward” looking turn in terms of energy (and environmental) policy.

This trend may also hold true for other key issues in international politics, such as nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism, and securing peace in the Middle East. The US discovered during the past years, that despite intense diplomatic efforts – in fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was one of the most traveled Secretaries of States in recent memories - leverage over countries such as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and India remains limited at best. In regard to fighting terrorism, the prison at Guantanamo Bay was never closed (and may, in fact, not be closed in the foreseeable future due to legal issues involved), despite the criticism from many parties in- and outside the US; the use of drones was greatly expanded, even though this raises security issues in the countries of targets, as well as serious human rights issues.

While the President pursues a progressive agenda in domestic policies, his foreign policy might be less active and engaging than during the previous administration. His emphasis is on nation-building at home, including the modernization of infrastructure, expanding renewable energy sources, and investing in education. The withdrawal from Iraq and, by 2014, from Afghanistan, his cautious approach to Syria, and a reluctance to restart the peace process in the Middle East, all show that he is well aware of the limits of American power. The pivot towards Asia and the Pacific moreover points to a decreasing role of Europe in American foreign policy. While there will be high continuity regarding NATO, Europeans should not expect an active and engaging US-president in Europe.

Your Blog

Brilliant work…

Beyond the Fiscal Cliff (Christiane Lemke) - Week 12

According to opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Germans would have voted for President Obama on Election Day. Consequently, expectations about a constructive role for the US in global politics are high. From the perspective of most Europeans, one of the major challenges facing the United States and the world at large is economic growth. With the “fiscal cliff” looming large as this year draws to an end, fears about a possible US-recession in 2013 are at the center stage of debates about the second Obama-term. Will the Obama administration be able to negotiate a settlement with the Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff before the year ends? Or will an „austerity bomb“ (Paul Krugman) hit the US economy with devastating effects for the global economy? Another important question is, how dangerous is the fiscal cliff to begin with? Is the fiscal cliff just a “constructed” crisis, with only small consequences for people´s lives, a matter of political rhetoric, or does it pose a real danger for society?

Both Europe and the US are facing major challenges associated with high budget deficits. The EU, whose Euro zone states share the same monetary policy, but each have vastly different economic and fiscal policies has only recently taken charge of coordinating a EU Zone wide common fiscal policy. It has largely been muddling through the fiscal and economic crisis, with signs of more integration and regulation now emerging, as the recently introduced regulations of the banking system in Europe shows. The US, on the other hand, has federal jurisdiction not only over monetary policy, but also over its national fiscal and economic policies. This control should make it easier for the US to cope with budget deficit problems. The problem, however, is political compromise, or rather the polarization of the debate, on economic and fiscal policies, in the American case that make compromising over this piece of legislation an arduous task.

Both parties agree that the reduction of the budget deficit should be a primary goal for the years to come. However, they disagree over the strategies on how to reach this goal. Unable to reach a settlement in 2011, law makers passed a Budget Control Act which stipulated that the Bush tax cuts would automatically expire by January 1, 2013, and, at the same time, vast, across the board spending cuts would take place. These would not only affect social policy programs such as Medicare and Social Security, but also federal unemployment benefits and tax brakes for renewable energy such as wind energy. Because of these drastic measures and program cuts (which could potentially be cut by half),  the Congressional Budget Office and various economic experts expect the US to fall into a deep recession in 2013, with stock markets plummeting and global trade receding, if an agreement cannot be reached. Just this week, Christine Lagarde, president of the International Monetary Fund, warned that this crisis could be worse than the 2008-09 financial and economic crisis, or the Euro zone crisis.

From an analytic perspective, the problems associated with the fiscal cliff extend beyond fiscal and economic policy.  Is political compromise still possible given the highly polarized post-election political culture?

At present, moving beyond the fiscal cliff is currently the key issue in negotiations between the President Obama and the speaker of the Republican controlled House, John Boehner. It is basically a two-man show (albeit with scant public statements by the two negotiators) with bargaining positions shaped by each party’s constituencies and election promises. In the public debate and in statements by other key players, economic advisors and policy makers, differences in economic philosophies and ideologies are pronounced. Republicans identify the budget deficit as major problem; after all, Republican presidential candidates ran on a platform to curb the budget deficit first, a position echoed by Congressional candidates in the November elections. This position is embedded in an anti-government philosophy as regulation and federal spending on social programs has been the target of much criticism among Tea Party movers as well as neoliberal Republicans. From their perspective, federal government is the root cause of the problem; spending should be cut substantially (with the exception of military spending), and the Bush tax cuts should be extended. House speaker Boehner faces pressure from the right to hold firm but there are several Republicans who have recently spoken out in favor of a more flexible approach. There is no doubt that the outcome of these negotiations will be an indicator of the strength of the right within the Republican Party.

Among Democrats, the debate has focused more on structural reforms of the tax system. While the President made it very clear that he would favor extending the tax cuts for the middle class while letting them expire for those earning more than $ 250.000 a year (which would mean a tax hike from the current rate of 35% to 39.6% for the wealthiest two percent of the population, a rate similar to that during the Clinton years), Republicans strongly oppose this tax proposal, which implies, compared to Europe, a rather modest model of progressive income tax. They instead call for the elimination of (so far not clearly defined) loopholes and deductions. Moreover, Democrats oppose many of the entitlement cuts included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and favored by Republicans. Center-left economists, such as Paul Krugman, contend that the budget deficit is currently not really the central problem; rather, the goal of economic and fiscal policies should be to stimulate growth through government programs and target at reducing unemployment.

Interestingly enough, public opinion is clearly shifting in favor of President Obama and polling shows strong support for his position. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey released on Wednesday this week, three-quarters of Americans say they would accept raising taxes on the wealthy to avoid the cliff. Even among Republicans, some 61 percent say they would accept tax increases on high earners. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released Tuesday indicted that nearly half of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the negotiations versus a quarter of respondents who approved of Boehner’s. At the same time, Obama’s public opinion rating has reached about 54 percent in the Real Clear Politics polling average, above the level where it peaked in May 2011, when bin Laden was killed.

It is interesting to note that while both, Europe and the US, try to tackle the problem of economic growth and reducing national debt, Europeans focus less on tax policy and more on austerity and welfare state restructuring, whereas the US debate is framed as a debate about the role of government expenditures as such and stimulating growth through tax policies. Moreover, while the European debate is often confounded between the left and the right due to the complex, multilayered system of the EU, the current negotiations about the fiscal cliff show that the American debate has clear ideological underpinnings.