On Sunday, Germany had the Twitter world confused as hastags like #tvduell #stefanraab and #kotelett trended in top positions. As some or all of these perhaps remain obscure to Anglophone Twitter users, below some info on what they are, in which context they were used and my thoughts on the “debate” that not only brought them into being but also send them soaring on Twitter worldwide.
Ahead of the German Federal Election on 22nd September this year, current chancellor Angela Merkel (aka “Mutti” = mummy) went head to head with opposition candidate Peer Steinbrück (pronounced “pear”, not “peer”) on German national television.
In defiance of the fiercer connotations of the term Duell (yes, that’s right, duel) candidates had no revolvers, muskets, rapiers or swords, they did not take ten steps away from each other with their backs turned and then took shots at each other, this happened at 8.30 pm Central European Summertime, not high noon, and the duellists didn’t have seconds either (the TV hosts did, though – there were four, yes, that’s right, four – of them). No animals were harmed in the making of the production, although a few overused metaphors were mercilessly butchered.
Supposedly, the ensuing carnage (not) of this battle of the wits idle chat was to help the electorate (i.e. us, ze Djermans) make their decision as to who they want to run the country in the upcoming four years. Merkel with her CDU (Christian Democratic Union), possibly supported by coalition partner FDP (Free Democratic Party) and Bavarian sister party CSU (Christian Social Union) or Steinbrück with his SPD (Social Democratic Party), possibly supported by coalition partner The Greens (no, not lettuce and miscellaneous vegetables but, well, the Green party – noble dissenters and challengers of the 90ies, now turned mainstream). In grossly oversimplified terms, Brits; compare these to the Tories (CDU) and Labour (SPD) and Americans; compare to Republicans (CDU) and Democrats (SPD) respectively. Not that the German political landscape is easily comparable to those of the UK and the US (Germans don’t throw things, they don’t whip anyone – not once, not twice, not three times, they don’t filibuster and there are more than two parties that need to be taken into consideration – although this is arguably true of the UK as well and CDU and SPD in Germany are still the strongest ones). Also, a case could be made for the English Lib Dems having more in common with the German Greens than with the German Free Democrats but trying to suss out the differences and similarities would be taking it a bit too far just now. Just to give you a rough idea of who stands (or sits) where, the current parliamentary line-up features Conservatives (CDU – right/centre) versus Democrats (SPD – left/centre), supported by self-proclaimed Liberals and Greens respectively. These parties of the more or less political centre, find themselves surrounded by Leftists (even more left than the Social Democrats anyway) Pirates (sadly, minus eye-patches and rapiers but plus computers and, recently, drones) and other strange folk.
But I digress. Obviously, the debate aka TV Duell (#tvduell) was mostly considered important for undecided voters as it seems very doubtful that any kind of debate or argument advanced by either party would sway their long-term fans certain voters.
To ensure that as many valuable swing voters as possible observed this historic moment on the telly, the #tvduell was broadcast across four channels with a host from each channel querying the candidates (hence four hosts for two people – oh, the excess!).
The line-up was neatly balanced with a woman (Merkel) taking on a man (Steinbrück) or vice versa and two women (Anne Will and Maybrit Ilner) and two men (Peter Klöppel and Stefan Raab (#stefanraab)) doing the querying. Raab in particular seemed an odd choice as he has cast himself more in the role of entertainer than journalist in recent years. Interesting therefore, that some of the more insistent querying came from him.
Given the fact that the hosts outnumbered the candidates two-to-one I would have argued that producers feared they needed four hosts to restrain the candidates if tempers flared. However, the entertainment value of the whole thing remained well below that of the American Gladiators. No wrestling either. Sadly. No one got egged. Germans just don’t do that kind of thing. We don’t just throw eggs at our David Milibands opposition leaders and/or candidates over here. We are a cultivated people. Kidding.
But anyway. We did tune in (or pretended to anyway) to hear the candidates’ views on important issues such as the Eurozone and miscellaneous, renewable energy and costs, health and pension reforms… Yes, mostly dull.
Which is probably why Ms Merkel’s necklace initially got the most attention on Twitter – it was black, red and gold (the colour of the German flag), although some Tweeters wondered of the order of the colours (in fact black, gold, red) was in intended as a subtle statement about Merkel’s hitherto unheard-of loyalty to Belgium.
Be that as it may, not much emerged from the debate that we hadn’t heard already. In fact, some commentators have since called “the debate” a “dialogue” that wouldn’t have needed any TV hosts or querying at all – never mind the lengthy debate that followed it which featured former party leaders Frank-Walter Steinmeier (yes, that’s right, the SPD’s other stone) and Edmund Stoiber who did more heated debating than the actual candidates.
No surprise, thus, that the #tvduell ended pretty much in a tie, although polls maintain that Merkel got off slightly better than her opponent. Then again, according to pollsters, hitherto undecided voters seem to lean towards Steinbrück.
Unfortunately, two of the most immediate and interesting questions were dealt with rather superficially: Syria and the NSA scandal. Personally, I watched the whole thing mostly once-removed, namely by reading tweets about it because, frankly, the thing wasn’t very interesting and my mind was pretty much made up in disfavour of both candidates’ parties before it even started.
Trying to see if one of them would be able to surprise me and convince me otherwise, I was left sadly disappointed. After 1 hour and 5 minutes of dullness and increasing shouts on Twitter for the more pressing questions that seem to occupy voters’ minds these days, at last some short statements were made on Syria and the NSA/Snowden shenanigans.
