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The Agony of Choice (October 14, 1994)

Days before the October 1994 Bundestag elections, Theo Sommer, publisher of the liberal weekly Die Zeit, analyzes the mood in Germany. Sommer notes that many citizens were having a hard time getting excited about either incumbent chancellor Helmut Kohl or SPD candidate Rudolf Scharping. Deciding on possible coalition partners also appeared to be a problem. But, as Sommer writes, the Federal Republic needed an effective government in order to tackle the problems ahead.

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Never Before Was There So Little Enthusiasm for a New Beginning

The agony of choice – was it ever greater? “Not voting is stupid! But voting isn’t much better either. Whom and what are we supposed to vote for?” These sentences come from a cryptically worded advertisement, but they echo the sentiments of many citizens.

Those who always vote the same way – out of family tradition, habit, or blind loyalty – are lucky. For others, marking their “x” on the ballot is a real burden. The best head of government? The best cabinet? The best government program? It’s hard to determine the best choices in the 1994 election year. There is no Nanga Parbat rising from the plains of German politics.

The massif that is the chancellor towers over everything else. Helmut Kohl seized the opportunity for unification with unerring certainty and unwavering resolve. After that, he did not succumb to a dim-witted national frenzy; rather, he remained truer than even before to the dream of a greater, unified Europe whose arch would extend over all the individual countries. These two things together have secured his place in history. No doubt, he made some errors in the unification process, and there were also some problems in the European integration process, but it would be illusory to think that the two things could be accomplished without any mistakes. It is concerning, however, that Kohl put a lot of things off, including much that is important for the future. The chancellor is enjoying the evening sun, but the shadows are getting longer. In the coming twilight, the unfinished business will take on a gloomy visibility.

Normally this would be the hour of the opposition. After twelve years, the creative power of any government is exhausted. Kohl, in the words of Willy Brandt, has “been milked dry.” His worn-out partner, the FDP, is faceless and weightless. Today, new issues demand a new start. That is exactly how two-thirds of the population felt six months ago. In February hardly anyone gave a damn about Helmut Kohl anymore. Rudolf Scharping, it seemed, had the election in the bag. But that isn’t how things turned out.

The loss in esteem suffered by the Social Democratic chancellor candidate within a period of six months is without precedent in the history of the Federal Republic. The reason for it is simple: The chancellor made all his mistakes much earlier on; the challenger, on the other hand, made all of his recently, concentrated within a few months, in the glistening light of the television spotlights, without getting any special dispensation for historic achievements.

The list of blunders is long: The sulking sourpuss reaction to the election of Roman Herzog as federal president; the lack of clarity on the income tax surcharge, which nourished the suspicion that Scharping doesn’t know how to distinguish between gross and net [income]; the formation of the Magdeburg government*, which was a disastrous miscalculation; the two total duds: the introduction of the shadow cabinet (which definitely deserved its name) and the diverse mound of advisors; the creation of the troika**, which strengthened the impression that Scharping wasn’t tough enough to take on Kohl on his own; and, on top of that, the embarrassing campaign posters: Scharping, Lafontaine, and Schröder as wooden marionettes (“Strong!”) with sparkling white teeth, but no bite; finally, Scharping’s soporific town clerk manner. Nothing caught on.

* A so-called Magdeburg government is an SPD-led coalition government that depends on the support of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the Communist Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. Magdeburg is the capital of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt – eds.
** Reference to the joint leadership of the SPD under Oskar Lafontaine, Rudolf Scharping, and Gerhard Schröder – eds.

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