Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nuclear crisis shifts German politics

Nuclear crisis shifts German politics
By Jack Ewing, NYT

The elections in Baden-Wurttemberg on Sunday were transformed by the events in Japan.

An election in a comfortable and prosperous corner of Germany, half a world away from a radiation-spewing nuclear plant and ruined villages in northeastern Japan, was a political tsunami of sorts for Europe’s most populous country and its most powerful economy.

Economists have played down the effects that the earthquake and nuclear emergency in Japan will have on global growth. But the elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg on Sunday were transformed by the events there. After a contest that became largely a referendum on atomic energy, voters swept aside the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel that had governed the state for 58 years, and set the stage for the first German state government led by the Green Party, longtime opponents of nuclear power.

The vote is all the more astonishing because Baden-Württemberg is a conservative, wealthy state that exemplifies both the post-1945 birth, and the renaissance of Germany’s export-driven economy. Stuttgart, the state capital, is the headquarters of Daimler and Porsche. The medium-sized firms that are the backbone of German export success flourish, while the Black Forest embodies a very German reverence of nature.

Curb on speed

Now the Greens, led by a former Communist, will be in charge. They want speed limits on the autobahns where those Daimlers and Porsches roam free. Their party platform refers to cars as “the most inefficient form of mobility.”

The most direct affect of the vote on Sunday will be to push Germany away from nuclear power, which today provides 23 per cent of its electricity.

Merkel, whose belated conversion to nuclear power critic did not win over voters, conceded as much on Monday. “In view of the incident in Japan and the shape of things in Fukushima, we simply can’t go back to business as usual,” she said in Berlin.

The vote signalled that the categories that have defined politics here since World War II have eroded. For decades, the center-right Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats dominated, with the Free Democrats playing a supporting role.

The Greens emerged in the 1970s, from an era of protest untypical of orderly West Germany. Now the Greens are in a position to lead a German state for the first time — with the Social Democrats as minority partner.

The Greens espouse many political positions that would be considered left-wing in America, but behind the progressive image lurks a strain of conservativism that was key to success on Sunday. The party has in effect become a new political entity, liberal on social issues but wary of much of modern life.

The Green Party is skeptical of digital technology and its potential to be used to gather information on citizens. Its emphasis on preserving the environment was in step with conservatives’ desire to preserve the traditional character of Baden-Württemberg, exemplified by vine-covered hillsides and tidy Black Forest villages.

The party also channeled popular outrage against a costly expansion of the Stuttgart train station that had been supported by the Christian Democrats.

Winfried Kretschmann, the 62-year old former teacher who leads the state’s Green party, was a communist organiser as a university student but said on his website that his radicalism back then was a “fundamental political error.” Instead, Kretschmann emphasised his Catholic roots.

The website of the Green Party reassured voters that its leaders do not plan to tamper with the region’s economic success, built around big manufacturers like Bosch and mid-sized engineering and machinery companies. At 4.5 per cent, Baden-Württemberg has the lowest jobless rate in Germany.

That contrasts with other protest parties in Europe, many of which lean rightward, embrace nationalism and mistrust immigrants.

Kretschmann will face difficult tests of party principles against economic reality, choices that may determine whether the vote in Baden-Württemberg marks a permanent political shift or just a short-term reaction to catastrophic events far away.

The state is 45 per cent owner of Energie Baden-Württemberg, or EnBW, which generates about half of its electricity from nuclear power plants. In its election platform, the Green party promised to shut down one plant immediately and the other in 2012. Both have been shut down temporarily because of a moratorium declared by Merkel after the disaster in Japan.

It is unclear where the replacement power will come from, said Georg Zachmann, an energy specialist at Bruegel, a research organisation in Brussels.

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