Germany's 2009: Parties and politics

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent  |  Jan. 8, 2009 at 9:05 PM
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BERLIN, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- For Germany, 2009 will be the most politically charged year in a long time, with regional, state and national elections neatly packaged by a pretty rough economic crisis and two major celebrations: Germany's 60th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But before Germans get to party, they will have to prepare for some tough times, as the first economic news published this year didn't read great at all.

German exports in November 2008 dropped by nearly 11 percent and some 114,000 Germans lost their jobs in December, according to statistics released earlier this week. Economic experts have warned that Germany in 2009 could be hit by the biggest economic downturn since the Second World War.

Berlin intends to soften the impact with two economic aid packages. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is currently drafting a stimulus package worth nearly $70 billion, but quarrels inside her grand coalition over how the money should be spent are delaying progress.

Berlin in December already agreed on a $42 billion stimulus package, but several experts had called on Berlin to draft an additional one to help Germany's economy through the crisis.

On other occasions, Merkel and Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck have willingly ducked a more global leadership position. Merkel and Steinbrueck have only reluctantly backed an EU-wide aid package as they felt that Germany, because of its stable banking system, was in a position to duck the fiercest effects of the crisis by itself.

Merkel herself has been criticized in 2008 for her cautious approach when it comes to economic reforms.

Just as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama banks on a green New Deal to revive the American economy, Merkel has said that keeping jobs is more important than climate protection.

It's a statement that's geared to soothe her fellow citizens, who are paralyzed by the famous German angst that has spread in the face of a looming recession; they need to be soothed to hand Merkel a victory in the most important of the 16 elections Germany will see in 2009: the country's national elections in the fall.

Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democrats, is running against Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister from the center-left Social Democrats. Both parties are traditional rivals that have governed the country in an unlikely team-up since late 2005.

That 2009 will be a year of permanent campaigning may not be good for sound crisis management; Merkel and Steinmeier will have to decide whether to demonstrate unity to soothe Germans or attack each other to win the election. That the look of the future government is completely uncertain does not add to a less heated campaign. The race for chancellor is going to be open right until Sept. 27, when Germans head to the polls.

The German campaign also could turn into a problem for Obama's Afghanistan strategy.

Obama wants Berlin to take over additional responsibilities in Afghanistan, where Washington intends to step up the West's efforts to defeat the Taliban.

Germany can send up to 4,500 troops to Afghanistan and is already a major force there, but so far only in the northern province -- but NATO forces are battling the Taliban in the south and the southeast, and that's where reinforcements are most needed.

Neither Merkel nor Steinmeier is expected to give Obama any troop guarantees. The Afghanistan mission is highly unpopular with Germans, and sending troops into harm's way would mean more casualties -- and disaster for any leader responsible for them. Experts are sure that neither of the candidates would risk an election victory to please Obama. So Washington likely will have to wait until after the Sept. 27 vote to get additional commitments from Germany.

But amid the entire campaign circus and all the gloomy economic news, Germans will be able to celebrate.

On May 23, not only will lawmakers vote for the new federal president (a largely ceremonial post), but the country can also enjoy early retirement: It's Germany's 60th anniversary, after victorious U.S., Russian, British and French leaders helped the country to become a federal republic in 1949. It's still the most successful example of monitored democracy the world has ever seen.

And then, less than six months later, expect flags, fireworks and grand feelings to flood the Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of the Cold War and today one of freedom, because on Nov. 9, 1989, on a cold night, because people didn't want to be imprisoned by concrete anymore, the Berlin Wall fell.

It's still one of the most remarkable peaceful revolutions in modern history, and if that's no reason to party, then what is?

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