Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has come under fire in Germany for resorting to what critics have labelled “xenophobic” politics, in a desperate bid to win votes.
Roland Koch, campaigning to win a third term as state governor in the central German state of Hesse, has chosen to fight his election campaign around what he describes as the problem of “young foreign criminals”.
“Foreign criminals”, he has said, need to be put into “education camps” to teach them a lesson.
With the CDU hanging on to national government by a thread, the state election in Hesse this Sunday takes on a much wider significance.
It is widely regarded as a test of support for Chancellor Merkel’s party, which governs at the national level only with the support of its rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), in a “grand coalition”.
The themes of Koch’s campaign were first set by the nationwide outcry that followed the brutal assault of a German pensioner by two youths, a Greek and a Turk, in a Munich subway station on December 20th.
But many feel that Koch has now gone beyond a simple concern for law and order, making statements that have spilled over into divisive intolerance.
Writing on the theme of “foreigners” and immigration in the mass-circulation tabloid Bild (a German equivalent of The Sun), Koch declared: “The slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen or unusual ideas about waste disposal run counter to our principles.”
“Germany is not a country of immigration,” he added, on a separate occasion.
Many, including voices from within Germany’s Jewish community, have argued that statements such as these amount to little more than populist xenophobia.
Peter Struck of the SPD has even accused Koch of being “glad at heart” that the Munich subway attack had taken place – something Koch himself has strongly denied.
For her part, Chancellor Merkel has given qualified support to her man in the provinces.”There can be no taboo issues in election campaigns,” she has said. “It cannot be that a minority in this country creates fear in the majority.”
By saying these things, the Chancellor has appeared to lend her backing to Koch, who has described himself as “the acknowledged voice of a silent majority of Germans.”
Yet Koch’s alleged “populism” does not appear to be paying off. Polls conducted this week have indicated that support for Koch is now firmly on the slide.
The two-time governor was widely seen as the favourite to walk into a third term only a few months ago. But the latest figures from German political pundits now show him running neck and neck with his SPD rival, Andrea Ypsilanti.
And while Koch and Merkel have focused on the high rate of crimes conducted by those whom they describe as “foreign youths”, the SPD has been campaigning for the introduction of a minimum wage into Germany.
Just as many Germans, it seems, would like to see improvements in working conditions for Germany’s lowest paid workers, as would like to see “foreign criminals” put into “education camps”.
Merkel must call a national federal election by September 2009 at the latest. But the loss of Hesse in Sunday’s election – or of Lower Saxony, where elections are taking place on the same day – could prompt her to follow the example of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder and call an early election.
The Chancellor may well be hoping that history will not repeat itself. When Schröder’s SPD lost power in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia in May 2005 and called the country to the ballot box, it was the CDU who emerged as victor.