You may never have heard of Baden-Württemberg before, and may now be hoping that you'll never be called upon to spell it, but something rather significant happened there yesterday.
Background: Germany has two major political parties, the CDU (conservatives) and the SPD (social democrats), and two smaller but significant ones, the FDP (pro-business, somewhat similar to libertarians) and Greens (environmentalist, anti-establishment). The current government of Angela Merkel is a CDU-FDP coalition. In German elections, any party which gets less than 5% of the vote gets no representation at all (this rule is designed to prevent extremists from holding the balance of power in a legislature).
Baden-Württemberg (BW) is one of Germany's 16 states; it's one of the most conservative areas of the country, and its state govern- ment has been in the hands of the CDU for almost 60 years.
Yesterday BW held a state-wide election, and the CDU lost to an SPD-Green coalition. This wasn't completely unexpected. Merkel's successive commitments of (gigantic amounts of) German money to bail out the weaker EU states and stabilize the EU currency are deeply unpopular with German voters, and they've been punishing her party
every chance they get. The surprise is that the Greens got about 25% of the total vote
, more than the SPD, and will thus be the senior partner in the coalition -- the first Green-led state government ever in Germany.
And remember, this is one of Germany's most conservative states. In American terms it's a bit like seeing a coalition of environmen- talists and Democrats win a state-wide election in Texas.
Fukushima played a role. The German people have long been very suspicious of nuclear power, and viewed the Japanese disaster as a dire warning. They dismissed Merkel's abrupt announcement that nuclear power would be phased out as empty pandering.
The significance goes beyond that, however. European politics has long been suffused by frustration that there is a range of issues (the EU, European Islam, Third World immigration, job-killing austerity policies) which are of great concern to the masses but which political systems do not address, either because there is a consensus of all major parties for one side of the issue, or because the EU imposes its will regardless of what people want. The result is a growing rejection of traditional big parties. Anti-immigration parties, for example, have won impressive numbers of votes in several countries such as the Netherlands and Norway; referenda such as the Swiss minaret ban pass despite the establishment's condemnation. Earlier this month a French poll on Presidential candidates showed the head of the anti-Islamist (mislabeled "far- right") National Front in first place
. Portugal and Britain have seen huge anti-austerity protests in the last few days.
The Green victory in BW carries the trend to another level. The party had seen growing support
even before Fukushima, and in another state which voted yesterday, Rheinland-Pfalz, it also received a startling increase in votes at the expense, not of the CDU, but of the SPD which was the governing party in that state (and will now have to form a coalition with the Greens). This shows that voters were punishing the establishment in general, not just Merkel's CDU. The FDP, Merkel's coalition partner, dropped below the 5% threshold there, as it did earlier this month in another state, Sachsen-Anhalt; libertarianism holds no mass appeal.
The world is ever more interconnected these days. Middle Eastern dictators and theocrats have failed dismally to keep Western ideas of democracy and secularism out of their subjects' consciousness. A spark in Tunisia spread with stunning speed to Egypt and then to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and beyond. I'm convinced that the rise of people-power rebellions in the Arab world has played a role in inspiring the mass protests in Wisconsin and Europe. Europeans' growing rejection of their unresponsive political establishment, too, may hold lessons for us.
In our country's political system, small parties challenging the two big ones aren't a viable option
. But mass movements can get things done, by driving big-party politicians to act -- consider the Civil Rights movement. The wave of activism that started in Wisconsin, too, heralds something much more
than just a reservoir of energy for traditional Democratic party politics to tap into.
All over the world, the real
"era of the common man" (and woman) may be dawning at last.
In other news, consider the courage it took for Eman al-Obeidy to do this
. She's now become a rallying point
for Libyan women.
This British-French joint statement
on Libya could mean a more active role in supporting the rebellion.