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WEST GERMANY: Chancellor Willy Wins Again

7 minute read
TIME

THERE was never any doubt that West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was the overwhelming favorite of his countrymen in this week’s election. The question was whether Brandt could transform that personal popularity, and the widespread approval of his policy of reconciliation with East Germany, into votes for his Social Democratic Party. This week, as the election returns began coming in, it was evident that the answer was yes. West Germany’s voters rejected Brandt’s unimpressive opponent, Christian Democratic Leader Rainer Barzel, and returned the magnetic Chancellor with a majority in the Bundestag.

Brandt’s Social Democrats drew a decisive 45.9% of the popular vote, and probably 230 of the Bundestag’s 496 seats. The Social Democrats’ coalition partners, the Free Democrats, led by Foreign Minister Walter Scheel, won another 8.4% of the vote and 42 seats to give the government a working majority of 48. Barzel’s opposition Christian Democratic Party and its ally, the Bavarian Christian Social Union of Franz Josef Strauss, drew a total of 44.8% of the vote and 224 seats (the remaining 1% of the popular vote was distributed among 5 other splinter parties).

Besides Brandt’s personal triumph, the election results were a victory of the heart over the pocketbook. Barzel had campaigned long and hard on the issue of inflation, a particular horror to most West Germans. But Brandt, with his state treaty with East Germany, had delivered something more intensely personal for millions of voters: the promise that they would now be allowed to visit relatives and home cities under Communist rule that they had not seen in years.

The campaign appeared to exact a heavier toll from Brandt, 58, than from Barzel, 48. Almost every day, the Chancellor spent mornings at his desk in Bonn; afternoons and evenings he was on his special campaign train, delivering four or five speeches. Then he would get a few hours of sleep as the train chugged back to the capital. At one point, Brandt seemed on the verge of nervous exhaustion; bags drooped under his eyes and the lines deepened in his face. Yet he never lost the magnetism that brought out roars of “Willy, Wil-ly!” from crowds. Toward the end of the campaign his energy snapped back, and there was no doubt that Brandt was confident of reelection.

Image Problem. Few Germans could imagine anyone shouting “Rainer, Rain-er!” for Opposition Leader Barzel, who took over the reins of his party last year. A former Minister of All-German Affairs, Barzel is a gifted orator and highly intelligent tactician—with an image problem that he has never been quite able to shake. Critics variously complained that he was an ambitious opportunist and as “spontaneous as a robot.” This time, perhaps to give himself a more statesmanlike image, Barzel abandoned the slashing political style that voters had come to expect from him, and conducted a deliberately low-key campaign. He performed well, but seldom turned crowds on, and somehow gave the impression of lacking conviction. In a way, he was under more pressure than Brandt: this was probably the only chance that the C.D.U. would give him to try for the chancellorship.

Despite the high personal stakes involved, the campaign was more of a shadowboxing match than a toe-to-toe political slugfest. Brandt campaigned as if the election were a plebiscite on his Ostpolitik, even though he knew full well that few West Germans seriously opposed it. With skillful if transparent timing, his government—aided by Moscow, which also approved his Ostpolitik and exerted pressure on East Germany to cooperate—produced an agreement with East Berlin eleven days before the vote. Just before this week’s vote, Brandt promised that “if I am reelected, I will not hesitate to propose that I travel to East Berlin myself—before Christmas if possible—to sign the basic treaty.” All Barzel could do was suggest that his party would renegotiate the treaty on better terms.

Barzel spoke as if the electorate needed to be reminded daily that the inflation rate had soared in October to an annual rate of 6.4%, the highest since the Korean War. “This country is not in order,” he would declare. “The accounts do not add up.” Just as newspapers and television screens were filled with news of the treaty with East Germany, Barzel countered with a tactic of his own to redirect attention to the economy. On the eve of the election, Barzel and former Finance Minister Karl Schiller, who had resigned from the government last July after losing a fight over capital controls, held several highly publicized “secret” meetings. They apparently agreed to “cooperate” (how was not specified) in returning West Germany to “stability,” the Christian Democrats’ favorite campaign word. Barzel’s tactic won attention, all right, but not always of a favorable sort. Voters were also reminded that before Schiller left Brandt’s Cabinet, the Christian Democrats had routinely referred to him as the “minister of inflation.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the campaign was the emergence of Wählerinitiativen (literally voter initiatives), tied to no specific issues and outside the regular party framework. Breaking with an old tradition of leaving politics to the politicians, tens of thousands of voters devoted their time and money to the campaign. A Citizens for Brandt movement branched out into 338 groups; they canvassed and passed out campaign materials—including one door plaque that read “God protect this house/ From Barzel and Franz Josef Strauss.” Only in the last few weeks of the campaign did the Christian Democrats manage to counter the Citizens for Brandt with some voter-initiative groups of their own.

Credo of Ignorance. The voter-initiative movement actually began in 1965, when Novelist Günter Grass traveled around the country drumming up votes for Brandt, who was then opposition leader. This year Grass again took to the roads in a Volkswagen bus, speaking to as many as four or five rallies a day, and often attracting bigger crowds than the party candidates. Brandt also had the notable support of Nobel-prize-winning Novelist Heinrich Böll and Film Stars Curt Jurgens and Romy Schneider, while the Free Democrats were endorsed by Swiss Playwright Rolf Hochhuth and Actor Hardy Krüger.

The Christian Democrats’ voters countered with their own list of 200 somewhat less prominent names from show business, sports and academe but with sometimes more imaginative advertising. One ad featured the son and grandson of Konrad Adenauer reminding voters of der Alte’s 1957 dictum that the Social Democrats would be “Germany’s ruin.” Another pictured Sir Winston Churchill, of all people, flashing his famous V-for-victory sign and declaiming that “socialism is the philosophy of failure, the credo of ignorance and the confession of faith of the envious.”

The official party organizations were clearly surprised by the rapid growth of the voter groups and welcomed them with varying degrees of gratitude and skepticism. Economics and Finance Minister Helmut Schmidt observed that “campaigns on behalf of the Social Democratic Party by persons outside the party can easily lead to misunderstandings.” Several Social Democratic voter groups announced their intention of becoming a “critical partner” of the official party organization after the election; others might easily be revived for a compelling cause. Conceivably, that could be almost as important a result of the election as the contest between the parties.

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