Your weekend cocktail-party glossary for the German election

Plakate zur Bundestagswahl

You’ve mastered the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, you’re ready for the showdown over the US government shutdown and the debt ceiling fight, and you’re ready to hit the party circuit this weekend, wit and pith at the ready.Germany Flag Icon

But wait! You’ve forgotten that Germany, the most populous and arguably the most important country in Europe, is going to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government.

You know that Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor for the past eight years, is likely to return for a third term chancellor, even though it’s less clear which governing parties will join her in coalition.

You know that her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) holds a wide, double-digit lead over the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).

And you know that, as far as elections go, it’s been a particularly boring one — even by the standards of Germany’s relatively muted consensus-driven politics.

But what else should you know about Sunday’s election?

Not to worry.  Here’s all the lingo you need to sound (and be) in the know about what’s likely to happen this weekend in Germany — and what might happen in its aftermath.

Mutti. <noun> German for ‘mommy.’

This is the somewhat affectionate nickname that the German press have bestowed upon Merkel, the country’s first female chancellor.  It goes to the heart of Merkel’s calming, no-nonsense approach to governing Germany over the past eight years that, even through a global financial crisis and through a European sovereign debt crisis, finds Germany with some of the best economic conditions in the European Union (or even the developed world).  ‘Mutti’ will reassure us with her reassuringly bland approach to economic policy!  ‘Mutti’ will keep unemployment low and export-fueled GDP growth high! But ‘Mutti’ will also tell us ‘nein!‘ when we’re misbehaved — or worse, when our rowdy Greek cousins have misbehaved!

Merkel diamond<noun> See also, in sicheren Händen.

Merkel is well-known for the, uhhh, unique formation of her hands when she’s being photographed (see above a CDU election poster in Berlin showcasing her trademark gesture).  It goes hand-in-hand (heh, sorry) with Merkel’s image as Germany’s Mutti, and it emphasizes the extent to which the CDU has run a presidential-style campaign based on Merkel’s personality.

It’s become a helpful reminder that the CDU would like you to believe that, under Merkel, Germany is in sicheren Händen — in safe hands.

At this point, the CDU is Merkel and Merkel is the CDU.  If it’s hard to think of anyone else governing Germany for the next four years, it’s even harder to think about anyone else leading the CDU anytime soon.

Shitstorm. <noun> English, and now German (!).

Merkel famously started a linguistic trend when she used the English-language term ‘shitstorm’ in a discussion with British prime minister David Cameron last year.  Thus was born Der Shitstorm, which even officially enter the German lexicon earlier this year.   What was Merkel referencing?  The problems of dealing with economic crisis in southern Europe.

Kick the can.  Eurospeak for Germany’s approach to the eurozone crisis. See, also, Shitstorm above. 

Throughout the eurozone crisis, Merkel and her European allies seemed to fight each subsequent wave of danger with just enough force to bring the eurozone back from the edge — just barely — before another inevitable lurch into the crisis zone a few months (or weeks) later.  With a German public reluctant to write a blank check to bail out southern Europe, a German constitutional court reticent to relinquish sovereignty in violation of Germany’s Grundgesetz (its ‘Basic Law,’ Germany’s postwar constitution) and European institutions unable or unwilling to craft a home-run solution to ending the crisis once and for all, Merkel’s approach has been criticized for taking a band-aid approach to the eurozone’s more beleaguered economies.

So while the worst of the eurozone crisis may be over, Greece and Portugal (at least) will require additional bailouts in the next 12 months, Italy desperately needs political and market reform, Ireland faces massive home foreclosures, Cyprus’s economy continues to tank, and Spain grinds through tough austerity measures that have propelled its unemployment rate to over 26%, second only to Greece’s rate of 27%.  All of which means that the next German government will spend much of its time focusing on European issues, not just German domestic issues — and that’s, in turn, why the German election is so important to the rest of the world, including the United States.

Piraten. <noun> German for ‘pirate.’

RRRR! It’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

But it’s also the name of another new party in Germany, the Pirate Party, which formed in 2006 and started to gain traction in spring 2012, when it polled almost 12% or 13% support.  At the time, the Pirates rode a wave of success in local elections, winning seats in each of the Landtag (state parliaments) in four of Germany’s 16 states — Berlin, Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Soon thereafter, though, as the German public took a closer look at the Pirates, their support crumbled — in large part because, beyond a strong platform in favor of data privacy and internet freedom, the party didn’t showcase a clear stand on many other issues facing the German electorate.

But even the revelation of German cooperation with the US National Security Agency’s internet snooping programs wasn’t enough to turn the tide for the Pirates, who are polling around 2.5% in advance of Sunday’s vote.

Peerlusconi. <noun> Nickname for SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück.

Steinbrück, ever since he became the SPD candidate to challenge Merkel last September, has failed to gain traction on the campaign trail.  Part of the reason is that he’s a bit of a dour, centrist economist who served as Merkel’s own finance minister during the 2005-09 ‘grand coalition,’ so he’s had a difficult time drawing contrasts between his own economic program and Merkel’s (though he has criticized the harshness of the austerity she’s foisted on Greece and has argued for a Germany-wide minimum wage).  But part of the reason is that Steinbrück has become known as a kind of gaffe machine, hence the unflattering nickname that recalls the antics of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Sparpolitik. <expression> German for ‘the politics of austerity.’

German politics can be odd in the sense that ideology plays a relatively minor role in policymaking — an ostensible leftist chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, enacted tough labour market reforms and limited social welfare benefits (Hartz IV) and Merkel, an ostensible right-wing chancellor, announced in 2011 with little debate that Germany would phase out nuclear energy.  Even by German standards, Merkel takes a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to governing.

