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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON GERMANY

Baby Boomers on the Rise

Helmut Kohl's political heirs will be the thirtysomethings who reject consensus democracy.

September 06, 1998|ROBERT von RIMSCHA | Robert von Rimscha, Washington bureau chief for the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, is the author, most recently, of "Little Brother--Germany and the U.S. Model" (Bouvier, 1997)

The short-term outcome of the German elections is still open. But the long-term effect already has taken shape. The vote on Sept. 27 will be another step in the long farewell to an entrenched but increasingly burdensome German accomplishment: consensus democracy.

The German preference for consensual politics meant that unions and management run companies together, that the centrist Free Democrats are always the junior coalition partner, that interest groups prevent bakers from offering fresh bread on a Sunday morning or private citizens from using their lawn mowers at 2 p.m., when German law mandates quietness. Many now see this consensus as the lethargic silence of a complacent society.

The election's short-term result will be a name: Kohl or Schroeder. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, leader of the Christian Democrats, seeks an unprecedented fifth term. If the Social Democrats win, their candidate, the ex-leftist, now-centrist state governor Gerhard Schroeder, will take over. Polls give Schroeder the lead. But all surveys indicate that neither big party will win enough parliamentary seats to rule alone.

America especially worries in case Schroeder aligns himself with the Greens, a party opposed to NATO, the German armed forces, U.N. peacekeeping, cheap gas and citizens taking plane flights to their vacation destination more than once every five years. A "red-green" coalition would strain the transatlantic partnership. Schroeder knows this and has told Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) that the Greens would play no role in foreign policy. America may rest assured. It is a long-term process that is underway in Germany that will stabilize transatlantic relations.

Oddly enough, this process is one of increased domestic tensions. While it is the farewell-to-consensus democracy, it also is a paradox. Should there emerge a super-centrist, immobile "grand coalition" of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the Germans' dissatisfaction with stalemate and paralysis would become ever more visible.

Why should America care? America's transition to a baby-boomer president was one of style, social attitudes and values as much as it was political. The same will soon happen in Germany, as it is set to be run by what is essentially a post-Cold War generation.

They have been called the '89 generation, as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is its members' crucial exposure to living history. They deplore West Germany's unwillingness to use the transformation of East Germany as a trigger for structural change. They question the notion that the relationship is antagonistic between "turbo capitalism" in the U.S. and a benign social welfare state in Germany, instead stressing common challenges facing both the U.S. and Europe in the age of globalization.

They despise the gruff stalwarts identified with taxation greater than 50%. They want a strong Europe and a strong European currency. They like competitiveness, capitalism, family, social liberties, entrepreneurship, vigor and an engaging foreign policy. For the U.S., they would be tougher partners in trade negotiations and more willing allies in foreign policy. And they soon will run Germany. Already, they head several of Germany's most influential newspapers. The Free Democrats' agenda-setting secretary general was born in 1961; the Christian Democrats' chairman in Schroeder's home state was born in 1959. The government's move to Berlin, to be completed next year, will coincide with the baby boomers' ascension to the power elite.

The traditional German political landscape leaves them homeless. Fiscal conservatives/social liberals easily find parties reflecting their views in the U.S. or Britain. In Germany, they have been left out. Few such voters even existed before. With the '89ers, they exist in great numbers and demand recognition. Schroeder hopes they will carry him into the nation's top post.

The '89ers signal not only increased chances of reform but also a refreshingly unbiased, positive view of the U.S. And they are many. German baby-boomers arrived in the early 1960s. Rates for childbirth not only peaked in those years, they exceeded births before and after. This generational twist, and not Schroeder, is the really big news about Germany's future politics.

After Kohl, there won't be another Kohl, a patriarch driven by history and focusing backwards, ruling for 16 years. If Kohl gets his fifth term, the '89ers could well triumph the next time. If Schroeder wins, he can only be successful if he adopts large parts of the '89ers' agenda. Kohl's staying power has rendered his likely heirs mere transitional figures. Sooner rather than later, Germany will turn to a more American-style, conflict-driven political landscape. Berlin will be the ideal setting. The more Germany drags its feet on reform, the more forcefully those changes will be demanded and enacted by a new generation already on the path to power.

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