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Germany and New Zealand Redux

Written By: - Date published: 8:00 am, December 20th, 2017 - 10 comments
Categories: Europe, International - Tags: ,

Unlike Germany, New Zealand is a tiny country in which little of note occurs.

But we are both successful societies, with proportional democracies, strong economies, underpinned by strong public institutions and legal frameworks, and consistently believe that we are going in the right direction.

New Zealand is one of no more than a handful of countries with that combination who are also led by a highly redistributive Labour Party. Not that we the singular shining beacon in space, but it’s pretty solitary out here.

For the sake of sustaining our compact, it might be tempting to do what Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SD) is doing with the Christian Democratic Union (CD): unite together in coalition rather than see the irreversible fall of the European Union and the entire project of social democracy.

For the SD it comes down to this: the world is lost and there is stuff worth saving for as long as we can even if it really costs us. For the CD: stay in power.

For Germany, undisputed leader of the European Union in both social innovation and in economic strength, the race to save itself is particularly pressing because it has no proper government.

To sustain the giant and enduring political and social culture of Germany, some great bind needs to hold. Enter Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SD). Schulz’s party, which governed together with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CD) in a grand coalition for eight of the past 12 years, suffered its worst electoral result since the late 1940s in the most recent German parliamentary contest.

Here we need only be reminded of how much cost such a pact entails. In the great poem “Faust” by the German poet Goethe, Faust the learned scholar feels that none of his many achievements have provided him with real satisfaction or fulfillment. He yearns to gain fundamental satisfaction and meaning. Faust turns to magic in the hope of finding some way to get it, and only the devil can really cut that deal. So he agrees to sell his soul if the devil can give him that great moment of experience that everything in his life finally fits, reveals its total truth, and he wills it to stay forever.

The Faustian pact has high cost and reward. With only a few exceptions, social democratic parties have been steadily losing ground in Europe since the 1970s. Nevertheless, those center-left parties have played a critical role in anchoring the working-class vote to the welfare state domestically and to the European project across the continent. Social democratic parties have also been central actors in integrating immigrant communities into the democratic electorate and in maintaining pressure against the rise of income inequality. To some extent, Europe’s social democrats are the victims of their own success. They managed to create a broad consensus around the need to balance capitalism’s excesses with active government intervention. Same in New Zealand, and we only got back into power this time by the skin of our teeth.

By governing in a national coalition with center-right Christian Democrats for eight of the last 12 years, Social Democrats have often had to compromise against the interests of their traditional working-class base. Tainted — some would say corrupted — by power, they have become less pure and less effective as a progressive movement in German politics.

It’s something like Labour going into government with National. If Little hadn’t resigned and Labour continued tracking downwards from 20-something per cent, the same conversations would be in play here right now. It would probably be a disaster here as it has been for the SPD, but may also have been necessary for the centre left to survive in government in any form.

It is necessary at least in Germany, and in policy terms it would not be too hard in New Zealand either. Most of our remaining arguments are about how to redistribute taxes rather than any notable structural reforms, and the basic social compact is well set. Labour will never get in power again without coalition anyway  – it’s merely a matter of who.

Schultz was damaged by his ballot-box defeat in September and immediately announced his intention to have the SPD spend the next four years on the Bundestag’s opposition benches. This left Merkel with the unenviable task of cobbling together a so-called “Jamaica” coalition (black-yellow-green) with the liberal Free Democrats (who are the yellow to the black of the Christian Democrats) and the Greens (who are, well, green), and it all died. This leaves only one realistic possibility to form a coalition government that does not include the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

In a country that prides itself on its stability culture and lack of political drama, the SPD is now being forced to rethink its strategy of rejuvenating its forces in opposition. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — himself a Social Democrat — made it clear that he sees finding a workable majority as a political obligation for any major party worthy of its name. Caught between the call of national duty and the need to revamp their waning electoral support, Schulz and his colleagues are now faced with three choices:

  1. Join another grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats;
  2. Support a minority government led by Merkel and her more conservative partners in Bavaria’s Christian Social Union; or
  3. Face the German voters once again in early elections.

Alas, it is not hard to guess what those options will bring. Another grand coalition will be near-fatal for the SPD, because it would deprive the party of its distinctive identity in the eyes of the voters. A minority government would achieve little and be picked off next time. The third option is just a big roll of the dice for everyone.

