Politicians, of course, love to talk about leadership and experience. Sometimes, though, in their eagerness to lead, they don't notice how far behind they are.
That appears to have been the case with Roland Koch, the still-governor of the German state of Hesse. Campaigning ahead of elections held on Sunday, Koch's years of experience as a prominent Christian Democrat (CDU) politician told him that a bit of foreigner bashing is a sure way to win votes. It had, after all, worked before -- Koch became governor in 1999 after a populist signature gathering campaign against double citizenship -- one that many observers saw as profoundly xenophobic. But this time when Koch began an aggressive and eyebrow-raising campaign against "criminal young foreigners," it turned out that Koch's leadership was a mirage. His electorate was well out in front -- and his xenophobia backfired.
Koch's CDU managed just 36.8 percent of the vote on Sunday, fully 12 percentage points less than his 2003 result. His opponent from the Social Democrats, Andrea Ypsilanti, came in at 36.7 percent -- a vast improvement over her party's result five years ago.
The result is one that could have large implications for the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, likewise of the CDU. State results in Germany are often seen as litmus tests for how the national government in Berlin is doing. In the other state election on Sunday, in the state of Lower Saxony, CDU Governor Christian Wulff was re-elected, but lost almost six percentage points relative to his 2003 results.
Still, the sheer size of Koch's loss shows that much of the blame can and should be laid at his doorstep. As recently as mid-December, he was ahead of Ypsilanti by some 10 percentage points in most polls. Back then, though, he was having trouble finding an adequate campaign issue to steer attention away from his opposition to the introduction of a minimum wage, a popular demand supported by his opponent.
When two young men with foreign heritage beat up a German man in a Munich subway just before Christmas, he jumped on it. He immediately said that Germany has "too many criminal young foreigners." He also said that Germany is "not a country of immigration" -- even though his party had just split with its past denial and included the sentence "Germany is a country of integration" in its platform at the beginning of December. Koch also suggested that foreigners learn that "the slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen runs counter to our principles."
It was a classic CDU campaign, only the most recent in a long history of such over-the-top, anti-foreigner campaigns the party has used in the past to draw attention and votes. Helmut Kohl did it during his very first campaign for chancellor back in 1982, promising to offer generous incentives to encourage foreigners -- many of them imported in previous decades to work in Germany's booming factories -- to go home. Koch's 1999 signature campaign was followed soon after with a debate on "Leitkultur" or "leading culture." Many of the CDU contributions to that debate made it clear that foreigners were at best to be tolerated in Germany, but certainly not to be welcomed.
This time, though, Koch looks to have lost touch with his electorate. Not long after his xenophobic outburst, a debate about youth criminality erupted across the country -- and the CDU's poll numbers in Hesse began dropping. Not only that, but in polls where voters were asked who they would vote for were it possible to vote for candidates instead of parties, Koch's numbers were well below those posted by Ypsilanti.
It didn't take long for him to start changing his tune. His rhetoric softened and he switched to warning voters about his challengers. But even there he seemed to misjudge the political times. His signs, which went up across the state just prior to the vote, listed his opponents from the SPD, Greens and the Left Party, and read "Stop Ypsilanti, Al-Wazir and the Communists," -- as if an invasion of foreigners, terrorists and Soviet soldiers were imminent. Tarek Al-Wazir, the leader of the Greens in Hesse, has a German mother and a Yemeni father and was born in Germany.
Despite the hysterical populism, Koch still managed 36.8 percent of the vote, just an eyelash ahead of Ypsilanti. But his collapse is profound -- and makes it unlikely that he'll remain in charge in Hesse. Sunday's election makes it clear that most voters in the state don't want him.
The vote also makes it clear that knee-jerk support for xenophobic campaigns may be waning. Germany has for years been engaged in an on-again-off-again debate about integration. And those who see Germany as a country of immigration that should welcome foreigners rather than keep them at arm's length have been gaining traction.
In short, it seems that German voters might be slowly getting over their fear of immigration. It's time their politicians did as well.