Unconsciously they have chosen the threefolding
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The election for the German Bundestag is three weeks away and in Berlin the SPD, FDP and the Greens are negotiating what policies they want to implement together as the new German government. This is an opportunity, says Gerald Häfner.
Wolfgang Held: How do you interpret the election?
Gerald Häfner: Compared to elections in neighbouring democracies, the political culture in Germany has proven to be mature and adaptable. In many countries, the election campaign was trivialised and reduced to a ‘him or me’, a kind of ’12 o’clock midday’ duel. In today’s media world of emotional and aggressive aggravation and filter bubbles, arguments are increasingly rarely weighed and constellations chosen, but rather leader figures are hoisted to power – with terrible consequences.
In the face of this erosion, Germany still has a diverse political landscape. The various currents and individuals have been able to articulate themselves and, in my opinion, the citizens have voted in a balanced and comprehensible manner. That does not mean that they voted the way I would have liked them to. Nor can that be the scale in such an assessment. Rather, I think the election results reflect well what concerns and hopes are alive in the population. In such difficult times of truncated narratives and fomented enemy images that are spread virally, in such times of many apolitical debates that replace politics with entertainment, the political system has proven itself. I am extremely pleased about that.
Wolfgang Held: One-third of voters are over the age of 60. What does this weight of the elderly population mean?
Gerald Häfner: Of course, this has consequences. For example, the preservation of vested interests and the fear of an abrupt change is a motive for many. After all, Germany is an ageing country in which the younger generation is a dwindling minority. In addition, only some of the young people see any chance at all to participate in the political system and to change something. Many young people have turned away in disappointment. They think that elections can change little. Others have turned away more quietly. For them, their own interests as well as their own distraction and media staging are so much in the foreground that they have not even woken up to the affairs of the community, let alone want to get involved there.
Wolfgang Held: What do Rezo’s three YouTube films mean here? The young filmmaker has made it all the way to the evening news and received millions of clicks.
Gerald Häfner: Here, a part of the younger culture has found its way into the mainstream debate. That is very rare. It is gratifying, but in my eyes not yet sustainable. But it shows what can become when younger people emerge from the parallel worlds of the media and return to the real world with all their stupendous questions and abilities.
Wolfgang Held: For the first time, there is not a single strong force in the election, but several in the midfield. What do you think of that?
Gerald Häfner: That is good! It is never wise to put too much power in the hands of a few. I go so far as to say: The people have chosen wisely. They have unconsciously chosen threefolding! They voted, first and foremost, for more social justice. We have dramatically neglected this in this country and also worldwide. This was the SPD’s call for more respect for everyone and for all members of society. The citizens have, secondly, at the same time voted for more and a new global brotherhood: The issue of climate change concerns nothing other than the realisation that we are not alone on this planet. Everything we do here has an impact on all other people, plants and animals, on the earth as a whole. There we have to overcome egoism. We have to learn to deal with the earth in a fraternal way. That was the main theme of the Greens! This topic had determined the whole election campaign at the beginning. Drought, forest fires, dying trees and raging floods underscored the inevitability of a profound policy change in this area. But after soaring to new heights in early summer, the Greens lost support because they were unable to carry the whole of society along with them. This also had to do with a change in personnel and tone. Particularly in the pandemic debate, some of the statements made here came across as super-teachy and chilly, too much like ‘pointing fingers’ and decrees from above.
This – and the pandemic policy, which was increasingly less understandable in view of developments and relied unilaterally on measures by the authoritarian state – led to a growing section of the population becoming increasingly concerned that freedom could be undermined. As a result, in the home stretch of the election, i.e., in the last three months, a party that had almost been written off gained enormous votes, the FDP. People suddenly realised that they still needed a party that stood up for freedom. Even if the way it appears and expresses itself is more evocative of the freedom of the 1990s than the freedom of the 21st century, which needs to be spelled out anew – but without freedom, even the best-intentioned policy is nothing.
In this way, citizens have unconsciously created a new government mandate: liberty, equality and fraternity in government at the cutting edge as a political task. These three parties and the people they nominated were the ones they thought most likely to do this. Now it is only to be hoped that the responsible persons of the three parties understand this themselves and seize their role in it courageously and open to the future!
“How can we combine social responsibility with freedom? That’s a crucial question on the minds of most people.”
Wolfgang Held: Interesting personalities from the second row are now emerging.
