compulsory reading, German Politics, media, Political Theory

High Noon

Well, it was about time. Being a mature liberal democracy with television, it was only a matter of time until there would be a televised duel between the two most serious contenders for Germany’s most important political office, the chancellor.

Yesterday evening, 20:15 was the hour of truth for both contestants. Given that this sort of two-man-show is a new element in German campaigning, it is understandable that both Mssrs. had some trouble to find the right way to deal with the other.

There were no fatal mistakes, no watch-checking, no claims about Eastern Europe being still under Soviet control. Actually, the duel was not actually a duel. The contestants hardly spoke or even looked at each other. Nor did they look at me (or the other estimated 14m viewers, which equals appr. 50% prime-time market share) since cameras, contestants and the two interviewing journalists were placed in a way it appeared the two men simply looked nowhere when they were actually looking at the journalists. Seriously, I wonder if they should pay their campaign advisors.

So the event is the main story. And for all the pundits being interviewed afterwards this was in all likelyhood a very profitable evening. But for the rest of us and for our democracy, the debate (that was not) was not very helpful.

By the way, the (conservative) BILD-Zeitung has apparently decided that Edmund Stoiber won. Actually, a lot of people said that today. Such commentary is a good example of the fact that pessimists tend to be more effetive than optimists, because because their “should be / is”-fraction will always be higher. Stoiber won simply because everyone expected him to perform as abysmal as he did in the first one-hour interview after his nomination as CDU/CSU candidate.

So to sum up, we did a) not learn anything interesting about policy options in the debate (that was not), b) we have a winner because a duel by definition needs a winner and c) unfortunately, that “winner” only because he tragically lowered expectations by himself. It’s a bit like the soaring approval ratings for George W. Bush after his handling of 9/11. Most people expected him to fail so they were positively surprised when he did not (fail entirely).

Note: It is evident why a televised debate is being introduced in Germany just now, but interestingly, it is less certain than in many previous elections that the voters will get the chancellor the want. Germany is a parliamentary democracy and the public elects the parliament, not the government. As no single party will be able to get 50+% of the votes, they will need to form coalition.

This, in turn, means that the candidate who received the most votes will not necessarily become chancellor. It all depends on the vote distribution between the parties. And given current trends, the FDP might well choose the SPD over the CDU as a coalition partner as they would have more weight in such a coalition. So Schroeder could stay in office despite getting less votes than Stoiber. Now this is a logical possibility of a parliamentary democracy and far less problematic than in the case of the last American election.

From here, the discussion would become increasingly theoretical and thus I will spare you (and me) tonight. Whatever the public says (through elections or otherwise) there is no correct way to translate it into majorities. It’s just an (socialised) agreement.