By Katie Grosser
MÜNSTER, Germany – Germans will be taking to the polls Sunday, and up for grabs are all 598 seats – or more, if extra seats are required – in the Bundestag, the main legislative house in Germany. The outcome of this election will resonate in the rest of the world.
Currently, five parties are seated in the Bundestag. The governing coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel comprises the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria, the main conservative parties in Germany, and the Free Democratic Party, the classic liberal party. The opposition is made up of the Social Democratic Party, the Greens, and the Left, which describes itself as democratic socialist.
These coalitions are likely to change, however, since recent polls have shown that neither the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and Free Democratic Party, nor the Social Democratic Party and Greens – both the preferred and most common recent government coalitions – are likely to get a majority.
Many have been predicting another grand coalition between the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and the Social Democratic Party, which is what occurred eight years ago after the 2005 federal election.
Germans have been pondering various campaign issues during the run-up to the election. On the top of everyone’s minds is the situation in the financial markets. Germans are asking who will pay to get the European Union out of the financial and debt crisis and how the banks should be regulated.
Katharina Pöhlke, 19, a first-time voter and recent high school graduate, concedes that this is a difficult topic.
“The fact that Germany is helping other EU-countries is good,” said Pöhlke. “But we have to be careful not to harm ourselves. Sometimes it seems like, Germany is the only country helping the others.”
Maya Argaman, 23, an English student, thinks that all EU-countries should be on the same page concerning payments to those countries which are in a crisis.
“As long as that isn’t the case, Germany should hold back,” Argaman said.
Ultimately, said Jan Engelke, a 23-year-old economics student, people should keep in mind that “Germany’s well-being depends on the Euro and therefore on other countries in the Eurozone.”
Not only financial and European, but also social, employment and family concerns have been dominant issues in the current campaign.
The parties are split on whether Germany needs a mandatory minimum wage, with the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and Free Democratic Party against it and the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Left favoring it. The parties in favor also want to change the current dual system of private and public health insurance and introduce the new “Bürgerversicherung” (public health insurance) for all.
Another important question concerns women and whether there should be a women’s quota for management positions.
Samuel Wemhöner, 24, a future teacher from the most populated German state, Northrhine-Westphalia, is torn on this issue.
“In terms of equal opportunities a women’s quota should theoretically be put into place,” Wemhöner said. “But in my opinion, women are already getting preferential treatment in many areas, so I don’t think a women’s quota is really necessary.”
Pöhlke is also skeptical. “Women not being in leading positions as often as men is more of a social problem,” she said. “A women’s quota would lead to more women in such positions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be accepted. Maybe this is the wrong approach.”
Argaman is of a similar opinion.
“I’m against women’s quotas or men’s quotas or foreigner’s quotas,” Argaman said. “The best candidates should simply be in the leading positions.”
And lastly, politicians and citizens alike are torn on how to be implement the German “Energiewende” (energy transition), which mandates greenhouse gas reductions, higher energy efficiency and a growth in renewable energy.
Fracking, for example, is very controversial in Germany. While the Social Democratic Party, the Greens and the Left are against fracking, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria and the Free Democratic Party want to further investigate the possibilities of this method.
But some voters are skeptical.
“Fracking should only be put to use when a more environmentally friendly method has been developed,” said Engelke, the economics student.
“Under no circumstances,” said Argaman. “Germany has to put a halt to pure economic thinking and put the environment first for once.”
Pöhlke is especially vehement in her opposition. “Our neighbors are very active in the fight against fracking, so I learn a lot from them. I think we humans harm our environment enough as it is and we need to put an end to it.”
One of the main reasons why there has been no coalition clearly leading in the opinion polls so far seems to be that – even though they may have different positions on the important issues – the parties have grown more similar over the years.
“I don’t follow politics and the parties regularly and I can’t really tell any difference between the two big parties,” said Wemhöner.
Engelke said that while Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party’s positions do differ on some of the important issues, “ultimately, even if we have a new government coalition, there will barely be any difference anyway.”
According to Pöhlke, both parties basically want what’s good for Germany. “I think a grand coalition would be a good thing for our country.”
Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor, was Minister of Finance during the grand coalition under current Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has publicly stated that he would not take a position as minister under Merkel again if it should come to another grand coalition.
Although Steinbrück has been gaining momentum in the last few days of the election, he has had a hard time so far. Merkel is very popular in Germany, even though she is often criticized for avoiding real discussions about Germany’s future. Nevertheless, many voters trust her.
“While I think Steinbrück is competent in the area of finance, I’m not sure how he would do on other issues of political relevance. He also comes across as a bit arrogant and sullen,” said Engelke, who sees Merkel as both likeable and competent.
Pöhlke agrees with the critics and thinks that Merkel beats around the bush a lot, but likes her nevertheless. Steinbrück, too, has grown on her and she thinks he would not be a bad alternative to Merkel.
“I think that both candidates could lead the country,” Pöhlke said.
Merkel left a positive impression on Argaman in the way she persevered as Germany’s first female chancellor, but Argaman said she thinks some of Merkel’s positions are questionable. Steinbrück, in her eyes, seems unfriendly.
“To be honest, I don’t really want either of the candidates to lead the country. But since it will end up being one of them, I would prefer Merkel, since she has already proven herself to be an esteemed and respectable chancellor both on a European and international level.”
As Europe’s largest national economy and, as of 2010, the world’s fourth largest economy, Germany played a pivotal role in the Euro crisis.
Germany is starting to regain – albeit often reluctantly – its position as one of the world’s leading nations.
“Germany is one of the most influential countries in the EU, and whoever is in power in Germany could also shift the political direction of the EU,” Engelke said. “The outcome of this election will resonate in the rest of the world.”
But if Merkel stays chancellor, not much will change, according to Argaman. “If Merkel is reelected, the world will register the outcome, but it won’t really feel the effects of it,” she said. “Business as usual will continue.”