Sunday is election day here in Deutschland, and the billboards and lampposts teem with political messages. In Germany, the election is invalid if less than 50 percent of voters turn out. In our household, Jürgen will not vote and Martina will. Jürgen says voting doesn’t matter, everyone always makes the same decisions so why should he bother. They already have their ballots, which come in the mail, so they can either mail them back or bring them to the polling place on Sunday. I hope we go to the polls. I’d like to see that. Martina couldn’t believe that a large faction in the U.S. discourages the masses from voting. She can’t understand how an election can hold water if you don’t get a critical mass to participate.
Last night, we went to a foreign language party full of people wanting to practice various second languages. I wound up speaking English with a group of young Germans, and we discussed the upcoming election. The big issue is the economy, particularly unemployment and taxes. Apparently, the German government is so generous that you can live a good life just on unemployment payments, which you can supplement with subsidies for things like food, clothes, and heating. Some people discover that their income, less the outrageous taxes necessary for this social welfare, comes out to the same amount they would have if they went on the dole. This is creating resentment among those who do work, and as the economy worsens, this system grows less and less sustainable. One recent trial program requires those collecting public assistance to volunteer in a public capacity, helping out at schools or libraries. Another proposed solution is to raise taxes on the wealthy.
In Germany, you get two votes, one for a local representative and one for a party. You can split these, voting for a person not from the party you choose, or you can reinforce your vote by choosing a matching candidate and party. My German informers made expressive, baffled gestures when I asked how the results of this double vote are calculated. Germany has five parties, two big and three small. To get a majority, these parties have to form coalitions, which allows the small parties to have much more influence than any third party can garner in the U.S. The Green Party here seems to be pushing against nuclear energy, the red party wants to tax the rich, keep the retirement age at 65, and institute a minimum wage, and the NPD (the updated Nazi party) ominously urges “action” in their slogan. These little parties will throw their support behind one or the other of the big parties, the SPD or Merkel’s more conservative CDU.