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Staff and students about German elections

Staff and students about German elections

Photographer:Fotograaf: Simone Golob

Who are you going to vote for on Sunday? Observant discovered that this is a question that many German students and staff members would prefer not to answer. What you do in the polling booth, is private. But they do definitely have - often a well thought out - opinion about the Chancellor Angela Merkel, SPD leader Martin Schulz, the extreme right AfD, the Grünen, Die Linke, in short the up-coming German elections.  

If there is one thing all students agree on, it’s this: the German elections have been pretty boring so far. But for most of them, boring is best. “I prefer it to too emotional,” says Lea Hassib, a third-year psychology student. “Nothing special has occurred, especially in comparison to other countries like the US. No dirt throwing, no personal attacks. That wouldn’t be the German way.”  “I’m fine with it being boring, elections should not be entertainment,” adds Sven Hegewald, a third-year student of European Studies. Although Carolin Bollig, a third-year student of Economics and Business Economics, agrees, she would like to see “a bit more passion, a bit less perfect diplomacy. I think that is a better way to convince people. Voting isn’t only a rational decision.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has had a solid lead on her direct opponent Martin Schulz (SPD) for months, making it almost inevitable that she will add another four years to the twelve she’s already been in office. “I choose Merkel over Schulz, definitely,” says Bollig. “I don’t agree with everything she does, but she is very professional and that is what we need right now. I don’t trust Schulz as much as I trust her.” Diana Launert, a third-year European Public Health student thinks there is no great alternative. “With Merkel, you know what you get. She stands by her values, is diplomatic, modest. People can say a lot during a campaign, but is it doable? Also, Schulz doesn’t really carry my sympathy. I think he’s kind of egocentric.” Hassib agrees. “His campaign is all about him and what he has achieved in life, where it should be about the people voting for him. He’s playing on people’s emotions. I choose SPD over CDU – they are too conservative for my taste – but Merkel over Schulz. She did a good job so far. In these globally unstable times, it’s not bad to be known for your calmness and diplomacy.”

Hegewald finds it difficult to imagine someone else being Chancellor. “My generation grew up with no one else in mind, I remember Kohl and Schröder, but I was too small to really know them. I think Merkel was incredibly brave in the way she handled the refugee crisis. I think she did the right thing and it’s good that she still stands by that. But I disagree with her on many other topics. With her as Chancellor, no substantial actions will be taken and we do need that. Schulz would be an alternative. When he was elected leader of the SPD, I was hyped. I even considered voting for them. But then, he lost it. Not just for me, but also for a lot of others according to the polls. I’m not sure what happened there, I can’t point it out.”

The real battle will be amongst the smaller parties: FdP (the liberals), Die Linke (the far left), Die Grünen (the greens) and AfD (the far right). The latter party can’t count on any sympathy from the Maastricht students. “In the end, democracy is about giving everyone a platform. But the problem is they manipulate people through fear. Morally, they are not on the same page as the other parties”, says Hassib. “They are putting opinions in people’s heads, and that’s very dangerous,” says Bollig. “I don’t think they will be the third party, the hype is declining, but still. Especially in Germany, it’s sad that we have learnt so little from history.” “They justify racism against refugees and other minority groups,” says Launert. “And that’s what makes it difficult. Because obviously, there are enough people who feel left out, who think their country is being taken away from them. I don’t support that at all, but it’s good to give those people a voice. After all, what do I know about their lives? I live in my own privileged bubble.” “It would be nice if someone would articulate those concerns – even though I think they are misjudged or non-existing – in a democratic way,” says Hegewald. “How the AfD behaves, the things they say, is down-right destructive.”

Merkel has already ruled out forming a collation with the AfD, so even if they do become the third party on Sunday, they will be in the opposition. The same goes for Die Linke, leaving the liberal FdP and Die Grünen. Hassib hopes it will be the latter. “I already voted for the Greens by post, I feel the main focus should be on sustainability and on not consuming so much anymore.” Whereas she used both her votes – Germans get two, one for a regional direct representative and one for a party – for Die Grünen, Bollig wants to spread hers. “I think I will vote CDU and either FdP or Die Grünen. They both have points that I agree with and points that I don’t agree with, I’ll have to figure out what’s more important to me.”

Launert and Hegewald don’t want to say whom they are voting for (Hegewald: “There is a reason for voting being private”), but they will definitely do so. Launert: “And I would never use my vote as a protest by voting for Die Partei (a satirical party), for instance. I have my issues with every party, but I wouldn’t let my vote go to waste.”

Thomas Christiansen, Professor of European Institutional Politics at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences:

“Of course I am going to vote, it is the duty of every citizen in a democracy. But whom I vote for, will remain a secret. That is a matter of principle; you cast your vote behind a curtain, and there is a reason for that. Elections are private.”  Christian Democrat (CDU) and present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the leader of the social democrats (SPD), Martin Schulz, are good candidates for the Federal Chancellorship. “I like Schulz for his principled European approach, but I'm not against Merkel, she has done well these past years. As such, the fact that she has been in power for twelve years is not a problem for me. In Germany, we don't set a limit to the number of terms in office that a person can have. But change is good for democracy.”

