Last week, I have travelled through Germany and campaigned together with the Jusos (young socialists, the party youth affiliated to the social democratic party (SPD)) for the upcoming federal elections. Besides offering support to my party, it was a good occasion to gather some impression of the current political mood in Germany. The following article reflects mainly my own opinion and impressions that I have formed during this trip.
Travelling on the Schulzzug
Last weekend, the Jusos Brussels – a section of the German party youth affiliated to the social democrats party (SPD) – organised a campaign action called the ‚Schulzzug‘ (German for ‚Schulz train‘) in which I was involved. The idea was to travel by train from Brussels to Berlin with stops in all sixteen regional states in Germany. There, we met with local sections of the Jusos and the SPD, took pictures and made videos with red paper train frames and masks of Martin Schulz for our social media, supported them in one of their campaign actions and interviewed them, asking them why they support Martin Schulz. The pictures and videos were uploaded on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The action was inspired by the saying that went round in social media when Martin Schulz announced his candidacy for becoming chancellor that there was a Schulzzug rolling from Brussels to Berlin straight into the chancellor’s office. With no breaks. We thought that we could contribute by making something real out of it – a real train rolling from Brussels to Berlin. And who would be better placed to organise such a campaign action than we were in Brussels?
Motivation and supporting young candidates
The aim of the Schulzzug was obviously not to have a direct impact on the opinion polls. It would have been pretentious to think that we could come from Brussels for less than one week and convince people in about twenty different places that they should vote for the SPD. Maybe, we had a positive effect on the opinion of one citizen or another we met during local campaign actions. But the more tangible effect was that of motivating people who are campaigning for the same cause.
During our trip, we met many other members of our party who greeted us with much enthusiasm. Many complimented us for our commitment and might have felt inspired. Moreover, our trip somehow created a link between all the local sections that we met. We all felt part of a bigger project, symbolised by the Schulzzug – the train that rolls from Brussels to Berlin with no breaks. Everyone was somehow involved in our campaign, either by appearing on our social media or simply by talking with us, exchanging opinions and impressions.
One important contribution is that we managed to offer support to young candidates for the Bundestag by interviewing them and publishing the interviews on our Facebook and Instagram pages. Our social media pages – which are known all over Germany now – would give them a lot of visibility. Thus, we could help raise awareness about the concerns of young people and show that there is something at stake for us too. And, besides this, we could show that going into politics is not only something boring for old people, but it can actually be fun.
An impression of political numbness
This last point is crucial. In a way, our broader mission was to show how to engage with politics in an original and enjoyable way – make it more fun without however loosing the content of our political stance out of sight. Besides singing, making pictures, videos, distributing flyers and making interviews, we also had a lot of discussions and questions: What can be done to offer young people an easier access to education and a perspective for the future? How can it be made easier for a young couple to found a family without having to give up their professional projects? What can we do to live in a more just society? In what kind of Europe do we want to live?
It is important to highlight this process of political reflection because I have a feeling that too many people in Germany have lost their interest in politics. On our trip, I could not help having the impression that many people we met simply didn’t took notice of the electoral campaign. Very often, people simply ignored us, didn’t seem to care about the ongoing elections. Some people even told us explicitly that they would not vote because in the end it wouldn’t make a difference.
I cannot blame these people too much. There is a reason why people are turning their back on politics: With a grand coalition that has brought the two leading parties much closer and a weak opposition in the Bundestag, there is little dissent in German federal politics. The TV debate between Merkel and Schulz, which we watched at our final destination on Sunday, illustrated this very well. It seemed that both candidates almost didn’t differ on the issues that were discussed: the need to integrate refugees, fight extremism, return migrants who do not fulfil the conditions for asylum, the stance toward North Korea, etc. As rightly pointed out by Sebastian Stölting in his blogpost, Schulz failed to use the TV debate to create a momentum and enter a more confrontational debate with Merkel.
Of course, this is not least due to the circumstance that many important topics such as education, health care, pensions or working conditions were simply left out of the debate. Yet, it is also due to the fact that the differences between the parties are difficult to recognise: both agree that the education system or digital infrastructure need to be improved, that the pensions system needs to be adapted to an ageing society, that some taxes need to be reduced, etc. And how could it be different? Even though Schulz was not part of the German government – he could not have come up with radically different positions because he would directly have been confronted with the question: So why didn’t your party act differently during the last term?
Time for a revival of Germany’s political culture
No matter what the outcome of the elections will be – I sincerely hope that there will not be a grand coalition again. The assimilation of our leading parties is detrimental to our political culture. I have recently learned a new word which describes the political mood in Germany very well: „Infantilism“. It describes the process of political detachment in which people have a feeling that everything is going well and let themselves lulled into complacency, not caring about political differences and alternatives. They are behaving like spoiled children who are happy with what they get and don’t want to take up any responsibility. The nickname „Mutti“ (German for „mommy“) commonly given to Merkel is symptomatic for how this trend is even celebrated in Germany’s political discourse.
No matter what the outcome of the elections will be – it is time for a stronger opposition, clearer differences between the parties and a revival of a more vibrant political debate culture. Prosperity and social justice are not the only aim of politics. Politics should also aim at democracy. And for democracy to work, we need responsible citizens who are able to form themselves an own opinion through discussion and reasoning. Political indifference is the first step to authoritarianism. That’s why I urge everyone not only to go to the ballot, but also to get involved in politics – be it in a party, in an association or a sport club. And that’s why I jumped on the Schulzzug in the first place – because I don’t want to leave decisions about the society I live in only to others and because I want to fight for political alternatives.