In Germany, cars take a political turn

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

BERLIN -- If Juergen Reichenbach were running the country, those irritating stoplights in his little hometown of Butzbach would be among the first things to go. Next would be the puttering slow cars clogging the fast lane of the autobahn, Germany's superhighway. As for all those environmentalists whining about tailpipe exhaust, he'd reduce their verbal emissions in no time.

But for now Mr. Reichenbach can only dream of such power, as chairman of the Auto Drivers Party, a tiny political movement with designs on the Bundestag and beyond, dedicated to the proposition that only the mobility of driving can make you free.

"When you sit in your car, you are a different person," Mr. Reichenbach explains. "You are strong in your car. There is no stress. I relax in my car perfectly, even in traffic jams. They give me time to think about myself."

Perhaps only in Germany could there be a political party for car drivers. Not only does the electoral system encourage narrow movements by rewarding narrow success -- a party can win a local or national legislative seat with only 5 percent of the vote -- but there is also the matter of Germany's near-worship of high-performance driving.

This reverence is institutionalized on the cruising lanes of the autobahn, where the absence of speed limits on some stretches produces a thundering herd of Mercedes and BMWs that commonly blitzes stragglers at 125 mph. Little wonder that the country's largest magazine is the German Auto Club's Motorwelt, or Motorworld, with a circulation of 9 million.

Yet, for all this love of cars, none of the major parties measures up when it comes to representing the interests of drivers, Mr. Reichenbach maintains. For example, he says, "The people who decide about traffic planning do not have a clue."

How else to explain all the traffic tie-ups, or the placement of stoplights at several under-used intersections in his hometown of Butzbach, just north of Frankfurt?

"Traffic circles would be of more use at many of these spots," he says testily.

Then there are the meddlesome environmentalists, such as those in the Greens Party, constantly lobbying for higher gasoline taxes and stricter controls on tailpipe emissions. The latest outrage has come as Germany sweats through its hottest summer in years. Some states temporarily imposed speed limits on the autobahns to help hold down ozone buildup in the hot, muggy air.

"They tell lies about ozone," Mr. Reichenbach fumes. "They are dogmatic. They are against technology."

The Auto Drivers Party came along in 1988 to fill this vacuum of representation. Now it has between 6,000 and 7,000 members, and builds for the future with its youth organization, Junge Mobile.

After testing its strength in a few local elections, and also in lastJune's voting for the European parliament, the party has thrown itself into the campaign for this October's national elections.

Expectations are not high. Mr. Reichenbach admits that thoughts of joining the governing coalition would be "utopian," and the party is prepared to join the ranks of the "others" category below 5 percent, along with right-wing fringe groups and other splinter movements.

The closest the party has come to breaking the 5 percent threshold was in Leipzig, in eastern Germany, where it collected 4.8 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections.

Being so small produces special aggravations. Consider what happened last fall in state elections in Hamburg, Germany's second largest city. With sentiments for a protest vote running high, the Auto Party put up a slate of three candidates. Then all three dropped out.

"Their wives and girlfriends threatened to break off their relationships if they spent more time on politics," Mr. Reichenbach moans. "Thus, we resigned."

In the national parliamentary races for the Bundestag, the party has resorted to a bold publicity ploy, choosing a famous, or perhaps infamous, candidate to represent it in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg: Konrad Kujau, best known as the hoaxer who forged the "Hitler Diaries," fooling a major magazine in 1983 before the authorities wised up and sent him to jail.

Nor does the choice mean his party isn't serious about the issues. Mr. Reichenbach will gladly send you a two-page outline of the party's platform, which includes broad statements on everything from foreign policy to immigration.

"It is not a narrow basis for a party," he says of the concerns of the Auto Drivers. "The car is only one aspect of our party. The point of the party is mobility, the support of mobility. Without mobility, no economy, no business, is possible."

Preferably, mobility at high speed, on an open road free of stoplights. Sometimes, looking into the future, it almost seems possible to him.

"This party has no historic burdens," he says. "It is a young party. It is the only one which is really in the middle. . . . 1998 will be our year. We'll be big then, and we are on our way."

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