Time for Change! Speech at the Political Ash Wednesday Event at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation

March 12, 2008
By Ralf Fücks
Ralf Fücks
Berlin, 6 February 2008
I want to thank the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for their invitation. I hope it will not get you into trouble because you certainly did not invite someone who will sing your praises. Even before this event I heard rumours: “Aha! Fücks will speak to the Conservatives at the Political Ash Wednesday!” Once again, the speculations about the Black / Green coalition were running rampant. And all of this before Hamburg! Dear Black and Green strategists, dear media representatives: don’t worry!

The CDU chef from Hesse has effectively spoiled the Black-Green soup. The relationships between the two parties have soured dramatically under his leadership. As long as the CDU continues on his course, it will remain isolated in its conservative corner. The letter on integration policy written by the 17 “righteous” party members who stood up against the traditional party line offered a glimmer of hope, but it did not outline a new direction for the CDU, and several signatories immediately lost courage when they encountered the opposition from within the party.

Anyone who thought that they could speak for the Chancellor quickly learned otherwise. Angela Merkel stayed away from the debate and did not allow criticising the party leader Ronald Koch. She had already missed the opportunity to take a different stance during the election campaign. What good are all the integration summits and Islamic conferences if the CDU again plays the xenophobic card during the heat of the election campaign? Or what else should we call it when the conservative party leader says that “Turkish representatives” will not hold him back from saying what he wants? And what does a decent Christian Democrat think of a poster with the slogan “Stop Ypsilanti, al Wazir and the Communists“? Is there a limit to how far the Democrats can go or is everything a fair game in the struggle for power?

Roland Koch as a Magician

Frankly speaking, we should thank Ronald Koch. He has been a true magician. First, he made the impressive CDU majority in Hessen disappear. Then he brought the Red-Green coalition back to life. This is pure Black magic. Hardly anyone had really missed the Red-Greens, hardly anyone had been longing for them until the imaginary giant from Wiesbaden came out with his cudgel. Suddenly, Mrs. Ypsilanti seemed really nice, carrying with her a promise of true hope. Everything is relative, after all.

Those who had lost their faith in democracy may have hope again. The voters are not stupid, and unscrupulous behaviour does not always pay off. People do not want a Minister President who tries to gain votes at the expense of minorities and polarises society instead of leading it in unity. Koch has completely misunderstood Machiavelli. Not everything is do-able, and the means not always lead to an end!

How to Lose a Majority?

Anyone who thinks this is only polemics should review the Konrad Adenauer Foundation study on the state elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony. It is an example of a good political advice. I will quote a few passages from it and hope not to embarrass my hosts by this:
“Before the recent shift in public sentiment, the Conservative party had a long history of winning the majority in Hesse.“

And Who Lost It?
“The election campaign, which caught heat after Christmas, when Minister President Koch gave an interview to Bild-Zeitung, has quickly and decisively changed the political atmosphere. The topic of youth violence had a lot of resonance, but the policies put forward to solve this problem were unconvincing.“

This is well said. In other words: the campaign turned out to be a dud. The issue concerned the public, but the party rhetoric was repulsive.

“While the CDU and the FDP lost considerable numbers of voters to the non-voting public, all other parties were able to mobilise the former non-voters behind their flags. This voter demobilisation by the CDU has greatly contributed to the elections results.“

Koch performed a magic trick of mobilising voters not for, but against the CDU. Has the Adenauer House learnt the lesson? We can only hope that it did, in the interest of this country’s political culture and of the CDU.

I do not want to conceal the final highlight of the KAS analysis from you:
“With the election in Hesse, by now the proverbial unpredictability of the voters has reached new heights.“

That is well put. One literally senses the annoyance felt by the advisers and opinion pollsters: the voters are no longer reliable, every election is a gamble. While our top politicians are so predictable that one knows already what they will say before they open their mouth, party strategists do not know where the citizens are coming from. The voters are growing picky. They no longer vote in accordance with tradition, social standing and religion; they want to be convinced. This may be bad news for political party headquarters but it is good news for democracy.

Everything is Possible - Even Socialism!

The elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony have had many would-be-winners but ultimately there was only one winner: The Left Party. The SPD strategy of keeping Lafontaine’s crowd small by pursuing a clear left-wing policy backfired. While the Social Democrats suffer from having to reconcile their rhetoric with their role in the government, the traditional left can disregard reality. Their party organisation has been created, and the cadres felt the wind in their back. “Everything is possible in this country – even socialism!“ is how Manfred Sohn, by now the Left caucus leader in Lower Saxony, puts it on the homepage of his state party association. This is not something the Federal Republic of Germany could be proud of.

