Merkel struggles toward the center

Every party has its black sheep. These have always existed and will continue to do so, even in the most organized and efficient parties. And naturally so, considering that political parties are like living organisms with cells that reproduce themselves as well as others that suddenly go crazy and activate a self-destructive mechanism that sets off major crises. No, this comment does not refer to New Democracy MP Costas Koukodimos. The black sheep I am referring to is Hesse premier Roland Koch, who has become something of a nightmare for Chancellor Angela Merkel and the «grand coalition.» Koch, known for his political antics, was the reason behind the 12-point decline of the Christian Democrats in the recent state election. The CDU is still leading, but nothing will be the same. Activating that self-destruction mechanism, Koch sought to exploit the German fears of foreign immigrants. Koch came up with the idea after a number of recent criminal acts in the German state of Hesse were alleged to have been carried out by young immigrants. The seeds of xenophobia were already there but Koch placed the issue at the center of his election campaign. And he did so in a country that is still struggling to overcome a collective sense of guilt. Some say it’s wrong to blame the setback on Koch’s strategy. After all, they say, Nicolas Sarkozy also made illegal migrants a central issue of his campaign before going on to a major victory. Moreover, the same critics point out, the Hesse outcome is the result of economic reforms and the worries of people who read about Germany’s economic upswing but have yet to experience any positive spillover effect. Germany’s consumption index has recently fallen by 2 percent. The CDU setback in the Hesse election would have had less of an impact if Merkel had avoided publicly supporting Koch and if the coalition’s reform program was not already in progress. However, the German chancellor threw her weight behind Roch’s xenophobic strategy. At the same time, there are doubts about the efficacy of the grand coalition. Germany’s Iron Lady who had before the election repeatedly stressed the need for labor reform has had to lower the bar of expectations after gaining a Pyrrhic victory over her socialist challenger Gerhard Schroeder. Ever since, she has adopted a step-by-step approach, aiming at some moderate adjustments despite strong pressure from the countries industrial giants. Apart from the racist element, the Hesse election also highlighted the difficulty of conservative parties in implementing a policy stripped bare of its postwar social character. Merkel has until the 2009 polls to prove she does not risk ending up a political hostage and that she can make overtures to the political center. As for the Social Democrats, they first have to resurrect their old, revolutionary self and that will be just the start.