Beneath Germany's staid election, inequality stirs a 'moderate' populist revolt

Germany's economic success makes the political status quo seem unassailable. But for a growing number of Germans, jobs and the social safety net are growing more precarious, defying their basic sense of 'fairness.'

Markus Schreiber/AP
Social Democrats (SPD) top candidate Martin Schulz delivers a speech during an election campaign rally in Berlin, Friday, ahead of Germany's general election on Sunday, Sept. 24.

Günter Triebe is a perfect product of high-performing Germany.

He built his start as a metalworker into a 44-year career, and today, from his cozy living room in a leafy neighborhood of Berlin, he says he enjoys a comfortable pension. He adds proudly that he has never been unemployed. It’s this sort of well-being that is driving Chancellor Angela Merkel toward a fourth term in office in federal elections Sunday.

Except that Mr. Triebe isn’t voting for her.

In fact, he’s joined a group within his union, where he still serves as an officer, called “Seniors stand up” to fight back against pensioner poverty – and the prevailing notion that everything is just fine in the Merkel era.

“I have been lucky,” he says, but many seniors and those in precarious work, including his own son, have been left behind. “Germany looks like a miracle, but it’s not.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Günter Triebe is a perfect product of high-performing Germany. Having worked his way up as a metalworker with an apprenticeship program that led to a 44-year career, today from his cozy living room in a leafy neighborhood of Berlin he says he enjoys a comfortable pension. He adds proudly that he was never unemployed a day in his life. It's this sense of self-satisfaction that is driving Chancellor Angela Merkel towards a fourth term in office in federal elections Sunday. Except Mr. Triebe isn't voting for her. In fact, he's joined a group within his union, where he still sits on the board, called 'Seniors stand up' to fight back against pensioner poverty - and the prevailing notion that everything is well in Germany.

The paradoxes he sees in his own life amid Germany’s economic boom point to a more troubling picture than this election cycle reveals. Wages are up and unemployment is down, but relative poverty is also up, and the middle class is declining, according to various data.

That has not led to a populist backlash like in the US, with Ms. Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) well out front. Most Germans are happy with the status quo in a welfare state, says Stefan Liebig, a sociologist who studies social inequality.

But he says if inequality is not driving the debate, perceptions of injustice are, fueling frustration and girding the far-right, which is poised to enter parliament for the first time in Germany’s postwar history.

“We have now the highest level of subjective well-being in 25 years, which reflects the economic situation in Germany,” says Mr. Liebig. “The puzzle is we have what seems like a lot of people complaining. … To my view the economic situation can’t be the reason for it.” Rather, he says, it’s that some Germans don’t feel they are being treated fairly. “They have the feeling they don’t have the same chances.”

‘Moderate’ populism

Germany has created more jobs than at any other time since reunification in 1990, but it has not come without a cost. The country underwent painful reforms in the beginning of the century, called Agenda 2010, that weakened some parts of the welfare safety net and deregulated work arrangements, creating mini-jobs and more agency work. The economy has boomed and unemployment fallen.

New part-time jobs have been a boon, allowing mothers or older people who want reduced hours to enter the labor market. Yet there are many who find themselves without the chance of a proper, full-time job. “Considering the strong employment increase, one could expect a marked decrease of inequality. But this has not happened,” says Toralf Pusch, an expert on labor market at the Hans Boeckler Stiftung, a foundation that is connected to the German Trade Union Confederation. “Many of the new jobs are part time, which are often not well-paid.”

In fact, while German unemployment is the second lowest in the EU, Eurostat figures show that the risk of poverty among the employed was slightly higher, almost 10 percent, than the EU average of 9.5 percent in 2014. As France under President Emmanuel Macron looks to Germany as a model to strengthen its own economy, those fighting him at home say they worry about moving in the same direction.

“Emulate Germany? You need three jobs in Germany to get by,” says Daniel Bique, a retired printing press worker from the far-left CGT union, striking against French labor reform in Paris on a recent day.

The numbers on poverty and the middle class in Germany are open to interpretation. A welfare state, there is little absolute poverty, and the middle class is still much bigger than that of the US. But in its annual report, the national welfare association said that 15.7 percent live in relative poverty, the highest level since Germany’s reunification – and higher than the 14.7 percent rate when Merkel took office in 2005. According to a 2016 report by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), the proportion of middle-income individuals fell by more than five percentage points from 1991 to 2013, roughly the same pace of decline as in the US.

This has not led to the kind of anger against the establishment as was underlined by the American election of President Trump. A recent study by the independent Bertelsmann Foundation on "populism" found that about a third of German respondents have populist tendencies, but that it is a "moderate” populism. That means that even if they are angry with the system, they don’t want to upend it.

Partially that owes to satisfaction with the status quo, and a postwar preference to stay in the political center.

“It’s not about ‘we don’t want democracy anymore,’ it’s not about ‘we don’t want the EU anymore,’ it’s not about overthrowing the elites,” says Christina Tillmann, director of the future of democracy program at the Bertelsmann Foundation. Still, she calls the “moderate populism” in Germany an “early warning sign."

Desire for fairness

When Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s main rival, announced his candidacy, he put “social justice” at the fore of his platform, promising to roll back parts of Agenda 2010. Sabine Opel, a project manager who works near a food bank around high-priced apartments in Berlin, says divides are clear even where she stands at this moment. But she believes Mr. Schulz was only seeking to differentiate himself from Merkel for votes. “Not because he was going to change anything,” she says.

His failure to sway more Germans shows income inequality itself is not a priority, argues Liebig. He measures how Germans perceive the justice of their incomes. Even in eastern Germany, which lags behind the west in terms of wages and employment and is a stronghold for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the sense of injustice about incomes has decreased since reunification, his research shows. But what fuels the AfD is “procedural justice,” or the feeling they aren’t being treated fairly.

These notions apply nationally. Income injustice has flared twice as an issue, in 2007 and 2015, some of which Liebig attributes to the strength of the German economy. “People have the feeling, ‘if I’m working very hard and the economy and my firm are getting better and making more profit, I want to have fair share,” he says. Feelings of injustice might also arise if someone in a temporary job is working next to someone in a permanent one, with full benefits.

That’s exactly what drives Triebe. Under pension reform, some elderly haven’t been able to pay enough into private plans, leaving them struggling. “It makes me feel bad. If you have worked your entire life, you need to have enough money for the rest of your life,” he says. Meanwhile his own son, who is nearing 30, has gone from temp job to temp job as a forklift driver, and so lives at home. “It’s not good for him. It’s time to go.”

He says the AfD manipulates the mood. “They are telling their supporters that they are the losers,” he says. “It is the sign of the beginning of divisions.” He believes it’s not too late for all Germans to partake in the German “miracle.” “I’m a hopeful man. If you fight for your life, you can only fight with hope.”

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