22 September 2010

The Attraction of Populist Politics in Germany

Democracy is about giving people what they want, right?  And if the political leaders aren't giving the people what they want, then surely opposition leaders should fill the gap?

Across Europe and the United States, politicians and policy wonks are getting a harsh lesson in democratic politics.  For instance, in Sweden's election over the weekend, a lurch to the right has a party with neo-Nazi roots holding the balance of parliamentary power, a change driven by concerns about immigration.  The US has seen its own political insurgency in the form of the Tea Party movement.

Germany has not been immune to such issues, including its own conflicts over immigration, fueling the far right.  With respect to energy policy I recently and approvingly discussed Angela Merkel's negotiated agreement to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power plants, using the resulting windfall to invest in clean energy innovation.  This agreement is now at risk, due to the harsh realities of populist politics.

Following a protest against the nuclear extension plan over the weekend in Berlin involving more than 100,000 people, opposition leader Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats, has seized on hte opportunity to gain political advantage.  He says:
"Angela Merkel's nuclear deal is driving people into the streets because it is a stimulus program for political disaffection when the head of a government cuts a backroom deal with four energy bosses that's worth hundreds of billions of euros and safety issues for old nuclear plants are sorted out on the side," Gabriel said. "Those dealings should all be public. ... It would be best if the people could vote on the lifespan extension in a referendum."
Gabriel knows which way the winds are blowing, and not surprisingly, has also called for tighter restrictions on immigration.

His call for a referendum is significant, because Germany doesn't do referenda:
Recent opinion surveys suggest the [nuclear extension] decision is opposed by a clear majority of German voters, with 59 per cent against compared with 37 per cent in favour, according to a poll conducted by Infratest dimap for the ARD state television station. If voters can be persuaded that such a move would save jobs, or help finance renewable energy in the long run, a majority would be in favour.

The opposition parties see the policy as fundamentally unpopular and expect to win substantial support for a revived anti-nuclear campaign. In an interview with Spiegel magazine, Renate Künast, joint parliamentary leader of the Greens, said they would use “all means possible – legal challenges, demonstrations and election campaigns”, to make sure the extension was not approved.

Mr Gabriel’s proposal for a national referendum seems designed more as a tactical move to shock the political establishment than a likely way of blocking the plan. Referendums are barred under the German constitution on the grounds that they undermine parliamentary democracy – and contributed to the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s.
But if not nuclear then what?  Gabriel has answered that question as well (hint: it is black and dirty).

What is the lesson to take from the current politics in Germany (and elsewhere)?  Even the best laid policy plans are of little use unless they account for the politics of the day and are robust enough to survive the inevitably changing politics of the future.  One obstacle to implementing improved energy policies (that is, those that expand access, reduce cost, and increase security while fostering accelerated decarbonization as a valuable ancillary benefit) is that policy analyses too often ignore unyeilding political realities.

From my vantage point it looks like Merkel's nuclear plan is in deep trouble. Did it have to be?