The German election campaign has been entirely lacking in substance. Laschet, Baerbock, Scholz: none seem to grip the public’s attention. None are good enough to stand out, yet none are bad enough to drop out as the media and the opposition struggle to land definitive blows. Amid the monotony of political circus and sclerosis, the German press’s tactics are becoming increasingly outlandish, as two 11-year-old children asking questions about land requisition processes on television showed.
A particular segment on the talk show Late Night Berlin is responsible: the idea is that children ask politicians questions. In the last episode, broadcast on Tuesday, Merkel’s would-be successor Armin Laschet was made to sit in a tent on a tiny chair, surrounded by stuffed toys and fairy lights, visibly uncomfortable. Here was a 60-year-old, clad in a suit and tie, wedged in between his inquisitors for the evening, Romeo and Pauline, both 11.
The idea is that children could ask straight questions and receive straight answers. It’s also more difficult for politicians to respond flippantly or go on the attack, especially since a child’s intentions are good. They are less likely to lay tactical tripwire, like journalists out for a scoop.
But Laschet was visibly frustrated when Romeo and Pauline proceeded with questions that indicated wisdom beyond their years. Perhaps receiving the help of backstage whisperers, they began by pressing him on the issue of the controversial clearing out of protesters and residents from Hambach Forest near Cologne, where coal mining projects threaten to destroy the landscape and residential areas. This happened in 2018: Pauline and Romeo were just 8 years old.
Romeo then turned up the heat by asking whether Hans-Georg Maaßen, a colleague of Laschet’s on the right fringes of the party, was ‘a Nazi’. Laschet, now clearly frustrated, demanded to know if Romeo even knew who Maaßen was. When the boy then referred to a 2017 interview from Der Spiegel magazine, Laschet reached the end of his fuse, snapping counter questions at the children from his tiny chair. As if the entire situation wasn’t surreal enough, this ten-minute conversion was accompanied throughout by light comedy music. Naturally, memes made the rounds afterwards. Naturally, nobody discussed the content he had spoken about.
The fact that the German media feel the need to jazz up the campaign with silly debating formats is indicative of the poor quality of the national conversation overall. When Laschet was last in the news, it was for similarly less than flattering reasons. After the second TV debate, most polls indicated a clear victory for his rival, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz. Yet Laschet was filmed straight afterwards standing in the middle of a crowd chanting ‘Armin Laschet will be chancellor!’
Laschet’s CDU/CSU is currently polling at around 20 per cent, a nadir for the party that has dominated (West) German politics since 1949. Yet he still projects complete complete confidence in victory while party colleagues have openly admitted that they have stopped knocking on doors because they think there is no point in doing so with Laschet at the helm. His claims against the SPD – that it has always stood on the wrong side of history – are backfiring. Two of West Germany’s best-loved chancellors, Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt were SPD men and have done much to transform the country socially. As Laschet attempts to fling mud at his opponents, most sticks on himself.
Meanwhile, Annalena Baerbock’s Greens are also in a downward spiral. Their mishaps may seem less abrasive on paper but their polling figures have almost halved from their highpoint back in the spring. Now at around 15 per cent, they mostly garner support from urban areas in West Germany and in Berlin, but elsewhere people are put off by what they perceive as unrealistic demands on the population. In East Germany in particular, there is outright hostility. The Green candidate for the constituency of Mansfeld in Saxony-Anhalt, the 20-year-old Mika-Sören Erdmann knows he is optimistic when he aims for 5 per cent.
The person set to benefit from the antics of his rivals is Olaf Scholz. With calculated consistency, he has begun to build up an image of himself as the natural heir to Merkelism. Where Laschet laughs inappropriately when flooding victims need support, Scholz appears to reassure and promises solutions. Where Baerbock demands unfeasibly high sacrifices on the altar of environmentalism, Scholz offers gentle decarbonisation. The SPD candidate casts himself as the voice of reason in the jungle of German electioneering.
But even Scholz’s calm is part of the show. As he folds his hands into the famous Merkel diamond and parrots her stock phrases, he too becomes an empty character without substance. He offers no more vision for the direction Germany should take now than his rivals. What would Scholz’ foreign policy look like? What would he do to increase social mobility? How would his government restructure social care to make it future proof? What would he do to plug the gaping hole for skilled labour in the job market? Who knows? If Scholz has any concrete ideas, he has kept them to himself.
The huge Merkel-shaped hole which is about to appear in the centre of Europe offered a unique opportunity for one of the most potent democracies on earth to take stock and renew. Instead, German voters are offered the blinding lights of a political circus full of rhetorical acrobatics and sad clowns.<//>
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