Gerald Häfner: That is also the nice thing. For example, in the FDP. Until a quarter of a year ago, it was perceived only through its old personnel. Christian Lindner, too, has long been perceived more through ambition than through human substance. But he won. And he learned to indulge. The FDP would not have managed this upswing if other people had not been given room. This made it clear that there is an intellectual current that this country needs. And it is certainly diverse and interesting. The CDU, on the other hand, did not manage to take this step towards a new culture of cooperation. It wanted to reestablish a strong leader – but the candidate didn’t deliver. The SPD and the Greens were in a better position.
Wolfgang Held: The exploratory talks showed a respectful mutual tone. It is also part of the threefold structure that the members condition and support each other. Do you see this atmosphere?
Gerald Häfner: Exactly. That’s what makes me so hopeful. Now, for the first time in history, coalition negotiations in Germany are not being conducted from a center. Rather, they are beginning peripherally. The FDP and the Greens have started to exchange ideas, to talk to each other before they start talking to the new ‘strong man’. Of course, there are specific wounds on both sides. And the public needed a sign that the FDP really wants to help shape things and is also taking the talks seriously. But there is more at stake. How can we combine freedom with social responsibility? That’s in the background – and it’s the crucial question today. It also drives me personally – and leads to critical questions for my former friends in the Greens. They have a stronger view of the whole than others, but sometimes the necessary and available space of individual freedom and design is unnecessarily narrowed with the focus on what is necessary for the planet.
Wolfgang Held: Presumably, everyone must find his or her own personal renunciation in freedom. This can only happen freely.
Gerald Häfner: That is the big social question in this pandemic. The tendency of those in power is to prescribe how the individual must behave. This goes as far as highly personal issues, where it is sometimes impossible to see. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to set a completely different course on a large scale. On the contrary, if and where we do so, we can refrain from being a nanny in small matters.
Socially, this freedom is being torn apart right now. Some people say: “Follow the science! – the others: “I do what I want!” Can we manage to combine freedom and responsibility, these poles? Let’s take the pandemic: can the individual in freedom respect the concern of the other and for the whole without such massive restrictions being decided? That is the question in the pandemic – and that will become the ecological question. If the individual does not want a change and create in freedom in his life, we are threatened with dictatorship. Therefore, one can and must connect the ecology issue with the freedom issue. This is the real alchemical task of our time. ‘Free ride for free citizens’ or the freedom to earn 50 million euros while people beg or die of hunger next to my house? Freedom at the expense of the whole is over. Does the whole now demand that we give up freedom? Or is it possible to shape the whole in freedom, in such a way that freedom is no longer primarily freedom from the other, but for the other: to value and respect each other and the earth and to take careful steps into the future?
Wolfgang Held: Would you agree with Harald Welzer, who said that Jeff Bezos flying into space, burning pollutants like a big city, should be banned?
Gerald Häfner: In the logic of what I just said would be that no one does this kind of thing anymore anyway, without it having to be banned. But I agree with you. The space on earth is getting narrower and is distributed. That’s why those who have great needs, new ideas or to realise themselves, go to space. It’s not distributed yet. I think we need to understand that there is no such space where you can say, ‘Here I don’t have to take into consideration and I am liberated from the others.’ It’s all our common living space, where we share responsibilities. And everything has consequences. We therefore need rules for this ‘world space’ quickly and urgently. Who owns the earth? Who owns outer space? I also consider the desire of private companies to launch thousands of satellites into orbit to be highly problematic. The new forms of rules and responsibility for this must be found quickly.
“It’s no longer about group membership, it’s about factual decisions.”
Wolfgang Held: How do the three parties come together fruitfully?
