Germany beyond Merkel
BERLIN — The best place to start a tour of the German political system is the Reichstag, its historic seat of power. Home of the Bundestag or Federal Diet, this magnificent building served as seat of Germany’s legislature from 1894 until the infamous fire of 1933 that heralded Hitler’s dictatorship. Despite its storied past and neobaroque architecture, the interior is ultramodern and Coruscant-like, boasting of an iconic steel and glass dome open to the public.
According to our guide, the dome’s design is symbolic: The myriad glass panels represent transparency, while the ability of ordinary citizens to go up the dome and actually “look down” on the plenary hall signifies the superiority of the people over their representatives.
The same themes of transparency and people’s sovereignty can be found in the Bundesrat, the Federal Council which also participates in the legislative process. But while the Bundestag emphasizes the unity of the German state, the Bundesrat emphasizes the diversity of 16 different states or Länders. Germany, after all, is a federal republic.
“Federalism was a response to the devastation brought about by a centralized government,” said Prof. Uli Brückner, a political scientist, in a lecture I attended, referring to the Third Reich. But there was also a centuries-long tradition of federalism: of self-governing duchies, principalities, kingdoms within the larger German realm. Thus, people are used to having dual identities — i.e., Bavarian and German. (Now there’s a third: European, and perhaps this political tradition is why most Germans are generally supportive of the European project.)
Where does Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, fit in? Legally, her mandate is to set policy and run the federal government, but people are divided as to the extent of her influence. While she remains fairly popular, her decision to open Germany to refugees has cost her some political capital, and so has the perception that she is more concerned about Europe than Germany itself.
Her tenuous position brings us to some of the challenges Germany face today. Heavy on the minds of my interlocutors is the higher-than-expected electoral performance of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland and its populist, anti-immigration message. As I write this, it remains to be seen if Merkel’s Christian Democrats can form a “Jamaica coalition” with the Green Party and the probusiness Free Democratic Party.
Underneath these emergent issues, there is also the inevitable frictions between the federal government and the Länders. Foremost of these is the ever-thorny issue of money. Tax revenue is shared, but some think the system — which includes an “equalization fund” for poorer states — is unfair. In light of changing demographics, others are also concerned about how long Germany can sustain its expensive “social market economy.” Fortunately, reforms are underway, and while their efficacy remains to be seen, the economy remains in a strong position.
The German system is an interesting case for countries like the Philippines, where federalism is being pushed by the government. Like Scotland, Catalonia, and our Bangsamoro region, Bavaria has a distinct culture and a deep sense of identity, but it has much less of their separatist impulses. Though that may change in the future, surely the federal structure deserves some credit for its ability to satisfy each Land’s desire for autonomy.
But the more I talk to the Germans about their political system, the more I think that the glue is not so much political as cultural. “Everyone knows that it’s their duty to help each other,” Christian, a Berlin-based scholar, told me, pointing to the example of Bavaria. “They used to receive money, but now they’re among the richer states supporting the poorer ones. We all know that it’s in our best interest to support one another.”
Of course, there will always be those who will think otherwise, but as long as a majority believes in it, their way of government will likely continue. Federal or not, the essential ingredient of any successful nation has always been a sense of solidarity.
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