Germany’s 2017 Elections: A Reporter’s Diary

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Reporter’s Diary

The atmosphere for Germany’s 2017 federal parliamentary election was almost an exact opposite of what obtains in Nigeria.  Damilola Oyedele who was in Berlin for the elections reports

Ilooked outside the windows from the fifth floor hotel room, watching runners participating in the Berlin marathon. Runners from different nationalities, some with their country’s flag emblazoned on their outfits, participating not necessarily to win the race, after all there are renowned marathoners from Ethiopia and Kenya participating, but  determined to get to the finish line.

It was 9am, and physically challenged marathoners already went by. It was hard to imagine, as  a Nigerian,  that on this day of the marathon, with 40,000 marathoners traversing the marked out routes, was the day for German election into the federal parliament.
Election into German Bundestag, (federal parliament) is the most important election to the German voting population. The 631 members of the Bundestag are voted in by their constituencies. They, in turn elect the Chancellor who is the head of government for a period of four years, which can be renewed without limits. All parliamentarians must be members of political parties, and each political party needs a minimum of five per cent of public, to be admitted into parliament.

Six weeks before the election, voters have the option of postal voting where they are mailed ballot papers. The mailed in ballots are however opened on election day and counted after physical votes have been counted.  This option is one usually adopted by Germans who live abroad, and by people who have scheduled events coinciding with election day, like weddings.

‘Boring’ Elections
Several political commentators said the German polls are boring, quite unlike America’s elections, and for me, Nigerian elections. Ms. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Chirstian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU) was expected to win anyway, which would pave the way for her to be Chancellor for the fourth consecutive time. The only unpredictability, was the percentage of votes the party would secure as it was not expected to be able to garner as many votes as it did in 2014 where it secured 41 per cent.
A minimum of 45 per cent votes is required to form a government, indicating that a party with majority votes may still have to enter an alliance with other parties to form a government. In 2013, Merkel’s party had formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), which scored the second largest number of votes.
Even though Merkel had faltered at opinion polls in 2016 due to her controversial refugees policy which saw Germany open its doors to over a million refugees in late 2015, she had recorded a comeback, as she toughened up on conditions for asylum. Merkel also represents stability for many Germans, who although may want change after 12 years of her chancellorship, do not necessarily want to experiment with a new government in the face of crises around the world, and the exit of Britain from the European Union.

Her refugee policy had seen to the rise of far right nationalist party,  the Alternative for Germany (AfD; Alternative for Deutschland), which was expected to enter parliament for the first time ever.
Ahead of the election which held on September 24, it was general knowledge that the SPD had been hurt by the coalition, as it is considered part and parcel of the CDU led government. The party could not offer any alternatives to Merkel’s policies. Also the CDU received credit for positive contributions of SPD members to the coalition government by the German voters, thus making it hard to differentiate between the two parties. There were therefore indications that the party, which was expected to garner the second largest number of votes, would pull out of the coalition government.Winners and Losers
As predicted, CDU/CSU won, with 33 per cent, while the SPD, in its most abysmal performance ever, secured 20.5 per cent. The AfD, in a historic win, secured 12.6 per cent, much more than it was expected to win, the Free Democratic Party: 10.5 per cent, the Left Party (Die Linke) 9.2 per cent and the Alliance 90/The Greens, 8.9 per cent.
The SPD immediately announced it would not be part of the coalition and would instead go into opposition and work to rebuild the party.  As it would be impossible for center CDU to enter an alliance with far right anti-immigrant, anti-islam, overtly nationalist AfD, which also promised ‘constructive opposition’, Merkel’s option is to form coalition with FDP and the Greens. It has been named the Jamaican coalition, indicating the black, yellow, green flag.
The AfD’s presence in the parliament is expected to change the dynamics of the Bundestag, and would likely make Merkel’s next four years as Chancellor, a rougher ride.
Due to negotiations ahead of the coalition government after the inauguration of the parliament in three weeks, many people believe it may take as long as December for the new government to take off.

