German voters skeptical of Perot-like upstarts

May 15, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- If you've ever wondered how many votes Ross Perot could have won without money or wisecracks, look to Germany's national elections this October.

Afflicted with huge taxes and high unemployment, German voters have grown just as fed up with politics as Americans were in 1992, and several parties similar in origin and spirit to Mr.

Perot's "United We Stand" have grumbled to life during the past year.

The biggest of these two movements, the Statt ("Instead") Party and the Bavaria-based League of Free Citizens, have tried to start an uprising against the dominance of the country's two main parties -- the ruling Christian Democrats and opposition Social Democrats.

Yet, after a promising start, both Perot-style movements are fading fast, barely showing up in recent national polls. Pollsters who once talked of their potential for capturing up to 20 percent of the vote can now barely find any support when taking weekly measurements of public opinion.

"Not very many people are aware of these parties," says Dieter Roth, a political analyst with the Mannheim Opinion Research Group. Mr. Roth, who has doubted their potential from the beginning, predicts that in October they will scarcely make a dent, ending up in the "Others" category with such notable movements as the German Auto Drivers Party.

The origins of their apparent fizzle can be found in the style and substance of German politics, a humorless arena where money plays a lesser role and voters demand sober, issue-oriented campaigns.

The lack of support for a voter revolt is also subtle evidence of lingering anxiety over Hitler. Ever since being led to disaster by an upstart band of Nazis in the 1930s, Germans have remained wary of political newcomers, even when the safer mainstream parties seemed to be stumbling along without a clue.

But for a while it looked as if the alternative parties might follow a course like that of Mr. Perot, who captured a fifth of the American vote in 1992.

The first of the two parties, the Statt Party, started with a splash last fall, by winning 5.6 percent of the vote in the state elections of Hamburg, Germany's second largest city. The vote total may sound small, but Germans don't tend to take their protest votes lightly, because it only takes 5 percent to give a party seats in the state and federal parliaments. The major parties watched the Hamburg totals with alarm.

Statt Party leader Markus Wegner, a 41-year-old publisher and former Christian Democrat, had appealed to voter dissatisfaction with the big parties, and the more he contemplated this initial success the more he decided it might be duplicated elsewhere. The party is now running in several state elections, but so far hasn't built enough momentum to commit to the national race.

"We do not want to act in the sense of the old populistic parties, which offer something to everybody and then as a result have lots of ideas and plans go down the drain," Mr. Wegner said in a telephone interview. "We do not have a big program, we do not make promises, we do not use lobbies."

As the Statt Party built a following, the League of Free Citizens bTC was coming to life, led by Manfred Brunner, 46, another former Christian Democrat best known for his lawsuit arguing -- unsuccessfully -- that it was unconstitutional for Germany to ratify the European Union Treaty.

Mr. Brunner assembled a small but impressive group of well-heeled business people and intellectuals for the formation of his party this winter in Wiesbaden.

Claiming to represent a renaissance of strength from Germany's upper middle class, Mr. Brunner said, "An increasing number of people do not believe anymore that our politicians are able to solve the most urgent problems, such as economic problems or the ones concerning interior security."

But as months have passed, both movements have failed to come up with much in the way of specific proposals to solve Germany's problems. A similar lack caused Mr. Perot's support to level off, and in Germany such a deficiency can be deadly.

One reason is that international studies and surveys consistently cite Germans as being among the world's best-read, best-informed citizens (usually finishing far ahead of Americans).

The Statt Party also didn't help itself last week with the opening of its offices in the state of North-Rhine/Westphalia. After months of citing the tendency of the big parties to be sidetracked by intramural squabbles, the Statt Party event erupted into a series of petty disputes as TV cameras rolled.

"It made terrible TV pictures for them," Mr. Roth said. "They fought about the microphones and everything else. . . . They have fights all the time, because they have no common aims of ideology. All that they have in common is that they're against the established parties, and that is not enough to attract people."

In the United States, a politician might be able to make up some of this lost ground by spending money for advertising as Mr. Perot tried through his saturation bombing with lengthy "info-mercials."

But you can't do that in Germany. Parties get allotments of air time by a strict set of rules, and political advertising never reaches the flood level it does in U.S. campaigns.

Germany's political system is also attuned more to parties than to individuals, making it harder for a charismatic maverick like Mr. Perot to translate personal popularity into electoral success.

In October, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's re-election chances will depend on how many votes his party gets. No one will vote for or against Mr. Kohl directly.

"And even if at the moment there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the parties," Mr. Roth said, "the parties always have a good chance to re-establish their ties to voters during the campaign."

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