The Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought, the Department of History and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures hosted Ellen Ueberschär for a talk titled “Health Check for Democracies: A View from Germany after the Elections'' on Wednesday, Oct. 6. Ueberschär is the co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the political foundation that is associated with Germany’s Green Party.
Ueberschär presented to a hybrid audience about the electoral outcomes of the federal German election, which occurred on Sept. 26. This election cycle is notable as it marks the first election since Chancellor Angela Merkel opted not to seek re-election, ending her 16-year rule in the position.
Merkel’s forthcoming abdication was accompanied by a drop in representation for her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in the governing Bundestag. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which ruled alongside the CDU as part of a grand coalition for the past eight years, won the plurality of the votes with 25.7%. SPD candidate Olaf Scholz will likely succeed Merkel as the next German chancellor.
Ueberschär noted the historical significance of the SPD’s percentage of votes. These election results handed more power to comparatively smaller parties, such as the environmentalist Greens and the classical liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
“It has never been the case that you could claim the chancellorship with an election outcome of lower than 30%,” she said. “For the first time, there will be a three-party coalition on a federal level, so parties will have the potential to create something new out of the differences between the parties.”
Although the governing coalition for the Bundestag has not yet been determined, the most likely outcome will be the traffic light coalition, which is composed of the SPD, the Green Party and the FDP. Talks to solidify this coalition are currently underway.
Ueberschär highlighted that the 2021 Bundestag elections stand out in other ways as well. Representation of women and people of color in the Bundestag has increased since 2017, and the Green Party chose its first female chancellor candidate in history. Additionally, this year’s election marks the first time in history when three candidates and parties were competitive for the chancellor position.
Ueberschär believes both the outcomes of the election and the entire electoral process are worthy of celebration.
“In this election, which was a respectful political competition, the winner was democracy,” she said. “Policymaking is better and more sustainable when it is made by a decision-making body that is as diverse as its population.”
In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Cameron Brown expressed a desire for the U.S. to draw influence from Germany’s democracy.
“Dr. Ueberschär really shed some light on some internal dynamics in Germany's democracy that enable it to be successful,” he said. “Understanding and recognizing those elements within German society and adopting them here in this country would help us better understand our own situation and also provide a roadmap on how we can tackle these complex issues in the future.”
While Ueberschär emphasized the electoral successes of Germany, she explained some areas of weakness amid Germany’s current political and social landscape.
The far-right populist party Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), or Alternative for Germany, experienced a decrease in its share of the Bundestag since the 2017 election. The AfD’s primary demographic is men ages 30 to 50 who reside in the economically lagging former German Democratic Republic, commonly known as East Germany.
Ueberschär claimed that the stark geographic and party division across the former two German countries signals that reunification has not been truly successful.
“Reunification has not worked out as people thought it would. There is a polarization between the rural and urban areas and between the east and the west,” she said.
She noted that many German states have seen a delay in financial investment in their local communities. This delay has negatively impacted sectors such as health care, transit, traffic and infrastructure and schools, which is especially detrimental given the radical transformation of everyday life that COVID-19 has demanded.
Additionally, she found that while misinformation about the pandemic has not been a significant source of worry in Germany, its rise has exposed vulnerabilities in society’s access to facts and information about the pandemic. Despite an atmosphere of government distrust in more conservative regions of the country, German people expect evidence-based policies from their politicians.
Ueberschär believes that the German government should have taken more precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The German government was proficient in reacting rather than being proactive, especially in the case of vaccination, which has been stagnating in the country for weeks. Even last year when scientists warned that the infection numbers would rise in autumn, there was no government action to prevent this,” she said.
While the SPD focuses more on social problems in Germany like income inequality, the Green Party has zeroed in on ecological issues. Ueberschär noted that, as the Green Party aims to take the stage as part of the governing coalition, Germany has a responsibility to be a more active and ambitious player in European climate politics. One such way will be to push for the implementation of the European Green Deal, which aims for European countries to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
International exchange student Harry Otimos appreciated Ueberschär’s distinction between Germany’s political parties that lie on the same side of the political spectrum.
“I liked her analysis about the differences between the SPD and the Green policies. She provided a good point of view and good information about that,” he said.
Ueberschär believes that the relationship between ecological, democratic and physical health is significant to Germany because their successes depend on other determinants of health.
“Health is not only about individual well-being but also about leveling the conditions for health in a collective society. There is a significant correlation between democratic institutions and life expectancy, and there are devastating effects on health when democracy is absent,” she said. “Ecological transformation and social transformation need to be thought of at the same time.”