Comic Relief: German Campaign Gets Much-Needed Dose of Humor

By in Berlin

Germany's election campaign is being livened up by satirical pledges to rebuild the Berlin Wall, send pensioners to the east, provide free cosmetic surgery for everyone and install a rabbit as the national symbol. Humor is urgently needed at this time of political torpor, comedians say.

Germany has been at pains to keep its politics as dull as possible since 1945, understandably so, some might say. Consensus and compromise prevail, and the scandals tend to be too complicated or too trivial to keep casual observers interested for long.

It has gotten worse in the last four years. Political debate has been stifled as the two main parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the rival center-left Social Democrats, have been locked in an awkward coalition in which they've had to shelve their differences.

German comedian Hape Kerkeling, aka Chancellor candidate Horst Schlämmer, enjoying the attentions of actress Alexandra Kamp during Tuesday's news conference.
REUTERS

German comedian Hape Kerkeling, aka Chancellor candidate Horst Schlämmer, enjoying the attentions of actress Alexandra Kamp during Tuesday's news conference.

And there's a very real chance that coalition may be repeated for four more years after the Sept. 27 general election.

What Germany's political scene needs now more than ever is a refreshing injection of satire, or at least humor, and tentative attempts are underway to meet that need.

A bona fide party called Die Partei (The Party) is campaigning with a satirical program to rebuild the Berlin Wall, turn eastern Germany into a nature reserve and populate it with the nation's pensioners.

And one of the country's best-known comedians, Hape Kerkeling, has formed his own mock party that's "conservative, liberal, left-wing and a bit ecological" and pledges to provide free cosmetic surgery for everyone.

Bunny to Replace German Eagle

Its catchphrase, possibly based on a misunderstanding of Barack Obama's famous slogan, is "Yes, Weekend." And it wants to abolish the eagle as the national symbol and replace it with the "Federal Rabbit."

The media, desperate for a bit of light relief during what has so far been a downright boring election, pounced on Kerkeling's campaign. His news conference in Berlin on Tuesday to launch a mock-documentary style feature film about his candidacy attracted the kind of attention usually reserved for Merkel -- news channel n-tv carried it live, and some 100 reporters unwittingly became extras in his PR coup, feeding him questions and lapping up his jokes.

What about swine flu, Kerkeling, posing as his alter ego Horst Schlämmer with hideous false teeth, gray wig and a dirty trenchcoat, was asked. "I'm against it," he replied.

Other nuggets followed. His first foreign trip as chancellor will be to the Netherlands because that's just across the border from his home in the small town of Grevenbroich, which will incidentally become the new capital. He also had a message for the youth of today: "Children are our future."

Schlämmer, head of the HSP or Horst Schlämmer Partei, also promises a monthly income of €2,500 for everyone from birth.

Desperate to Liven Up Politics

While this might not be cutting-edge satire, Kerkeling's stunt has struck a chord in Germany where there's growing concern about voter fatigue after four years of political torpor. People, it seems, are tired of unrealistic campaign promises, and fed up with a general lack of political spark.

Kerkeling's program doesn't sound much more outlandish than the center-left Social Democrats' pledge to create 4 million jobs in the next 10 years, or Merkel's promise to cut taxes at a time of record budget deficits.

And there's no Obama in sight. None of the candidates has the power to inspire the nation with a grand vision. Merkel's lack of charisma is now her trademark, and her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD is fighting an uphill battle to shed his image as a dull bureaucrat.

Even the outcome seems pre-programmed -- Merkel, widely seen as a safe pair of hands, looks almost certain to win a second term.

"There's a feeling of exhaustion hanging over this election campaign, it's good that you're joining in," Bild newspaper columnist Franz Josef Wagner wrote in an editorial about Horst Schlämmer. "If I wanted to laugh I'd vote Schlämmer. But I fear in the real world there's nothing to laugh about."

The leaders of Die Partei beg to differ. Founded in 2004 by the editorial team of satirical magazine Titanic, the party took part in the 2005 general election and won a grand total of 18,000 votes. It has campaigned in a number of regional and local elections since then, and scored 4.8 percent in the Berlin district of Neukölln.

Martin Sonneborn (center) with fellow members of Die Partei. Omniously, they chose the Nuremberg Nazi party ralling ground for this scene from their new propaganda movie.
Die Partei

Martin Sonneborn (center) with fellow members of Die Partei. Omniously, they chose the Nuremberg Nazi party ralling ground for this scene from their new propaganda movie.

Its campaign posters are so notorious that they're usually torn down within hours -- either by irate political rivals or by students who want to hang them on their walls. One poster shows two football players, one wearing the West German strip and the other the communist East German one under the slogan: South Africa 2010 -- Let's Take Two Teams to The World Cup!"

Die Partei is also launching a film this month, labelled as a 90-minute "cinema propaganda documentary" about its political work over the last five years.

"What Obama Can Learn From Me"

Its founder and chairman, former Titanic editor Martin Sonneborn, recently penned an editorial titled "What Obama Can Learn From Me," in which he claims the new propaganda format will make the US president's Twitter and Facebook campaign last year look old-fashioned.

"We're well prepared for the election and Germany needs us," Sonneborn told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We want to shut down most of the small and medium-sized cities in the east and just keep the three or four big ones. We could relocate our western German pensioners there and turn the rest of the region into a wildlife reserve."

Die Partei's stunts have included erecting a symbolic stretch of wall along the former border with East and West Germany. It also raised eyebrows with its demand that easterners pay license fees for all the West German TV they secretly watched under communism.

Even more controversially, it wants to dismantle Dresden's famous Frauenkirche church, destroyed in the World War II bombing of the city and painstakingly rebuilt after unification in 1990. "We could use the stones to rebuild the Wall," Sonneborn explains.

A New Berlin Wall

Surprisingly, around a quarter of Die Partei's 6,000 members are located in eastern Germany.

"Support for our cause is increasing. This issue is highly emotional because this country is still divided, almost more than before 1989," says Sonneborn.

That may be a tiny bit exaggerated. But as Germany is getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall this November, opinion polls show that many in the east feel like second-class citizens while many westerners resent the billions that have been spent on rebuilding the east after decades of communist neglect.

Over the last five years The Party has adopted all the trappings of a proper political entity -- it has an executive board, regional associations in nine of Germany's 16 states. It even has a youth organization, the "Hintner Youth," named after its general secretary, Thomas Hintner.

While the party's aim is tongue-in-cheek, Sonneborn insists that Germany's political system urgently needs a healthy dose of satire, especially after four years of torpor under Merkel, whom The Party wants to lock inside the eastern "special economic zone."

"After the Wall came down West Germany bought up the east and a lot of people there lost out. They haven't managed to find a footing in this society. Some might say we're using satire to point out these problems," says Sonneborn.

Unfortunately, Germany's Federal Returning Officer, in charge of reviewing parties' applications to register for the September election, doesn't see the joke. He has barred Die Partei from the election on the grounds that it isn't serious enough.

Sonneborn says he is confident the decision will be overturned at a court hearing this week.

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