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The First All-German Elections (November 30, 1990)

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Oskar Lafontaine, SPD chancellor candidate, succumbed to two fundamental errors in judgment. For one thing, in his historical materialistic way, he simply miscalculated. When he turned the “costs of unification” into his sole theme and horror topic, even in the last debate of the old Bundestag, he not only alienated the citizens of the former GDR but also underestimated the fact that the feeling of unity and the sense of relief over the end of dictatorship and division were stronger – also for affluent western Germans – than fears about their beloved money. The inescapability of sacrifice – no matter what form it would take, be it taxes, duties, rising interest rates – was so clear to citizens from the very start that they never really believed the chancellor’s guarantee to the contrary.

Secondly, Lafontaine deceived himself by assuming that he could only run against the chancellor if he preached the absolute opposite of government policies and rejected every trace of a “harmonizing” or even national consensus. The candidate took that approach so far that he ultimately forgot what the SPD itself had initially demanded: a rapid monetary union prior to political unification.

It might very well be that a different strategy wouldn’t have ousted the chancellor either. But it wouldn’t have pushed the SPD out of the running to such dire effect, and the soul of the party would have remained intact. But as it was, Oskar Lafontaine was the first Social Democratic candidate for chancellor whose campaign strategy relied solely on tactical maneuvers and hidden fears. The fact that Lafontaine did not effectively reach people testifies to the intelligence of the average voter. The fact that the SPD candidate even tried [to run for chancellor] would be inconceivable were it not for the fundamentally calamitous situation of his party. For who else should have run in his place?

The SPD was deeply divided on the “German question” since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was Willy Brandt, who wanted to prevent the Social Democrats from being left out in the cold on the “national question,” and Oskar Lafontaine, who offered instead a somewhat fake internationalism. That was not a dual strategy, but rather a personified gap in faith within the party as a whole, one that chairman [Hans-Jochen] Vogel couldn’t bridge whatsoever.

An old rule of thumb says that the opposition never wins an election; if anything it’s the government that loses it. This time the sentence can be inverted: The opposition – that’s how it looked in the week before the election – lost more than the government won.

But does everything have to simply stay the same? Will there be no alternatives, not even in the medium term?

Not at all. Even without a change in government, there will be a change in the issues. The “German question” has now been answered once and for all. From the heights of a largely clear-cut policy on unification [Deutschlandpolitik], we are now descending again into the depths of political confusion and diffuse party constellations. If the end of division was primarily a matter of dealing with the past [Vergangenheitsbewältigung] for us Germans, that is, of getting rid of a burdensome legacy, then now the question of the future of our society is coming back to the fore, along with repressed problems. After the first all-German elections, political competition is opening up once again.

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