WALL STREET JOURNAL
Say it Slowly – Zukunftsangst
Germany is haunted. My countrymen see ghosts everywhere as they go to the polls this Sunday.
Berlin – When neo-Nazis are elected to a regional parliament, many fear a resurgence of Hitler. When a left-wing splinter party gains strength, scores believe they see the ghost of communism. Because Angela Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, has proposed a larger dose of reform policy than Gerhard Schröder, the current chancellor, millions see her as the reincarnation of Maggie Thatcher. No wonder pollsters have found a level of fear in this election campaign that is greater than anything we’ve ever experienced since the war. A balance of terror has emerged: Fear of unemployment competes with fear of an overly radical fight against it. Empty state coffers cause the same horror as the budget cuts designed to overcome them. Some call for a serious increase in genetic research, which leads others reflexively to cringe.
Everyone is terrified of everyone. As if of its own accord, the word “fear” attaches itself to the word “future” — Zukunftsangst permeates the German mind. Fear of reform, fear of stagnation, fear of a failure of democracy and now — as the frantic climax of this collective neurosis — the fear of a further growth of fear.
The result is political exhaustion on all sides. On Sunday, Europe’s largest industrialized country will most likely elect the weakest of all postwar governments — assuming the result even allows a government to be formed. If the Social Democrat Mr. Schröder wins, he will not be able to do much with his victory. During the campaign he moved far away from his own convictions in order to collect the disheartened and insecure. His party is once again humming old working-class songs and its traditionalist members couldn’t be happier. But the politician Schröder now lives to the left of reality. He’s never been so distant from his spiritual neighbor Tony Blair. Even if he wanted to move back again after a successful election, his party would not allow him to return to reality. His line of retreat is cut off. If he wins, he’ll be in government, but not in power.
If Ms. Merkel wins, she won’t have much to celebrate either. The 140-square-meter office of the head of government stands in stark contrast to the small amount of power she would actually have. At least at the beginning she’d be a chancellor of limited possibilities. Three things would prevent the kind of powerful governance of which she recently spoke in Parliament.
One is the outcome of the election itself: Her majority against the post-communists, environmentalists and Social Democrats will be razor thin — if she can win at all. That is not what a mandate for radical reform looks like. The more clearly she informs Germans of her intentions, the more they back away from her in horror. The absolute majority projected in surveys melted away with breathtaking speed. Germans’ fear was greater than her powers of persuasion.
Second: There are rumblings in her own party. For the powerful provincial princes, this was a unsatisfying campaign. No one in the conservative ranks had expected that the chancellor, who had decided upon early elections because of a lack of loyalty in his own ranks, would be able to revitalize himself. His deathbed resurrection is blamed on Ms. Merkel. She was courageous; she was honest; she was even precise. In short, she did everything wrong. She ran a campaign counter to rational party tactics. She announced a tax increase, called for privatizing nursing care insurance and told subsidy recipients, night workers, commuters and home builders that they could no longer expect government handouts. The fear increased, the support shrank. The men in her party’s second and third tiers will never forgive her for that. These gentlemen are panting for revenge, and they’ll have plenty of opportunity to pay her back.
Through the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament that represents the states, the princes possess a de facto veto. Eleven of 16 heads of state governments come from the conservative party. The German defect, that paralyzing arrangement of checks and balances built into the system after 1945, is very convenient for them. They take part in discussions, share in decision-making — and block progress. Ms. Merkel’s hardline enemies are just waiting to topple her. Most probably, however, the more moderate among her rivals will prevail. They have taken it upon themselves to wear her out in office.
Of course, Ms. Merkel also has supporters, especially among the party base. She has to spoil these people with presentable achievements, which leads us to the third reason for her lack of political power — the most serious, although she’s not responsible for it. Germany’s decline is farther along than the public realizes. No rapid successes can be expected — especially not from a woman with no mandate for a new start. Her government will be of the lowest common denominator. The ghosts will be sitting at the government table. Fear will soon possess cabinet status.
Ms. Merkel knows everything one has to know about the state of the nation. She knows the data, and in her years in opposition she took a thorough look at the economy. Much of it reminds her of the decline of East Germany, which she experienced as a scientist in Berlin. She recognizes this refusal to acknowledge, the looking away, the wavering in the face of danger.
A glance at the state’s finances shows how dramatic the situation is: Of 190 billion euros in tax revenues, 80 billion is passed on to the cash-strapped state pension system, 30 billion goes to the unemployed, and another 40 billion belongs to the banks, just to service debt. The rest is not even enough to pay the bureaucracy and to build roads. Ever-new credits are constantly needed so that Germany at least has the appearance of a prosperous country. Relief is not in sight because the birth-rate has fallen by half since the early 1960s and so the work force will also soon fall by half. Two retirees will then be financed by one worker, which would be too much for everyone — the workers and the state. If nothing changes, the government will need 80% of the state budget in 2050 just to prop up pensions. The task of building up the German east is another factor. The region once dominated by the Soviets devours a fortune, and has cost 1.4 trillion euros so far. For 15 years, the western part of Germany has been transferring 4% of its GDP to the East. Because the West has not grown by 4% for decades — at best by half of that — the transfer payments are depleting reserves. Former Ford manager and Social Democrat Klaus von Dohnanyi speaks of a “permanent loss of blood from our economy.”
Ms. Merkel knows the forces at work here. They are pulling the country, as well as its chancellor, down — down to the place where the wellspring of eternal fear flows. No nation likes to lose a piece of its power and prosperity each day. German assertiveness is thus Ms. Merkel’s natural coalition partner. She must ally herself with it, promote it and let it grow into a mighty political force.
Willpower is society’s most underestimated productive force in history. Historians don’t like it because they cannot measure it or ask it any questions. But states do not consist only of armed forces, banks and steel mills, and more or less diligent civil servants. Every country is propelled by a mixture of ambition and pride, which can bring forth both the reprehensible and the great. Angela Merkel has a chance if she succeeds in mobilizing this force of will behind her policies, and thus puts an end to the haunting. Before she takes on the details of pension and tax reforms, there is something more important to do: It’s time to call in “Die Geisterjäger” — the Ghostbusters.