By the way, do you know the most recent definition of communism à la Wagenknecht? Lobster for everyone! – A neat adaptation of Marx’s formula of “to each according to his needs!” as interpreted by the Left representative in the European Parliament. The only question is where all these lobsters are supposed to come from.

Until then, the working masses will have to do with quite a bit less for a while. The Left call for a mandatory minimum wage of 8 € per hour is modest compared to the deal the Postal Service struck with the trade unions to keep its cheap competitors away. Nobody is excited about the 9000 job cut at PIN-AG which is likely to follow the agreement. What is exciting about it? In principle, the Left Party and the SPD are in agreement: better no job than a poorly paid one. Who does not have a job has nothing to worry about: in its »Action Plan«, the Hessian Left Party promises to invest one billion Euros a year in public jobs. When business eliminates jobs, we simply finance some with tax funds.

This increases the number of those whose welfare depends on charity and high taxes. Even today a majority of the public receives some government subsidies. This is important for the general morale of the Republic, a fact the CDU cannot ignore, as Ms. Merkel shows every day. Leipzig was yesterday. And who still remembers that professor from Heidelberg? Forgotten, like an unpleasant reminder of old sins.

A Piece of Advice on the Minimum Wage

Instead, there is a soft-shoe shuffle around the minimum wage. Though the CDU might not be really for it, it is even less against it, leaving it to the SPD and the trade unions to run the show. If I can give you my humble advice, the CDU should give up its half-hearted resistance to a state minimum wage. Wage dumping has gone too far during the recent years. The longer the CDU waffles, the more room there is for sector-specific minimum wages, with the main purpose to keep the unwanted competitors out. Ultimately this will cost more jobs than a moderate minimum wage. Perhaps it is still possible to build a common sense coalition, which will bring about a combination of minimum wage and negative income tax. This would strengthen incentives for work and assure a decent livelihood for less skilled persons without creating still more hurdles for employment.

Kurt Beck is not that wrong when he perceives the SPD as the true majority party in Germany which came second in elections only because of bad luck. Apparently Mrs. Ypsilanti thinks the same when she claims that the SPD received a mandate to form the government in Hesse even though the CDU is ahead by a hair’s breadth. Ultimately what counts is who can get the parliamentary majority. You just need to count to three to recognize that this will not be the CDU in Hesse if the SPD stays put.

The Dream of a BroLeCo

The public hope for a coalition with the Left Party, which still exists in West Germany, will continue until 2009 at the most. Then the cards in the German party system will be reshuffled. There are many within the SPD and the Left Party who long for a BroLeCo, a broad left coalition. There are rumours that even among the Greens there are some supporters of this combination. I do not share these dreams. I do not favour coalitions with people who – like Lafontaine – think it ok for Iran to have nuclear weapons because Israel has them, too, or who consider German military mission in Afghanistan to be “irresponsible war mongering”, helping us to “bring the terror into our home”. I do not share the SED-nostalgia, which still considers the GDR to be a better Germany, nor do I side with the Left whose members believe in state monopoly capitalism or support Chavez.

But if I sat in the Adenauer House, I would be concerned about this scenario. Numerically, there is already a left-wing majority in the country. If it turns into a political majority, the CDU will face a long period of being sidelined as the opposition. This cannot be ruled out. The mood in society is leaning toward the left. Privatising public enterprises, making labour markets more flexible, reducing non-wage labour costs and corporate taxes is past. Unrest about casino-capitalism and longing for government-guaranteed social security are even reaching the middle classes. Heiner Geißler is in, Friedrich Merz is out.

Who still remembers how Chairman Beck, in a liberal interpretation of the motto “support and challenge”, yelled at an uppity unemployed man: “If you washed and shaved, would you have a job in three weeks”? This would not happen again today. The Agenda 2010 was yesterday. Even Schröder does not want to hear about it anymore. Social welfare is in demand, with the SPD leading the way as a warm comfort station for the working class against the cold winds of globalisation. The desire is understandable. A social democracy cannot tolerate that child poverty exists in a rich country and that millions have bet on Hartz IV and RTL plus. The mistake is in tricking the people into thinking that it is possible to go back to the good old times.

Challenges of Globalisation

There are good reasons to be shocked about the closure of the Nokia plant in Bochum, which had been subsidised with 80 million Euros; and even more so about the cold-blooded way in which this decision was implemented. But hardly anyone sees this case as a warning sign for the loss of German competitiveness in core sectors of the manufacturing industry. Having no telephones, no computers, no household appliances and no entertainment electronics manufactured here any longer is, however, not a law of nature. Instead, it is the consequence of high costs in Germany which cannot be offset by superior productivity.