The bind for the SPD is this: don’t go into coalition and have some chance of keeping your existing if declining voter base, but then give Steinmeyer as President and Merkel the perfect scapegoat for the collapse of the government and the requirement for future elections.

Like New Zealand, Germany is one of those rare countries with a bit of a budget surplus. The SPD could seek that surplus get spent on targeted tax cuts for working people. The SPD could also insist that they double down on their climate commitments. Or insist on family reunification for the over 1 million Syrian refugees. They will need an almighty and magical mix of policy wins to get some of their lost votes back. If they don’t, they will go the way of the organised left across Europe.

Prime Minister Ardern is already seeking to form a common pact with National about poverty. This would build on common policies on NZSuper and superannuation, trade, international relations, Treaty partnerships, agriculture, economic sectoral intervention, conservation and national parks, infrastructure other than irrigation, and many more areas besides. The big compact is by no means unimaginable.

But in Germany they get to dare a little greater. On Europe, Martin Schultz wants to see a United States of Europe by 2025. Big call especially in the current climate in which the EU immigration-sharing quota system just died. New Zealand is largely keeping its head down on immigration letting Australia simply handle all its quandaries and hard tasks. New Zealand also doesn’t face a hard anti-immigration party like the Alternative for Germany, so the risk to real political tilting is small.

Germany and the SPD find themselves at the crossroads. While it is Angela Merkel who seems to be the only one holding the cards having just won a fourth consecutive electoral victory for the CDU, in many ways the SPD holds the key to the future of Germany and the future of Europe.

New Zealand is, for better and for worse, one of the very few remaining countries whose institutions, economy, and society are strong like Germany. We are now led by a strongly redistributionist Labour government.

For Germany and New Zealand, cross-parliamentary coalitions are the greatest, riskiest Faustian bargain.

10 comments on “Germany and New Zealand Redux”

  1. Matthew Whitehead 1

    Um, both Labour and New Zealand first are anti-immigration parties, Ad, who want less people coming here. They’re just neither as extreme as AfD. It’s completely inaccurate to claim we have no political analogue to AfD here: they literally want to copy our immigration policy, because it’s too anti-immigrant for even the US Republicans to manage.

    I should also point out that AfD’s emergence is arguably a result of the tendency towards grand coalitions. There is a feeling among more extreme voters on both sides of the political system that There Is No Alternative, because even when they vote in large numbers for the Left Party or the Free Democrats, it still delivers a grand coalition because the Social Democrats are unwilling to deal with the Left Party even when they have the numbers to. This phenomenon is why Alternativ für Deutschland got its name, in fact.

    SDP’s stance that it didn’t want to go into coalition was actually about addressing this backlash to Grand Coalitions more than taking an opposition-bench rejuvenation. With the FDP unable to compromise with the Greens, and the SDP being dragged into negotiations by the President, it’s not exactly a happy election result for the CDU, either.

    This is the one big advantage to New Zealand’s tribal allegiances to Labour and National: while the two are actually the closest parties to each other ideologically, *ducks fanboys on both sides* they continuously insist they have larger differences than they really do in order to not co-operate. I actually think it’s reasonably healthy for them both to do this when we’re not in some sort of national emergency, but it does lead to funny situations where each party opposes something bitterly in opposition, but then ends up doing something that’s different only in nuance when they’re in the next government. Go figure.

    Working with National would kill off the Labour Party as a party of the left, not that it hasn’t been drifting centre-ward for ages.

    • Ad 1.1

      What the AfD believe is this:

      – They repudiate Germany’s shame and guilt about the impact of Nazism
      – They are explicitly anti-Islamic
      – They are intensely patriotic
      – They are explicity against the idea of the European Union
      – One of the key leaders, Fauke Petry, wants the Germany border secured by the military from immigrants
      – They want traditional roles for women, and are anti-gay
      – They deny climate change exists or is human-caused

      They also have strong links with the kind of extremist groups that we haven’t seen here since the end of the Land Wars.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_for_Germany#Ideology_and_policies

      Here’s a useful paper on thier origins, aims, and consequences:

      https://www.du.edu/korbel/ceuce/media/documents/abenheim-afd-full-interview-11-2016.pdf

      It is a very long bow to equate any policy of either the Labour Party or the New Zealand First Party with AfG from the policies that any of them have.

      Not sure your point about the rise of AfG. Under multiple governments there have been and continue to be plenty of party alternative parties rise up, and plenty of different kinds of coalition.