The fact that the electoral battle has been deemed “boring” by many media and opinion makers, is not an issue for him. “It is actually a good thing in these times of increasing populism and irrational leaders such as Trump and irrational decisions such as the Brexit.”

Christiansen expects Merkel to win. “Her decisions, even controversial ones such as the one on the refugee crisis, are supported by a majority. The SPD and the Grünen think the same way about the matter. I believe there will again be a strong pro-Europe government. That will be good for the European Union after the Brexit.”

The Eurosceptical and extremely right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) “is an embarrassment for Germany,” says Christiansen and is “a danger to democracy. They are extremely right-wing and nationalistic.  Statements by some of their leaders could be associated with Nazi ideology and there is a suspicious link to Russia. The AfD is breaking taboos that have existed since the nineteen-forties, the party is making ideas acceptable in Germany that are not acceptable exactly because of our history.”

 

Alexander Brüggen, Professor of Management Accounting:

“I have lived in the Netherlands for twenty years and I am still allowed to vote this year. After 25 years, I will have to prove that the results of the Bundestagwahl have an influence on my daily life. If that is so, I would retain my right to vote. I don't think that I will do that.” Brüggen has already voted, by post, but for whom he has voted will remain a secret. “I am a teacher and want to remain as neutral as possible.”

He suspects that Merkel will stay on for a fourth term, although it would be good if a Chancellor were replaced after two terms. “You get too fixed an image of such a person. A change of person triggers a discussion that is more about the content than about the man or woman.”

The last Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was in office for 16 years. Are those long periods typically German? “Germans fear political unrest, that fear has historical roots. They relate Merkel to a certain comfort zone: things are going economically well, and socially things are not bad. At the same time, many things could be better, such as education or child care. Many people trust her blindly: she will take care of things. I respect her, she is clever and is good at knowing what the voters want.”

With the almost certain entry of the ultra-right AfD in the Bundestag (Lower House), Germany joins the other European countries in which extreme right-wing parties (Wilders, Le Pen) have seats in parliament. “I am not happy with them. What their leader Alexander Gauland said last weekend about the Wehrmacht in The Second World War – that we should be proud of those soldiers - is of course unacceptable. But I don't see them as a threat. I hope that other parties feel compelled to express their convictions and oppose the AfD. With arguments and in debates. There are far too few debates in parliament. It is difficult to see the difference between parties. If you don't have debates anymore, a more extreme party could become more interesting for voters.”

 

Valentin Kemper, researcher at the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience:

“What has been bugging me about this election campaign, is that the CSU – the sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU – has come up with their own programme,” says Kemper. “CDU and CSU write their election programme together. They don’t run in the same states, but for parliament every vote for the CDU is also one for the CSU and vice versa. A few weeks after they presented it, the CSU, who are more conservative than the CDU, came out with an additional programme of their own. There, they for instance propose a limit to the amount of refugees Germany can take in. This is something the CDU says they will never have, but it wouldn’t be the first time the CSU got its way. Merkel also said that we would never have motorway tolls – another CSU idea – and look what happened.”

Kemper is convinced that Merkel will be Chancellor again. “The only semi-realistic alternative is a red-red-green coalition: the SPD, together with Die Linke and Die Grünen, with Martin Schulz as Chancellor. But that’s a long shot. I think the SPD has suffered from governing with the CDU. Merkel has the ability to incorporate their ideas and present them as her own. So they don’t get the credit and because they have been working together, Schulz can’t really criticise any government decision of the past four years, because his party has at least endorsed them all. The SPD would probably profit from going into the opposition.”

Which party will become third, is the real question on Sunday. “It’s exciting, but also scary, because it could be the AfD. Whether they add something to the debate? Apparently, 10 per cent of the people think so. It’s hard for me to relate to.  But they are a reality now; they are in a couple of the state parliaments. You have to deal with them. And they have already had a great impact on the debate. The conservative parties, who don’t want to lose votes to them, move a little to the right.”

 

Luca Bücken, staff member in Marketing and Communication and master’s student of Public Policy and Human Development:

“Although I’m a member of the SPD, I’m hesitating between SPD and the Greens. At this point, I don’t think that Martin Schulz has a chance of beating Merkel. In one of the latest surveys she was 16 or 17 points ahead. And I don’t think Schulz is necessarily the best person to lead our country. So if Merkel is in power again, who is she going to govern with?” Bücken doesn’t think another grand coalition (between the CDU and the SPD) is good for Germany’s democracy. “Our election is so calm because there are almost no differences between the two biggest parties. A smaller coalition means more competition – eventually pushing the SPD to the left – and more alternatives, and that strengthens democracy. It gives voters more choice.”

A coalition between the CDU and the Greens would be interesting, in Bücken’s view. “It will force the Conservatives to make compromises on refugees, social justice, families, the climate and other matters.”

The AfD is “a threat”, he says. “They will be in parliament and that really troubles me. I hope people will realise that the AfD, with party leaders who openly promote Neo-Nazi propaganda, is a danger to democracy. People must stand up against them so that after the next elections we get a parliament without the extreme right.” He points out two further concerns: “More than one third of voters are sixty plus, and many young people don’t go to the polls. That’s not good and challenges our ideals of representation. The same goes for certain social groups and regions. Certain parts of our population have said goodbye to democracy. We need to address that.”

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