Complete opposite of Nigeria elections
There were eight journalists in my group, from Nigeria and South Africa. We were in Berlin to cover the poll at the invitation of the  German Federal Foreign Office, with the programme packaged by the Goethe Institute, Germany’s cultural institute. It seemed we were mostly waiting for the ball to drop, the election was too neat and straight for us, after all, we were Nigerians and South Africans; countries where pre- and post-election violence are a stain to our democratic life.
The election was boring but not necessarily in a bad way. Voters obviously had peace of mind, did not expect any trouble or issues after the polls closed and results were announced. They generally went about their normal business as they would. THISDAY observed several wedding motorcades that Sunday evening.

Most major stores were closed, not because of the polls, but as is usual on Sundays in Germany. There were no curfews or restricted movement.
Campaigns were issue based, devoid of the use of abusive language and rallies were orderly. I attended the final campaign gathering of the SPD, and inspite of the huge number of party supporters, I had no fear mixing with the crowd. My group was able to get closer to the podium, where the party’s candidate, Mr. Martin Schulz, stood, after showing policemen our accreditation.  There were no inducements to vote, unless one can term balloons, roses, chewing gum, and bottle tops, as inducement.
The conduct of the electorate is also different from what obtains in our climes. While on a stroll in the streets, THISDAY observed umbrellas belonging to supporters of the SPD and the Green Party, placed side by the side. The supporters distributed fliers to passersby.
Postal voting starts six weeks before the elections proper and the mailed in votes are counted alongside the other votes. Citizens who expect to be out of the country on election day can use postal voting, while Germans living abroad can use postal voting through the constituency they last lived in while in Germany.
Voters do not have to register ahead or be accredited on election day. They make use of their national identification cards.Election Day
The voting opened at 8am. THISDAY visited the voting unit at Pankow Borough  or District (one of the 12 jn Berlin) at about 12.30pm  where the group met with the District Mayor, Mr. Soren Benn who said the presence of police was not necessary, and any person, regardless of party affiliation, could just come around to observe, so long they did not disturb the process.
By 12 noon, it was announced that only 24.8 per cent of expected voters had voted at the unit. Voters casually walked in, voted and left the premises to continue with their businesses.
“The marathoners have most likely done postal voting since they knew they were going to run. In any case the marathon closes at 3pm and most people vote in the afternoon,” he said.
Disabled voters have facilities but not all units are disable friendly. A disabled person can either have voted through postal voting, or write the electoral institution that their unit is not conducive, to be granted permission to go vote at a conducive unit, he explained.
There was not a single policeman in sight around the unit.
THISDAY also observed the voting process at another unit in the district at about 2.20pm in a school hall. Voter turnout was higher as expected since it was already afternoon. There were children and pets on the premises where the voters lined up in an orderly manner.

“And the ball did drop”
The ball dropped, but safe to say just a little. At the AfD party thrown to celebrate their entry into parliament, as was predicted, there were protesters on ground, who were expressing their opposition to the ideals of the party which are anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, and pro-nationalist.  The police were however on hand to keep protesters from getting too  close to the building where the party was holding. The troops formed a human barrier which protesters and journalists could get close to, but not behind.  The protesters booed and blew whistles making lots of noise. More anti AfD protesters later joined at about 7.45pm and some threw bottles, one of which allegedly injured a female journalist. The police moved closer to protect the building, to and put on their battle gear.
It was however instructive to note that neither the police nor the protesters attacked or harassed each other. The protesters heeded the barrier formed by the police, even though their chants and whistles became louder, drowning out the shouts of celebration by the AfD members.

Conclusion
A member of the group, Ms. Ranjeni Munusamy of the Sunday Times of South Africa, said there are a lot of lessons to be learnt by African countries, about how normal democracy should be.
“Elections by their nature in African countries, are prone to violence, conflict and disputes. People have different perspectives on what constitutes fair play in elections. The German elections is a sign of a mature democracy. The rise the right wing is difficult in any country,  but the tone of the campaign was respectful and they stuck to the issues,” she said.
While the experience was a worthwhile one, it made me a little sad; sad for my country and my continent where elections are hardly a peaceful affair. I am however hopeful that as we get closer to the 2019 elections, campaigns would be issue based, devoid of rancour and thuggery.