10 June 2010

The Influence of the Internet Community on the Election of the German President

As you may know, on May 31, 2010 German Federal President (Bundespräsident) Horst Köhler surprisingly resigned from office with immediate effect. His successor has to be elected by the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) within 30 days, and the political class in Germany has meanwhile nominated two candidates for the highest office in Germany, whereas the traditional opposition between the center-right candidate, the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Mr Christian Wulff (Christian Democrat), and the center-left candidate, former anti-communist human rights activist, co-founder of the New Forum opposition movement in the GDR and first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, Mr Joachim Gauck (imparially), appears somewhat blurred this time, so that the usual rather formal, predetermined and boring election of the Bundespräsident has gained some tension.

It is probably one of the first nationwide top priority political issues in which the organised part of the internet community plays quite a prominent role which might serve as a lookout on future political opinion-forming processes in digital societies significantly influenced by young well-informed social media and internet activists. The future influence of such politically interested individuals and their campaigning skills on modern democracies can hardly be underestimated.

Koehler's resignation: President Koehler was on his way back from visiting German troops in Afghanistan when he gave an interview to German radio station Deutschlandfunk, in which he expressed his oppinion that a “country of our size with its [...] export dependency should also know that, if in doubt, in an emergency, a military engagement is also necessary to defend our interests, for example free trade routes".

The interview and the cited passage had initially been ignored by the mainstream media but was picked-up by a few bloggers, including 20-year-old Jonas Schaible on his blog "Beim Wort Genommen" and Stefan Graunke on "Unpolitik". Once established newspapers and magazines jumped on the bandwagon, Koehler was heavily critisised and accused of “gunboat diplomacy”. One week later Koehler quit his office since, in his somewhat egocentric opinion, the criticism showed a lack of respect for the president's office, while a majority of Germany's political commentators couldn't quite belive Koehlers thin-skinned reaction and British Daily Telegraph wondered that only in Germany "such an obvious statement could cause such a furore".

While Schaible and Graunke still don't believe that they were at the start of something big, it became evident that the blogosphere has become part of public opinion-formig process and that there is a regular exchange between blogs and established media. In the eye of the bloggers, blogs are increasingly important because classic journalism is less and less capable of achieving its mission alone.

Ursula von der Leyen: After the German political class began to hectically look for appropriate successors for Mr Koehler, German Chancellor Angela Merkel originally favoured current Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, as Candidate for President of the governing christian-liberal coalition. Immediately a strong Internet-based campaign against her candidature emerged, e.g. on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, since Ms von der Leyen, decried as 'Zensursula' by internet freedom activists around the German Pirate Party (see this earlier post), was responsible for a law fighting dissemination of child pornography by mandatory internet filtering, which after strong protests in 2009 has been blocked by the new christian-liberal Government.

On June 3, 2010 Mr Christian Wulff, Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, was instead announced to be the Government's official Candiate for President, while some internet activists already celebrated their anticipated great victory, even though it is rather unlikely that Ms Merkel has withdrawn her support for Ms von der Leyen mainly because of the Internet campaign and it is speculated in this post on the IPJur blog that
the reality might be that conservative catholic circles within the Christian Democratic Union were uneasy to see not only two women occupying the topmost offices in Germany but also two protestants. The candidature of Ms von der Leyen would have disturbed delicate confessional and gender balances.
Christian Wulff vs. Joachim Gauck: Since the German President is not elected in general elections but by the Federal Convention including the entire membership of the German Parliament (Bundestag), and an equal number of state delegates selected by the state parliaments specifically for this purpose, proportional to their population, there appears to be not much sense in a political campaign for or against one of the two candidates. However, this time, nevertheless, the Internet and social medial community is enthusiastically supporting their candiates, e.g. by Facebook campaigns "Joachim Gauck als Bundespräsident" (10.027 fans on evening of 07.06.2010) and "Christian Wulff - Unser Bundespräsident!" (464 fans) or creative initiatives such as "mygauck", which show that Joachim Gauck is the darling of the net community. And, this time the important difference over the 'Zensursular' capaign is that it is not against a person, but is in favor of someone. It just remains to be seen if the digital campaigns really can influence the political majority in the Federal Convention.

It is also interesting to note that by far the most pro-Gauck initiators are not more or less party political campaigners but are rarther independent politically thinking individuals. However, often, they are opinion leaders on the web and understand the campaigning business quite well, just as Nico Lumma of well-known advertising agency Scholz & Friends, who initiated the much-supported "Wir für Gauck" ("we are for Gauck") online petition. There also is another petition that directly addresses the members of the Bundestag who are entitled to vote the President. 

Just like the #notmypresident campaign against Ms von der Leyen, there soon emerged the #mygauck inititive on twitter. Anyone who sends a tweet with this descriptor appears with his twitter avatar in this mosaic picture forming a portrait of Joachim Gauck. The mood for Gauck and against Wulff among the internet activists is so strong that bloggers of left-winged and cooperatively owned daily German newspaper Taz (Die Tageszeitung) already dream of a Sommermärchen ("summer fairytale") in which the established but rather pale candidate of the political majority can be defeated by the independent and more intellectual candidate of the digital majority. To achieve this, however, the campaingn will have to leave the internet at some point.  

In this connection, well-established journalist and jurist Heribert Prantl, current head of the domestic policy department of nationwide liberal newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, published the article "Das tägliche Brot der Demokratie" ("the daily staff of democracy") in the July edition of influential monthly political magazine “Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik” (editors Jürgen Habermas et al.), in which he observed the role of blogging in today's journalism in a wider political and historical context:
We are experiencing another communications revolution, just as in 1848/49. The bloggers of today remind me of the politicized citizens of 1848/49 – Blogs mean more democracy. There’s no reason for the established professional journalism to wrinkle the nose, as did the established nobilities and monarchy potentates 160 years ago. However, the new communications revolution needs professional assistance, it needs a journalistically educated core. In any case, there is a new, completely different professors Parliament which is called the Internet. This digital Parliament need leadership and expertise, just like the famous Frankfurt St. Paul's Church Parliament when drafting its Constitution of St. Paul's Church in 1849.