One of the more gruesome questions one might consider is whether it it possible to commit suicide by decapitating yourself.
The answer – amazingly – is yes but the procedure is not one I would recommend: The preparations are cumbersome and if you succeed, the results will be pretty messy. If you don’t succeed – well, we really don’t want to think about the consequences. (My advice: Buy a single ticket to Iraq. The locals will be happy to assist you.)
Chop – Chop – Chop!
Still, in politics other rules apply and during 2005 the German Social Democratic Party managed the impressive feat of decapitating itself, not once but three times.
The first chop took place in March when a still anonymous member of the state parliament in Schleswig-Holstein abstained from voting for the reelection of Heide Simonis as Prime Minister. Following an election which left the Landtag with no clear majority, Simonis had assembled an uneasy and controversial coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Südschleswiger Wählerverband which would give her the number of votes neccessary to get elected as state P.M.
But it was not to be: Someone – and to this day, we don’t know who the defector was – withheld his or her vote four times in a row and in the end Simonis gave up. After drawn-out negotiations the SPD did enter the state government but as the junior partner to Peter Harry Carstensen’s CDU and Heide Simonis’ political career was a thing of the past.
The second chop took place in late May when the SPD after nearly 40 years in office in the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen lost to the CDU led by another less-than-inspiring candidate. The loss was the latest in a line of electoral fiascos for the SPD at the state level but no-one had expected the reaction of the national SPD leadership.
Instead of living through another 18 months of political agony that would surely end in a victory for the CDU, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and SPD chairman Franz Müntefering decided to call for a national election in September. Strangely, Schröder and Müntefering seem to have taken the decision without consulting any of the competent organs of the SPD or the leadership of their coalition partner, the Green Party.
As the German constitution discourages early elections, the road to the election was messy and included a faked vote of no-confidence in the Bundestag. The results were equally messy as neither the SPD nor the CDU/CSU were able to form a majority government. This led to another two months of political instability. And the third chop.
The election night on September 18 was the end of Gerhard Schöder’s political career but Franz Müntefering wowed to stay on as party chairman and Deputy Chancellor in a coalition between SPD, CDU and CSU. Commentators among other things discussed the lack of rejuvenation in a SPD led by 65-year old Müntefehring and in the end rejuvenation came. But in a way no-one had expected.
Müntefehring wanted a right-hand man to take care of day-to-day business and communications while he was occupied with government business and suggested that his protegé Kajo Wasserhövel should be appointed as the party’s Secretary General. (The title overstates the S.G.’s political importance – the post really is more clerical than political).
Someone among the party’s left-wingers thought that this could be a low-cost opportunity to establish their faction’s claim to political influence without messing up the coalition negotiations too much and proposed the promiment young left-winger Andrea Nahles as an opposition candidate.
Nahles not only won the vote in the executive committee of the SPD – she won by a clear majority, and the party and the rest of Germany could only watch in amazement as Franz Müntefering immediately declared that he would be resigning as party chairman.
After a few days of negotiations, the SPD managed to find a new party chairman: Matthias Platzeck of Brandenburg who in many ways is the anti-thesis of Müntefehring. Platzeck is not only East German, he also started his political career in the civil rights movement Bündnis ’90.
Anything You Can Mess Up, We Can Mess Up Better!
If the internal struggles of the SPD were fascinating, the chaos within the CDU and CSU as state grandees did their best to demolish the national leadership was truly amazing to watch.
Back in 2002 Bavarian P.M. Edmund Stoiber still managed to win the spot as the two Christian Union parties’ candidate for the chancellorship. Stoiber lost, retreated to Munich and behaved as if he had won the election.
A lot of CDU grandees – including Peter Müller of Saarland, Christian Wulff of Niedersachsen and last, but definitely not least Roland Koch of Hessen – had to put a brave face on Gerhard Schröder’s surprise call for early elections as this left the East German, Protestant woman Angela Merkel as the party’s leader.
Still, the knives were sharpened. Stoiber refused to commit himself to a future Christian Union-led government in Berlin. So did Friedrich Merz whom Merkel had squeezed out of the office as parliamentary leader of the CDU. And the triumverate Müller, Wulff and Koch weren’t exactly supportive.
This left Merkel without a prospective Finance Minister for her shadow cabinet and in order to cater for the Germans’ almost fetishistic need for Sachverstand, she added tax expert Paul Kirchhof to her competence team.
Kirchhof was best known for advocating the abolition of all of the exemptions and benefits that make the German tax codes impossible to understand, in favour of a flat rate-tax. Even though Kirchhof had no actual chance of making it to the Ministry of Finance, the flat rate-tax became the main subject of much of the electoral campaign and probably cost the CDU some votes.
Edmund Stoiber’s main contribution to the campaign came in the form of an insult to the East Germans by calling them a bunch a frustrated people who shouldn’t have the right to determine the direction of German politics. The result was a lot of angry East Germans and apathetic Bavarians.
After the election Stoiber managed to undermine his own credibility by first agreeing to join the CDU-CSU-SPD coalition as Finance Minister and then jumping off the ship when Franz Müntefehring was defeated by his own executive committee.
Stoiber’s reception back home in Munich was not just cool, it was icy. (That’s icy as in “the surface temperature on Neptune”).
The probability that Messrs Müller, Wulff and Koch will contribute to the general entertainment for the years to come is pretty high. In a recent interview Christian Wulff promised that the state Prime Ministers would do anything to take the lead in policy debates as Chancellor Merkel would be bogged down in mediation attempts in Berlin.
The statement was immediately interpreted as a threat that Müller, Wulff and Koch would be happy to undermine the authority of their own party chairman and leave the party in chaos.
After all, you don’t really expect that a woman can lead a party and a government in the 21st Century, do you?
Angela Merkel could answer by referring to that famous quote: “They misunderestimate me” and leave the three gentlemen with egg on their faces.