      Personally I see this NZ government, within its first 100 days, as the most left-leaning and most redistributionist I have seen in a very long time.

      • Matthew Whitehead 1.1.1

        While I’m a New Zealander, I am in fact a German speaker, and am highly familiar with AfD (excuse me for not being able to think of them by the English acronym, it just doesn’t gel for me for whatever reason) and do follow German politics myself to some degree. (It’s relatively far down my list of things to follow- on a day-to-day level I mostly follow kiwi and US politics) and the factors behind its rise.

        It both is and isn’t a difficult comparsion between AfD and parties like NZF and Labour. Specifically on immigration, their policies are shockingly similar, to an extent that should worry even the NZLP. AfD naturally wants to go further than either do, but the fact that they consider some of New Zealand’s ideas, like the points-system model that is now considered in the political mainstream by both Labour and National, as a model for a Nazi immigration system, should be intensely disturbing to all New Zealanders who support either large party, and we as voters should be asking them why they feel we don’t have a Nazi immigration system.

        I do agree, of course, that AfD’s policies in other areas would be completely unfair to compare to even New Zealand First, which is actually quite moderate as far as nationalist parties without any sort of main focus on an indigenous and/or oppressed ethnic or cultural minority go, and as much as I am bitterly opposed to them politically, they’re more like an unpleasantly poisonous thing you’d eat, while militantly racist nationalists like AfD or the Trump cult are essentially full-blown venomous snakes and should be handled as such.

    • Ad 1.2

      The AfG’s policies are outlined here:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_for_Germany#cite_note-Duke-3

      – Deny climate change exists
      – Traditional roles for women
      – Resists immigrants at all borders by military force
      – Compulsory military service for all
      – Specifically anti-muslim

      And has very deep links to the kind of extremist groups that we haven’t had here since the end of the Land Wars.

      So no, trying to equate either New Zealand First or the New Zealand Labour Party with Alternative for Germany won’t work.

      https://www.du.edu/korbel/ceuce/media/documents/abenheim-afd-full-interview-11-2016.pdf

      • corodale 1.2.1

        Open invitation for a cup of tea in Dresden! Sorry, no beer for you boys, better to stick with the cola.

  2. Most of our remaining arguments are about how to redistribute taxes rather than any notable structural reforms, and the basic social compact is well set.

    Which is probably why we’re failing. We seem to have hit our End of History moment.

    Our poverty is structural, our abuse of beneficiaries systemic and the corruption is soaring. We really don’t want those to be strong as it tears our society apart.

    The SPD could seek that surplus get spent on targeted tax cuts for working people.

    There’s no such thing. Tax cuts, even when given to the poor, always go to the rich as they’re in a position to grab the extra cash whereas the poor are going to be in the same position and having to spend everything that they’ve got just to get by.

  3. Policy Parrot 3

    Option 2 seems the most plausible. Obviously, the SPD would have to indicate which particular policies from the CDU/CSU are a bridge too far and would result in SPD votes against, rather than abstention.

    They also retain the distinction of the official opposition, and become the handbrake on the most extreme tendencies of the Merkel coalition.

    Sounds similar to the Canadian scenario in 2009? when Conservative PM Harper was kept in office by Liberal abstention when a coalition of Liberals, NPD and PQ could have ousted them.

    Weimar Germany is a more sobering analogue. The Conservative Parties and SPD were encouraged to form grand coalitions to the point where there was a “majority of extremes”, where the KPD and Nazi parties together controlled more than half the seats of the Reichstag, and effectively, either one could bring down the government by voting with the opposition.

    These days: die Linke and AfD together hold 27% of the seats in the current Bundestag – although I would dispute that despite some tendencies, either die Linke or AfD are as extreme as their forbears. Just illuminating that this strategy, particular of isolating the KPD/die Linke from government at a federal level may prove counterproductive in the long term to the political landscape.

  4. greywarshark 4

    A good read Ad. You explained the German situation well enough for me to get the picture.

  5. Jackel 5

    I tell all too well by your article you’ve made no Faustian bargain yourself.

  6. corodale 6

    Well written, lieber Faust. But consider this: With German Democracy sweet as cola, we can we not expect them to follow NZ’s trend of more outsoucing to the East? If they can outsource atomic arsenals, why not a govt? Or continue watching foot ball from the Alps of Chicago? Sport or oriental dancing? The mind boggles.

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