Alas, once again, nothing new. Both candidates agreed that there should be no military intervention without a UN mandate, although Mr Steinbrück was more decisive here with a much clearer no than Ms Merkel. Good on him, but for me this begs the question how he will stick by that no should his party win the election. How this would work, for example, for German Patriot missiles stationed on the Turkish border with Syria is unclear – deployment has been approved by the German parliament.
Similarly, assurances by both sides that they were not up for a “grand coalition” will probably not stand the test of post-election reality. I don’t believe a word of those.
So then, I thought, perhaps the NSA and Snowden questions would sway me (not much hope there; I know Merkel’s take on the affair after all, but you never know).
Mr Steinbrück praised Snowden’s actions as courageous and necessary and welcomed a debate but skirted the question of political asylum same as everyone else did, saying that as Mr Snowden is not on German soil, he cannot request asylum in Germany. Translation: we are not going to grant Mr Snowden asylum and the only reason I don’t have to say that outright is that he’ll never get here to request it anyway. Crisis averted. Also, Mr Steinbrück went on, Mr Snowden did something he knew was illegal and for which he knew he would face the consequences. Translation: Mr Snowden cannot expect us to stand up for what he did in full knowledge of what he might bring upon himself.
Merkel, when asked about the NSA revelations got even more evasive. Prompted by the hosts for a statement on the matter, she said she had no reason, for now, to mistrust reassurances from US officials that the NSA was toeing the line of the law. Now, I am sure I don’t have to go into details of why that is – to put it nicely – complete and utter nonsense. Nonsense of this kind is precisely why I personally don’t trust Ms Merkel to defend my or anyone else’s best interests in this matter. It got even better though. Asked whether or not it was possible that German communications were being spied on, she said that data protection laws within Germany prohibited this and that she relied on these being observed. Oh good. Well, if she relies on that…I have stated previously that there is no reason to believe that governments who do not even act within their own laws and constitutions, can be expected to observe the laws of their third-party partners. Now, I know that the German government seems to take inordinate amounts of pride in flattering itself believing that they’re the US’s bros and therefore exempted from the spying. However, to still maintain that there is no reason to mistrust the reassurances of foreign governments when it comes to eaves and other dropping is grossly negligent, incredibly naïve or a downright lie. If the latter, then what else is the current German government lying about and why? How much did they know about the spying and how far were they involved in it? Dear TV hosts, those were the kinds of questions I would have liked you two ask – there were for of you opposite two. There could have been so much squirming! But none of it. Probably because by then, you were running out of time.
I give you some credit for asking Ms Merkel about data protection laws in other countries. Sadly for her, Ms Merkel said she had no information on those.
Er, what? Correct me if I’m wrong but wouldn’t you agree, dear readers, that someone who has requested tougher data protection laws within the EU ought to know what she is talking about, or that she could at least be expected to have obtained the necessary information by now – certainly before a debate on national television? Well done, her election team, for researching this so thoroughly.
Before anyone says anything; yes, I am aware that she probably knows a lot about these things and that she was just not very good at either avoiding or evading the question. But then, why wasn’t she better prepared? Dear, oh dear! Speaking of prepared: Ms Merkel was not prepared to thank Edward Snowden either, although she obviously tried to convey that she thinks his revelations are important. Clear case of: good thing we found out about that but we’ll leave Mr Snowden hanging (or to be hanged) anyway.
Apologies to offend if I do, but I stand by my view that someone who knows what’s morally right and dares say it, thereby committing what’s been called “a brave act of civil disobedience” should be protected. And I expect a current and/or future democratic leader and, in Mr Steinbrück’s case, a member of a party with a tradition of questioning the status quo to take a more decisive stand on this. Not impressed, Mr Steinbrück, Ms Merkel, not impressed. Sadly but obviously, not surprised either.
Ms Merkel, to you specifically I say; rather than repeat the endless empty litany of how well Germany is doing and that we need to keep going forward on this course you’ve set for us, will you start listening to and answering questions – first those of the TV panel and then those of your electorate?
The whole episode confirms my personal impression that there is a lot of talk now about what Mr Steinbrück would do differently when in power, much of which will probably not be implementable or subject to significant changes. Neither do I trust Ms Merkel to act in my and many others’ best interest if she stays chancellor.
Importantly, when both say that there will not be a “grand coalition”, I don’t believe them. Neither, I think, did host Stefan Raab who reprimanded Mr Steinbrück on no uncertain terms for suggesting that he would only partake of running this country if he was also made “King of Kotelett” (i.e. chancellor) – which explains that other confusing hashtag (#kotelett roughly equals lamb chops and I am sorry, I don’t think the humour translates any more than if he’d said “King of Currywurst” – it’s a German thing). Possibly, the one image that best sums up both the “debate” and the likely outcome of the federal election is this one, even though the now famous necklace is absent.
Don’t get me wrong: I am proud of this country. Being an expatriate and looking at Germany from a distance, I no longer have that cultural cringe that so many Germans seem to suffer from since WW II. I think Germany is not on the wrong track. I would say that many of us are more liberal than many “liberals” in other countries. We have a decent system going that really could produce favourable results and good policies. We have some very good ideas about human rights, civil rights and about what it means to be human and a citizen. Article One of our constitution, or “basic law”, is my favourite example:
“Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” Now, here is something I can whole-heartedly support.
The problem is that none of our current or potential leaders quite seems to have the guts it takes to defend that right – that is one thing the NSA and Snowden conundrums have shown us very clearly.
So nice try and thanks but no thanks; I went and gave my two votes to someone else today.
I think it is fair to conclude that the big winner of the #tvduell seems to be the Ms Merkel’s necklace – it now has its own Twitter account (@schlandkette).
Democracy is a fine thing.