The tenor of political discourse in Germany, already suffering from weeks of mudslinging in a debate about youth criminality perpetrated by those with foreign backgrounds, continued to decline on Friday. And the critique against the Christian Democratic (CDU) governor of Hesse Roland Koch, who kicked off the dispute in late December, is mounting.
Hesse's Governor Roland Koch steps out of his campaign bus for an event on Friday.Foto: REUTERS
On Friday, Peter Struck, parliamentary floor leader for the Social Democrats (SPD), accused Koch of cynically latching on to the issue as part of his campaign for re-election in a state vote on Jan. 27 -- an election that could have national significance should the CDU lose.
"I think that deep down, Roland Koch was actually happy that this terrible incident in the Munich subway took place," he said, referring to a Dec. 20 attack on an elderly man by two youths with immigration backgrounds. "I wonder if Mr. Koch would have raised the issue had it been two German youths who assaulted that pensioner."
Nobel Prize winning author Günter Grass, a long-time supporter of the SPD, likewise entered the fray on Friday, calling Koch a "demagogue." "In a time like the present, when demagogues seem to believe that their hour has come once again, one needs to speak out against them," he said, mentioning Koch by name.
Koch catapulted the issue of "young, foreign criminals" into the national political arena not long after the Munich attack, calling for tougher measures against youth who commit crime and for accelerated deportations of foreigners who fall afoul of the law.
Critics are accusing Koch of crossing the line into xenophobia with his rhetoric. The Hesse governor recently said "people who live in Germany must behave properly and refrain from using their fists. That is how one behaves in a civilized country." He added that "it must be clear that the slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen ... runs counter to our principles." And just to make sure nobody misinterpreted who the target of his attacks were, he commented: "In our country we don't get many cultures meeting to form a new one. Germany has had a Christian-Occidental culture for centuries. Foreigners who don't stick to our rules don't belong here."
Germany's immigrants fought back against the onslaught on Thursday with an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel pleading for a more sober tone in the emerging debate about youth violence in the country. On Friday, some groups representing those with foreign backgrounds repeated their frustration.
"The Central Council of Jews in Germany is right," said Kenan Kolat, who heads the umbrella group of Germany's Turkish community. "The level of Mr. Koch's campaign is hardly distinguishable from those run by the (neo-Nazi National Democratic Party -- NPD). ... I hope voters give Mr. Koch what he deserves for his xenophobic rhetoric."
Ali Kizilkaya of the (German) Islam Council called Koch's campaign "wind in the sails of right-wing radical parties." He echoed the sentiment of Thursday's letter by saying that he is concerned that Koch might be sacrificing social cohesion in Germany for short-term political gain.
Despite the attacks from the center and the left, Koch has stayed on course in the hopes that Hesse voters will return him to the governor's mansion. On Friday, he received some support from the White Ring, a group that assists victims of violent crimes in Germany. A criminologist with the group, Hans-Dieter Schwind, accused immigrant groups in Germany of playing down the problem of foreigners who commit crimes.
"I would expect a much greater recognition of the problem," Schwind, the former CDU justice minister in the state of Lower Saxony, told the paper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung on Friday. "Those who are repeatedly convicted of violent crimes after they have become naturalized should be deported." According to police statistics, 24.8 percent of crimes committed by 18-20 year olds are perpetrated by "non-Germans" despite the fact that they comprise only 8.8 percent of the total population.
Koch, though, may have his work cut out for him in the final days of his campaign. Even as he demands ever-harsher penalties for perpetrators of violence, information has emerged that he might not be the crime fighter he portrays himself as. Judges in Hesse attacked Koch on Thursday and Friday for having cut numerous judicial positions during his nine years as the state's governor. Statistics cited on Thursday by German public broadcaster ARD likewise indicate that it takes longer for cases of violence to come to trial in Hesse than in any other German state.
Many criminal justice experts in Germany have recently been insisting that the severity of punishment is not the decisive factor. Rather, the sooner a case comes to court -- and the sooner perpetrators are punished -- the larger the corrective effect.