Gerald Häfner: In my experience, the strength of personality and the maturity of individual politicians is decisive. With Olaf Scholz, for example, there is this interesting mixture of official bonus and opposition – he belongs to the system and yet is able to credibly represent a new beginning. We’ve had a lot of lethargy in Germany in recent decades. When I think about how cases are processed in the courts or authorities in Germany: There, paper files are often still stapled in folders and pushed along the corridors with little metal carts. They then have to run across the desk of every judge, be signed off and commented on, until they go to print and can be presented as a verdict. That’s why our judiciary is so slow. It would be no problem to do this digitally – and thus to compress what takes place in months into days. Germany has slept through so much because it has fallen asleep and grown old in all its wealth and pride in a functioning system. It has not been about new ideas for decades, but only about the eternal ‘business as usual’. That was true of Kohl – and unfortunately it was also true to a large extent under Merkel, whose balance and prudence were good for the country, but whose absolute lack of vision paralysed it at the same time. That must change now. This is also reflected in the candidates. Olaf Scholz radiated the necessary calm and level-headedness, but is still open to new ideas, which is important. And he stands for the center, justice, equality. Laschet and Baerbock would have had the chance to win, but Baerbock wanted to be more and Laschet wanted to be different than he or she was. And what they were was not enough for first place. They could not radiate the necessary warmth and breadth of a spiritual mantle that a country needs if it is to embark on such a journey of mental and spiritual reconstruction. Robert Habeck, who would have been more capable of this and, incidentally, is also the architect of the new style we are now witnessing between the protagonists, was not available for election. In the merciless spotlight of publicity, strengths and weaknesses become publicly visible.
Wolfgang Held: The SPD’s swan song was that ‘its cultural achievement was to have integrated the proletariat into bourgeois life’. But what comes next?
Gerald Häfner: The proletariat in this classical form no longer exists. But there is a new precariat and thus a new question of justice. This became apparent on election day, as if under a burning glass, in the result of the referendum in Berlin for the expropriation of housing corporations. The clear result of the vote led to an outcry from the established and brought in a gratifyingly disruptive element. What was it all about? Berlin has – by the way, fought for by ‘Mehr Demokratie’ – the possibility to use direct democracy in addition to representative democracy. Contrary to most election programs, the majority of the population voted in favour of expropriating all apartment owners who own more than 3,000 apartments. My heart goes with that. Because people feel: Housing is vital. If this is only regulated by cold market laws, it will lead to enormous social problems in view of land speculation and rising rents. What the citizens have decided there is really contrary to the previous political dns of this country.
For me, this is part of the picture in relation to the election result: the still unconscious, perceived threefolding – and then the Michaelic sword. Federal election and Berlin vote. They shout into the country: “We want something to change radically! Don’t stay in your old mental cages, but open doors and windows for new ideas! Otherwise we can’t save this world and this society, otherwise it will fall apart.”
Wolfgang Held: Is this the evening glow of party thinking, which, after all, dates back to the 19th century?
Gerald Häfner: There used to be three or four major parties, and you belonged to the electorate of one or the other. That has become incredibly differentiated. People make new decisions at every election, and the number of “swing voters” and late deciders is increasing. New parties are emerging. Eight percent of the electorate voted for parties that were not in previous politics but failed the 5 percent hurdle. I suspect it would have been 16 percent without this hurdle, because no one wants to waste their vote. There is a simple solution for this, which I have been proposing for decades: the substitute vote. So: I vote for A. If A doesn’t get into parliament, my vote goes to B. That way it’s not worthless. That way it is not worthless. In a democracy, every vote should count equally. So: The citizens want and have more choice. It is no longer about group membership, but about material decisions. If direct democracy were added to this, the parties could also be overcome in the long term. But not the need for consistent policy designs and debates. But let’s take the climate, pandemic policy, taxation: If more direct participation were made possible, completely new ideas would come onto the market and into play than just those that are still being moved in parliament.
Wolfgang Held: Does Germany’s election have an impact on foreign policy?
Gerald Häfner: Yes, it has! In all parts of the world, many countries and people look to Germany and Central Europe. Especially now, when we are witnessing antagonism and populism almost all over the world, when we are experiencing a deconstruction of democracy, when there is hardly any discussion about content, but the other person is already considered an enemy just because he thinks differently. So it’s very reassuring that democracy in Germany is functioning and even evolving. Issues that the political establishment has long excluded are being put on the agenda by citizens. There is more and more citizen participation. The association “Mehr Demokratie”, which I founded decades ago, has contributed significantly to this. In many, many countries, I see how this is seen as a model and also encourages others. Internationally, I would like to see the politics of confrontation and the resurgence of bloc thinking overcome. This also applies to Europe. It is not about forming a large bloc vis-à-vis America, China or Russia. It is about pursuing a humane and sustainable policy that is effective for the entire planet, starting from Europe – and that dissolves bloc thinking both internally and externally. If Germany were to take this on board, it could actually make a contribution to good development in the years to come.
Gerald Häfner, October, 15th, 2021