For a long time, it looked as though Hesse Governor Roland Koch had little to fear as the date for the important state elections drew closer. But now, with just 10 days to go before voters decide whether to hand the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) politician another term in office, it looks like his own campaign might be getting away from him. Meanwhile the Social Democratic candidate, Andrea Ypsilanti, is making huge strides in the polls.
An important German public opinion poll found on Friday that, were the election held this Sunday, the CDU would -- assuming it forms a coalition with the liberal FDP party -- receive 46 percent of the vote. Ypsilanti's SPD, together with its usual coalition partner the Greens, would end up with 50 percent of the vote. Even more damning for Koch, who has been the governor of Hesse since 1999, he would get only 38 percent of the vote, were voters able to choose a candidate directly instead of voting for parties as the system decrees. Ypsilanti would get 48 percent.
The vote is seen as an important litmus test for the administration of Chancellor Angela Merkel, likewise a Christian Democrat. But even allowing for its national-political significance, the campaign has recently played an outsized role in the German media. And increasingly, it looks as though Koch might have bitten off more than he can chew.
Following a brutal, pre-Christmas attack on a pensioner in a Munich subway station, Koch chose to make the issue of youth violence the centerpiece of his campaign. Because both attackers had foreign backgrounds, however, Koch's rhetoric, many observers say, crossed the line into xenophobia. In a piece he wrote for the mass-circulation tabloid Bild on Jan. 3, Koch wrote: "The slaughtering (of animals) in the kitchen or unusual ideas about waste disposal run counter to our principles."
Many in Germany admit that the country does seem to have a problem with youth violence, and that those with foreign backgrounds commit a disproportionate number of such crimes. But recently, the debate has been centering more and more on the rhetoric used by German politicians, particularly Koch, to discuss those in Germany with immigrant backgrounds.
This week, the discussion has become particularly shrill, with Jens Jessen, an influential commentator with the weekly paper Die Zeit, weighing in. Speaking of a general "atmosphere of intolerance," Jessen said, "I wonder if there might not be too many know-it-all German pensioners who make life hell both for foreigners and for many Germans. In other words, the problem in German society isn't so much with foreign criminals as it is with home-grown intolerance."
Other papers have spent the last two days firing back. Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wondered whether the "mixture of youth criminality and Islamic fundamentalism could potentially be today's version of the deadly ideologies of the 20th century." In a piece entitled "Homeland Babylon," Thomas Schmid, editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Die Welt, wrote that Jessen had turned the "victim into the perpetrator."
Koch, and his ongoing campaign, seems almost to have been forgotten amid the nation-wide shouting match that has erupted. And he also seems to be turning away from "young, foreign criminals" -- as he referred to them -- as a campaign issue, preferring to shift the focus on the dangers presented by leftist politicians.
Meanwhile, one of the young men who kicked off the entire debate found his voice on Friday. In a letter from his prison cell, the 20-year-old man, born in Germany but with a Turkish background, apologized to the 76-year-old victim of his attack. "I am sorry from the bottom of my heart. I would like to ask for forgiveness," he wrote, according to Bild. "I even dream about the pain I caused you."