Elmar Sulk is a Senior Strategist at Lincoln Park – Public Relations in Washington, DC.
Fall time is party convention time in Germany, and as political parties play a much bigger role in Western Europe than they do in the U.S., the meetings are widely covered by all the mainstream media. German parties not only shape ideas about issues in domestic and foreign policy but also have a say, among other things, in appointing the top public service broadcasters positions. On this side of the Atlantic, a RNC or DNC board meeting does not seem to generate wide public interest, as nationally, the U.S. parties are weak. As organizations they only play a prominent role in raising money, recruiting volunteers and organizing campaigns. As a result, the media only really care about RNC and DNC every four years when it’s National Convention time. In Germany, it’s different. Everyone interested in politics knows the names of the party leaders, the (monthly) board meetings are widely covered, and following the (annual) national conventions is a must for political junkies. (Re-)election of party leaders is usually breaking news.
There are a number of reasons for this. Most important, much more than in the U.S., the German parties control who is nominated for positions in the parliament, and they influence the behavior of these decision makers once elected. That’s why conventions are important. Here is where you can get a glimpse into the policy makers’ thinking of how to tackle the challenges of the future. What are the ingredients for the recipe to counter the Euro Crisis? Are there any new approaches to tax reforms? What about statutory minimum wages? These questions and more are all answered by the party conventions. It has become the usual habit in over 60 years that the parties make their decisions at the big conventions with over 1,000 delegates, and the parliamentary groups simply following through.
At the beginning of last week, the Social Democrats (SPD) met in Berlin. It is halftime in the four year cycle of federal elections, and it is time for soul-searching and self-assurance. The party of former chancellors Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schroeder has been one of the opposition parties since the September elections in 2009. However, recent polls demonstrate that they have a decent chance of again becoming a member of the governing coalition in 2013, when the next elections are scheduled, partly due to the fact that the Free Democrats (FDP), who govern now together with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, have slipped in the polls.
Euro-Crisis and SPD’s answer
Every political party in Germany has to discuss today’s uber-crisis: the future of the Euro. And the SPD did this in a way that guaranteed the most possible media coverage: On Sunday, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 92 years old, alive and well and living in Hamburg, entered the stage for an impressive 60 minutes speech about the past and the future of Europe. He delivered his version of Angela Merkel’s tune “If the Euro fails, Europe fails.” As the time witness he is, Helmut Schmidt – German officer in World War Two, then minister of finance and defense respectively before he became chancellor in 1974 –emphasized the difficult strategic role Germany plays in Europe. ““If we Germans let ourselves be seduced, based on our economic strength, to demand a leadership role in Europe, […] an increasing number of our neighbors would act effectively against this,” he said. “To protect us from ourselves, Germany needs to be embedded in European integration.”[i] Schmidt continued to speak about budgetary cuts – as discussed in several Euro zone countries – and necessary tax increases, but pointed out that this might not be enough: “Without growth and new jobs no state can reorganize its budget.”