But if there’s one word that captures Merkel’s ideology, it’s sparpolitik — think if this as the German equivalent for all of the English-language content that falls under the word ‘austerity’ in British and European politics.  It’s the debt-lowering, tax-raising, budget-cutting attempt to bring Europe’s finances back into shape — as Merkel likes to note on the campaign trail, Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its gross domestic product and 50% of its social welfare spending.  Merkel believes those kind of benefits simply cannot continue in a world where Europe, including Germany, hopes to remain competitive, and sparpolitik underlines her one large push for a new European treaty — the fiscal compact (not a formal treaty, in light of the United Kingdom’s veto) that requires 26 of the 27 EU nations to keep annual budget deficits within 3% of GDP.

Stinkefinger. <expression> German for using the obscene middle-finger gesture.

It was the bird flown round the world — or at least from Hamburg to Munich.  In the most recent of Steinbrück’s gaffes, he posed for a major German news source with his middle finger outstretched.  He was responding to a question (designed to be answered with a gesture and not words) about all of the various nicknames he’s gained throughout the campaign, including ‘Peerlusconi.’

Steinbrück last year argued that the chancellor’s salary should be higher, a difficult sentiment to square away with his push for greater economic justice, and perhaps in a moment of untoward snobbery, also said he wouldn’t buy a bottle of pinot grigio for less than €5.

But his dogged (and often unscripted) nature may now be helping him, giving him a more spontaneous vibe than his super-cautious challenger.   Steinbrück received high marks for his performance in the campaign’s single televised debate with Merkel, and the Social Democrats’ poll numbers have even ticked up slightly since the middle-finger incident last week, which had the air of a man who didn’t give a f*ck what the German electorate has in store for him on Sunday.

Maybe German voters are finally taking to the man I once called the ‘Bob Dole’ of German elections.

Fünf. <number> German for ‘five.’  

English speakers could be forgiven for thinking that ‘fünf’ is the sound that Merkel’s current coalition partners, the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) are likely to make on Sunday, when they are expected to fall far from their high-water mark of nearly 15% in the previous 2009 elections.

Instead, ‘fünf’ (five) is the most important number in the German election — the percent threshold that each of Germany’s political parties must win in the ‘party vote’ on Sunday in order to win seats to the Bundestag, the elected house of Germany’s parliament, on a proportional representation basis.  The idea is that the German parliament’s makeup should roughly match the support of the parties, so in addition to voting for a local candidate, Germans cast a second vote for their preferred party, with at least 299 seats (and often more) allotted pursuant to the ‘party vote’ to bring the composition of the Bundestag in line with voter preferences.  This is important because the Free Democrats are in danger of winning less than 5% of the vote, according to polls — ominously, the party won only 3.2% in conservative Bavaria’s state elections last weekend.  If the Free Democrats fail to win 5%, it will close the door to any further coalition between then and Merkel’s party.

It’s also important because the newly formed Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which is Germany’s first eurosceptic party, is also on the verge of winning up to 5% of the vote, which would entitle them to around 30 seats in the Bundestag, a result that could make Merkel’s job crafting eurozone policy in her next term even trickier.

Große Koalition. <noun> German for ‘grand coalition.’

If Merkel cannot form a coalition with her current partners, the Free Democrats, many believe she will be forced to return to the same arrangement that governed Germany between 2005 and 2009 — a ‘grand’ coalition among the Christian Democrats, their Bavarian sister party Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union) and their rival, the Social Democrats.

Although the grand coalition seemed to work fairly well the first time around, and polls show that more Germans prefer a grand coalition than the continuation of Merkel’s coalition with the Free Democrats, there are reasons to doubt the stability of a second grand coalition.

Given that German voters seemed to punish the Social Democrats in the 2009 elections, giving all of the credit for the previous government’s success to Merkel and the Christian Democrats instead, Steinbrück tries to downplay the possibility of a grand coalition on the campaign trail, and top SPD leaders indicate they will drive a hard bargain if a grand coalition becomes the only realistic governing option after the election.

But in light of the previous experience, expect a second grand coalition to be much more acrimonious, with SPD leaders drawing sharp contrasts on economic and European policy.  Also expect the Social Democrats to look for an opportunity for snap elections well before 2017 with an eye to toppling Merkel at their first opportunity.

Jamaica coalition. <noun> Also known as black-green-yellow coalition.

Don’t worry — Merkel isn’t about to don dreadlocks and convert Germany to Rastafarianism (though, given the precarious nature of Jamaica’s finances, she might well give Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller a lecture on sparpolitik).

In a world where Merkel can’t form a coalition with the Free Democrats or simply finds the idea of returning to a partnership with the Social Democrats too harrowing, there’s a third option — a historic turn to the Die Grünen (the Greens).  The coalition is called a ‘Jamaica’ coalition because the three colors of the Jamaican flag align to the three colors of the parties in the coalition — black (CDU), yellow (FDP) and green.  But polls show that the Greens could win up to 10% of the vote, which means that Merkel could even consider a two-way ‘black-green’ coalition.

It was always unlikely, and it seems even more unlikely after CDU and CSU politicians attacked Green leader Jürgen Trittin earlier this week over a decades-old scandal involving the Green Party and pedophilia, but the Green electorate is moving steadily to the center after years on the radical left.  The Green electorate today is more moderate and wealthier than at any time since the party’s foundation in 1979.  The Greens were a reliable partner for Schröder’s center-left government from 1998 to 2005, and they would prefer to form another center-left government with the Social Democrats in 2013.  But the Free Democrats, too, were once a reliable partner for SPD-led governments in the 1970s.  Times change, and Merkel — having made a 180-degree turn on nuclear energy, long a Green priority — could help pull both the Greens and her own party to the center with a bold new alignment of German governance.

Photo credit to DPA.

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