Being in Germany during the recent elections was a revelation of sorts for a group of journalists as they saw democracy at its best in a country known for its historical autocracy. JANE RITIKOS reports.
IT WAS a chilly evening in Munich and we were walking to a restaurant at a square in the city when we heard a commotion. Curious, we went to find out what it was all about. What we saw was an election campaign by the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), a neo-Nazi party.
It was not part of the programme arranged for the group of international journalists invited by the German government to witness the election process which mainly involved attending rallies by major parties and interviewing party representatives, election experts and people on the street.
At that moment, one of the leaders was giving a speech but the crowd of mostly young people were whistling loudly and hurling insults.
“Well, this is democracy,” said our guide Lydia Zimmerman who pointed out that while the Nazi rule was a black chapter in German’s history, extremist right-wing parties like the NPD were allowed to exist and take part in the election.
“And it is also democratic for other people to express themselves for or against any political party,” she said, referring to the protesters who were making a lot of noise purposely to drown out the speaker’s voice, amid the presence of several police personnel who formed a barricade between the speaker and the crowd.
She added: “Can you hear his voice? It sounds like Hitler’s.”
Although she did not experience the oppressive years of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, like most people, she must have seen the images of the 20th century tyrant in TV documentaries.
Some of us couldn’t help but shudder when she said this as we could “feel” the presence of Hitler's ghost especially after we were given a tour of the city, which is not only famous for the Oktoberfest but where certain historical events involving Hitler had taken place.
But while fascism continues to rear its ugly racist head, the Germans are smart enough to use democracy and freedom to ensure the NPD failed to gain a single seat in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament.
The far right parties, however, won state-level elections from time to time.
In the election, the participating parties include the major ones represented in the Bundestag – centrist Social Democratic Party (SPD), conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) which only operates in the state of Bavaria, the liberal free market Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the environmentalist Green Party.
A new party Linkspartei (the Left Party) was formed before the election as a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), mainly described as the successor of former East Germany’s communist party, and a number of left-leaning factions of the SPD.
Earlier, at a rally by this party in east Berlin, we were amused by the sight of a man who, during the entire speech by two party leaders, sat on a window of a building carrying a placard with the word “Liar.”
In Germany, each voter casts his ballot twice – ffor a direct candidate in his constituency and a second for the party.
Young voters met in Berlin admitted that Germany needed to reform its social welfare system yet they were unwilling to do away entirely with taxpayer-funded benefits.
Student Nadine Sukale who was at the Humboldt University polling station where CDU leader Angela Merkel cast her ballot, gave her first vote to the Greens and her second to the Social Democrats.
She felt the CDU and its FDP partner would ignore the people’s welfare.
Like many Germans who are proud to declare themselves democratic, Sukale said she could not comprehend why one of her friends voted for the NPD but that the people would decide whether they wanted such a party or not.
Martin Schumann, who works with a university in Berlin, gave one of his votes to the Left Party.
Born in East Germany, he may be able to relate to the party which, during its campaign, had raised the fact that east Germany had the highest unemployment rate.
“I want a strong opposition to put pressure on the government,” he said.
It was a choice he did not regret as the socialists received an encouraging 8.7% of the votes – sending 54 representatives to the Bundestag.
Our guide Torsten Schroter recalled that during the reunification of east and west Germany in 1990, the people were overwhelmed with joy.
Although he was only 12 then, he remembered how west Germans helped their eastern cousins cross the border in their ugly but sturdy communist-made cars.
“But a few years later, the situation changed and there was prejudice on both sides. The reunification was costly; the west Germans were unhappy about having to pay solidarity taxes and the east Germans were angry about rising unemployment,” he said.
Therefore, it is not a surprise that the Left Party, seen by Germans as an eastern German regional party, performed well in the states of former East Germany where it gained 25.4% of the votes.
It also did well in former West Germany with 4.9%.
The result of the election was 34.3% votes for SPD and 35.2% CDU/CSU, a mere difference of 0.9%.
Election is over but Europe’s biggest economy will only know who will form its government and who becomes chancellor on Oct 18.