First All-German Vote Is Marked by Calm
After four `fateful elections,' in a year, Germans have reduced smooth-running politics to an art - a letter from Bonn
BONN — HOW is it that the first all-German election since 1932, topping off a year of incredible political change here, feels like nothing so remarkable? The Germans themselves say it is anticlimactic. For the residents of former East Germany, yesterday's polling was their fourth ``fateful'' election (as it was billed) in 10 months.
Part of the calm can be attributed to the German political system itself, which is so highly efficient that it could undertake the reunification process in less than a year with few problems.
To those used to rough-and-tumble elections, the streamlined German political machine can be somewhat alarming. It so lacks dissent that it seems almost undemocratic. Where's the noise?
The systematic approach to politics here starts with the all-important German parties. A visitor to Bonn can see the central role the parties play just by driving down the main road, the B9, where party real estate dominates the scenery. At night, the gigantic, red-neon letters ``CDU,'' sitting atop the high-rise Christian Democratic Union headquarters, shine like the logo of a mighty manufacturer.
The parties themselves are run in a top-down style, which a diplomat in Bonn, in a recent interview, referred to as ``analogous'' to the way a Communist Party is run. Strong language perhaps, but the lack of open dissent at the yearly party congresses (excepting the Greens) is remarkable.
At these gatherings, the year's goals come down from the party leadership, a few amendments are discussed, and before you know it, the sea of hands sweeps up from the floor of delegates to mark approval. Solidarity is a key feature of party membership here and to launch into open disagreement is to be disloyal.
This solidarity is reinforced by the electoral setup, where there are no primaries. The parties select their candidates for the Bundestag, or parliament. And it is the Bundestag that elects the chancellor.
The Bundestag itself is somewhat a shock to an American. Half the members are not directly accountable to an electoral district, for instance.
This is because of the voting method in Germany, where an individual has two votes. One vote is for a representative. The other is for a party, which then appoints parliamentarians from a pre-approved list of party members. The Bundestag seats that go to list candidates are proportionately divided among the parties to mirror their performance in the election. It is the ultimate in fairness, but leaves list members with no constituents to answer to.
Another factor strengthening political parties is the degree to which power is concentrated in the Bundestag. Often, the chancellor's Cabinet ministers are also Bundestag members. Lobbying, too, is different. Many lobbyists (industrial or worker association leaders) have seats in the Bundestag.
These interconnections - the pyramid structure of the parties and their influence - seem upsetting to an American. On the other hand, this system actually fits the Germans fairly well.
It's helpful to remember that dissent in the German public is far less than in the United States and that stability is prized. This is a fairly homogeneous society - economically, culturally, and racially. Crime is minimal. Living standards are high.
Naturally, there are differences of opinion, and the addition of eastern Germany has certainly added spice to the pot, but the differences seem shades in comparison to what surfaces in the US.
In this last year, meanwhile, the streamlined political system here proved its worth. Step by step, the Germans joined two countries in a breathtakingly short amount of time and with minimal difficulty. One wishes that the US budget process could be handled with such alacrity. A full report on election results will appear in tomorrow's paper.