Two good economic years with increasing tax revenues and sinking unemployment were sufficient for the Grand Coalition to declare the “end of hardships”. Actually, none of the major challenges driving the Red-Green reforms - the aging population, exorbitant public debt, the development of an underclass, and a radical change in the competition on the world markets - have disappeared.

China, India, the Asian Tiger States, or Brazil has long stopped offering only cheap labour and simple mass products. They train more engineers than Europe and the U.S., invest in high tech and skilled services. The West has lost its monopoly in innovative technologies and products which make possible a high added value and correspondingly high incomes. At the same time we have inexcusably neglected our education system, from nursery schools to the universities. Social expenses, pension payments, and interest debt service have become an increasing portion of public budgets. Only a small fraction of the budget is available for investing in the future. All of this endangers our living standard, as well as the welfare state.

The Green Revolution Has Begun

The key to the future is not found in being as cheap as possible but rather in being willing to achieve, to learn, and to be creative. The decisive field for innovations is in the energy and environmental technology sectors. This is where the sustainability of industrial society will be decided. Globally the demand for energy is expected to rise by 50 % by the middle of this century. At the same time, global greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced by one half in order for the climate not to go haywire. For traditional industrialised countries this means reducing their emissions by 80-90%. This takes no less than a new industrial revolution, a complete revamp of the technological base we use for production and consumption. In other words, it takes a green economic miracle. This is no wishful thinking utopia. The green revolution has already started, and the Federal Republic of Germany is one of the pioneers of this major transformation. The introduction of the eco-taxes, the renewable energies promotion law, and the withdrawal from nuclear energy, which put pressure on the energy industry to innovate, all contributed to this transformation, and the CDU has damned all these measures as anathema.
With the green market economy we are able to kill three birds with one stone: to do what is ecologically necessary to prevent the collapse of the eco-system, to do what makes economic sense to assure work and income in the future, and reduce our oil and gas imports, with which we finance the Ahmadinejads and Chavezs of this world.

When you hear the Chancellor speak on the international climate stage you might think that this message has been understood. But if you assess Ms. Merkel’s speeches against the federal government policy, you find a great imbalance. You do not reach a sustainable future without taking on the automotive industry and the electricity cartel of EON, RWE, and Vattenfall & Co. And you cannot avoid sending clear signals to the public. “Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass“, i.e. “I want gain without pain” does not work. A person who does not even dare set a speed limit on the autobahn fails already on the first few yards of a long road. The announcement of great climate targets is one thing. What is lacking is their systematic translation into government practice across all fields: research and technology, energy, agriculture, transportation, construction, taxation, international co-operation. Climate policy must be a policy that cuts across all policy fields. But we are still very far from it. Yet, the Greens do not need to worry because everyone is now talking green. If it is serious, so much the better. Then there are possibilities for new alliances. If not, there are many issues for Green opposition.

In Which Direction is the CDU Moving?

A 5-party-system requires more political agility than has been recently demonstrated in Hesse, where they are currently playing a type of political pick-up-sticks game: whoever moves first has lost. Therefore, it is all the more interesting to know in which direction the CDU intends to move and what it stands for. I do not speak about the party policy programme but about real politics. What course does the CDU pursue? Franz Müntefering has stood up for labour market policy, Peer Steinbrück is in charge of consolidating the public budget, Ulla Schmidt is responsible for the health reform, Siegmar Gabriel handles environmental policy. They all are members of the SPD. In education policy the federal government has dropped the ball. Immigration policy exists only on the symbolic level. Women’s and family policy has been internally so controversial that Minister van der Leyen spoke of the resurrection of the family image of the 50s. And on security policy Wolfgang Schäuble is working on shifting the limits of the rule of law towards emergency legislation.

The Empress Has No Clothes

All of this is not really pleasant, and the CDU does not try to make it look pleasant. The thunderous crash of Roland Koch in Hesse has mercifully concealed that the expected party champion Wulf did not do much better in Lower Saxony. Measured in absolute numbers of votes, the CDU lost fully one fourth of its voters there. Any more such victories, and the CDU will be lost. Angela Merkel alone is still very popular among the public. But even for her the hour of truth is approaching. She cannot hover forever above the fray of daily politics, otherwise she will suffer the fate of the legendary emperor without clothes. At first, everyone is full of admiration but at some point one person says, “But she has no clothes!”

What shall I wish for the CDU, what shall I wish for all of us? A dose of Barack Obama would do our Republic good: It’s time for change! Courage to change, to move out into the open instead of going back in the old trenches!

This text is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.