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Keeping One Eye Abroad

But One’s Culture at Home

Krishna Gupta

Some may be unaware, but Germany currently has no real head of state. That’s correct — the world’s third largest economy has now spent nearly two weeks post-election without a proper leader. Germany has long been one of the world’s major powers; however, its recent problems have culminated in a deadlock, in the outcome of which hangs the short-term future of the embattled country, the feeble European Union, and a seriously strained U.S.-Germany relationship.

Why do elections matter to outsiders? Elections give global citizens a chance to assess the state of affairs in a particular country, to identify a particular direction in which a country is moving. For example, in my humble opinion, the U.S. election of 2004 demonstrated to the world that the U.S. was not yet ready to re-enter the league of intelligent and responsible nations.

The Mexican election of 2000, which marked the end of 71 years of domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party in favor of the opposition democratic President Vicente Fox, reflected the people’s frustration with government corruption and the status quo. Similarly, the Indian election of 2004 was won by the left-leaning Congress Party, nearly bringing in a foreign-born female Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi and signaling recognition of a the populist demand for poverty alleviation.

Or, one could look at the recent 2005 Egyptian debacle, the first contested presidential election in the country’s history, and observe that the system must be flawed if Hosni Mubarak was sworn in as President for his fifth six-year term thanks to the votes of a measly 23 out of every 100 citizen. All these elections, and many others, can give us an initial perception of the country’s affairs.

As voters in Germany went to the polls on Sunday, Sept. 18, each must have felt like any other voter in any other country — confidently hoping that their candidate would win. After all, each of the major parties — the conservative Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) — stood a good chance to win.

Alas, the consequences of this fine balance are now clear. With CDU/CSU totaling 225 seats from 35.2 percent of the popular vote and SPD capturing 222 seats from 34.2 percent of the popular vote, the country has suddenly become embroiled in a battle to save itself from political ignominy. For although the CDU/CSU, led by Angela Merkel, secured a three-seat advantage in the lower house of Parliament, it could not claim a majority, mainly because of a strong showing by rival SPD, headed by incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The SPD has traditionally leaned left and enacted populist policy, while the CDU/CSU is the largest conservative party in Germany. The SPD has controlled the Parliament for seven years, and in recent years has kept Germany as an independent state promulgating EU ideology. Chancellor Schroeder’s refusal to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has facilitated much better relations with neighboring France and Russia, though it angered the U.S. administration.

Alas, despite his international clout, Schroeder has been hammered at home for being unable to reduce unemployment. And we MIT students know that if you don’t keep the numbers down, the numbers will keep you down. This is a classic example of a leader forgetting that he must first take care of the people who elected him to lead. Sound familiar? The SPD lost its majority last year, and Schroeder called for early elections to retain a mandate to rule. Its major opposition, the CDU/CSU, has promised to drastically cut unemployment, and, perhaps most significantly, Schroeder’s adversary Merkel has promised better future relations with the U.S.

To form a government, a coalition needs to have a majority of seats in the Bundestag. Of the possible coalitions, a grand SPD/CDU/CSU alliance is most likely. They share similar views in areas such as revamping the complicated tax system or labor and welfare reforms as outlined by Schroeder in Agenda 2010. But the SPD is not as radical as CDU/CSU in speed or scale. I can’t imagine this coalition passing key reforms in a timely manner, and it would only stunt Germany’s future growth or further its current problems, which include a jobless rate of 11.7 percent. A number of less probable options exist but most involve a smaller party moving across the political spectrum to give opposition parties a majority. On top of all this remains the issue of chancellorship — Merkel insists that the people have chosen her, but Schroeder points to the small margin as an indication that he should continue.

To be quite frank, I’m hoping that Schroeder pulls through. He won’t let unemployment run amok again simply because he’ll have used his last lifeline. If Germany decides to re-establish close ties with the U.S., not only would the U.S. strongly influence Great Britain, the most independent country in the EU, it would also penetrate further into central Europe. And I’m of the opinion that it’s not good for the progress of the world to have Americans strutting around all over the place. I’m sick of seeing America tacitly claiming spheres of influence in every damn country. Why do I have to see “Don’t mess with Texas” shirts in small bazaars in Jerusalem? There is value in having cultures maintain distinct flavors, thoughts, people; freedom does not only involve the establishment of militaristic independence, but also of indigenous ideology and implementation, free from the machinations of politicians sitting thousands of miles away, particularly if the country in question is perfectly capable of self-government in the truest sense. Both candidates will attempt to strengthen Germany and the EU, but one will do it alone, and the other will do it with an outsider.

In my mind, the grand coalition is the likeliest possibility, and I believe that Schroeder will use his political cunning to maintain his hold on the chancellery. Merkel squandered a 20-point poll lead and hopefully will be forced into the sidelines. This must be the EU’s time to redeem itself, to triumph, to shine, and to rise. The jury is still out, however, and the possibility remains that Germany will become the next U.S. state. And if it does, the door is open for the rest of the EU to come crumbling down.

Krishna Gupta is a member of the class of 2009.