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The Agony of Choice (October 14, 1994)

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And that is why, in the week before the election, the incumbent is once again ahead in the polls and the challenger is running behind him, panting with his tongue hanging out. Coincidences in election arithmetic and minor fluctuations in the vote for the FDP and the PDS might in the end decide the configuration of the government; therefore, everything is possible and nothing is certain. One thing can hardly be denied: The need for change is met by only minimal enthusiasm for change. The people are dissatisfied with Kohl but aren’t convinced by Scharping.

Of course, one could argue that things aren’t going all that badly down in the German lowlands! Despite all difficulties, the Federal Republic is faring better than most of its neighbors. On top of everything, the revved-up economy is creating a powerful tailwind. All of a sudden, the disillusionment with politics and the pessimism seem to have virtually blown away. Catastrophes are not looming on the horizon. We’re lucky that we don’t need heroes!

The reality is more complicated. To be sure, today we are more or less managing. At the same time, however, massive problems are piling up in reunited Germany.

The state of our federal finances – current debt: 2000 billion marks! – is alarming. What is the proper recipe: cut spending, raise taxes, increase the national debt – or a combination of all three?

Our system of social security is reaching the limits of its capacity. Society is aging; fewer and fewer young people are supposed to support more and more elderly. This makes it necessary to scrutinize all our previous assumptions and to prune benefits down to what is reasonable, honest, and financially feasible – to create a new foundation for the social welfare state.

And then there are de facto six million unemployed in Germany today. Even the economic upswing will not lower this figure significantly. Two factors complicate the situation. First, with the globalization of the economy, more and more countries with cheap labor are entering the game as competitors. Second, the modernization of production needed to improve our competitiveness means, for a start, getting rid of hundreds of thousands of old jobs. Government and society need to find solutions for the problems being created by the rationality of managerial thinking – otherwise these problems will gnaw at the foundations of our democracy.

All this requires a considerable investment of energy. Other tasks follow as well. The material and mental unification of the Germans awaits completion. Europe needs a boost on its way to an ever more integrated union. And a new social consensus needs to be formed: about the role of Germany on the world stage, about the proper relationship between ecology and economy, about the future coexistence of 75 million Germans and seven million foreigners on German soil. All of this requires brave thinking rather than a show of strength.

The new agenda demands a new approach. On Sunday voters will decide who should carry it out. For many, the decision will be difficult. What should a voter do if he supports the environmental policies of the Greens but rejects their call to abolish NATO and the German army? How should you mark your ballot if you don’t think that Klaus Kinkel is the best person to direct foreign policy but you approve of Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen’s* policies on foreigners? Will the inexperience of the SPD candidate perhaps be offset by the fact that, from this point on, Helmut Kohl would be a lame duck who would lose his reins (or have them taken away) in the middle of the legislative period – that is, of his end phase – at the latest.

* Klaus Kinkel and Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen both belong to the FPD – eds.

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