Event Reports

Political Parties as Pillars in a Democracy: Internal Structure and Agenda-setting

by Nadine Carlson (geb. Mensel)

Study and Dialogue Program in Germany for Young Political Activists from Israel

A group of six Israeli young political activists and consultants, representing the Likud, Kadima and Yesh Atid parties, took part in a study program in Germany from April 14-20. The study program focused on the promotion of young politicians, the development of election campaigns, the tasks of different constitutional bodies, and the recent German history of the peaceful revolution and reunification.

Focus of the Study Trip

The development of the political landscape in Israel shows that center-right parties will decisively shape public opinion and the political decision-making in the long term. These parties consists of Likud, Kadima and the newly-formed party Yesh Atid (“There is a future”). Looking at their overall success in the recent Knesset elections on January 2013, the political center seems to be well established. Now it is time to consolidate party structures in order to meet the expectations of their voters.

KAS Israel maintains close relations to the aforementioned parties. The aim of this cooperation is the transfer of knowledge – particularly with the younger generation – in terms of the organizational and programmatic aspects of party activities. This study and information program addresses those issues in depth.

Because Germany is going to see federal and Israel municipal elections in autumn this year, the study program was implemented at the right moment: campaigns are about to start and party programs are momentarily being drafted. The participants of the study tour did not only learn about those activities, but also gained knowledge about the decision-making within a party, strategy development, inner party platforms and youth organizations. In addition, learning about the political responsibilities at different administrative completed the program.

Voting Behavior and Public Opinion

The program began on April 15 with a lecture by Mrs.Dr. Viola Neu in order to better understand the political processes and functions of the political parties in Germany. Dr. Viola, head of the team of empirical social research of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, informed the group about the electoral system and party funding in Germany, as well as about recent results of demoscopic studies on voting behavior. Accordingly, a real change of attitude among voters in Germany was currently not verifiable. Dr. Neu explained that the closer the election dates were to one another (in Bavaria and Hesse on 15 and 22 September, national elections also on 22 September), factors such as the economic and financial crisis in Europe or the newly founded party “Alternative for Germany” had a stronger impact in the polls and on voters decision.

Moreover, the young politicians from Israel were eager to learn about the dealings with anti-democratic parties in Germany. Referring to the Grundgesetz (the basic law or constitution), Dr. Neu elaborated on the provision for a party ban if a party acted against the liberal democratic basic order with an “active combative attitude”. In that regard, not only supporters of the political left- or right-wing extremism were cause for concern but also islamist Salafis and other religious fundamentalist groups pose a serious threat.

Getting involved in a vivid discussion, the group exchanged views on the question of virtual campaigning and online-based voter mobilization. In Israel, the party Yesh Atid, the party of the former TV journalist Yair Lapid, gained above average results among internet proficient voters. Mr. Dan Schori , at the new media manager at Yesh Atid, noted that the activities and presence in social media networks were decisive factors in the success of Yesh Atid in recent elections.

After touring the German Bundestag and an introduction to the basics of the German parliamentary system, Mr. Dr. Mario Voigt, secretary-general of the CDU in Thuringia, picked up on the talking points that had already shaped the previous discussion. Additionally, Dr. Voigt focused on the issue of swing voters, using geographical information systems, the specific voting behavior in regional and national elections, and agenda-setting in the election campaign. In that context, he shared his views on online-based mobilization strategies explaining that while e-tools were of increasing importance, traditional instruments still remained in place during a campaign.

The recurring topic of the online presence of political parties, especially in the run-up to elections – in Israel and Germany - became clear. Participants were also able to connect showed where both sides can learn from each other and where they can readjust their respective strategies.

Responsibilities of the Executive Branch

After having acquired first knowledge of the electoral system and the functioning of the legislature in Germany, it was time to point out the tasks of the executive branch. More specifically, the relationship to the other branches and bodies of the political system needed clarification. For that purpose, the delegation paid a visit to the Federal Chancellery on April 16, where Mr. MinDirig Dr. Georg Kleemann, head of the section “Cabinet and Parliament, Federal States Relations”, was ready to brief the group.

Dr. Kleemann first briefed the participants over the structure of the chancellor's office, the internal working procedures, the cooperation with the federal ministries, but also the relations to the fractions of the Bundestag. The conversation soon turned to the peculiarities of federalism in Germany, making the participation of the Länder (the federal states) in the legislative process compulsory. Israeli delegates also were informed of the efforts of the bundestag to ensure transparency. How the Bundestag handles the passing on of information to the media and public and about the range of competences of the chancellor and individual ministers.

The next day, the topic of transparency reoccurred when the young politicians from Israel were invited to the Ministry of Education and Research. Mrs. Barbara Götze gave a presentation on the Ministry’s portfolio. She also remarked on the challenges of the education policy due to the federal structure of the state. To give an example: when it comes to the design of schools, the Ministry was almost out of the picture whereas the Länder had the power to decide. However, the competence of the Ministry to shape and make decisions was much broader in terms of promoting innovations, talents or certain scientific areas in the public discourse (especially during the so-called theme-related “Years of Science”).

The Media and Politics

Afterwards, the delegation had the chance to reassess the perspective of the executive branch with the help of a media representative. Mr. Dr. Jacques Schuster, a journalist with the daily newspaper “DIE WELT” , outlined Germany’s media landscape, pointing to differences in other European countries. In addition, the conversation touched upon the relationship between journalism and politics, including the structural changes in the media industry. Dr. Schuster also explain how cost constraints and the ubiquity of the internet meant tremendous challenges for the journalists and how it is impossible to ignore new media and technologies.

To mobilize their supporters and to inform about their agenda, the CDU runs its own media channel, CDU TV. Thus, when the Israeli visitors were invited to the headquarter of the CDU, they met with Mr. Markus Brauckmann, the head of CDU TV, who also gave an introduction on how to successfully launch an election campaign. Apart from that, Mr. Bertil Wenger, head of the office of international relations of the CDU, readily answered questions related to the internal structure of the party, the many platforms and to how to inspire the youth to become politically active. In this context, the active role of the party’s state associations is crucial. Therefore, the group went to Mainz, the capital of the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate and met with Mr. Robin Schmidt from the department of strategic thinking within the CDU’s regional association. In his practical oriented presentation, he focused on the campaigns on the state level and later on discussed the current topics on the political agenda in that state.

Tasks of Delegates

One of the main tasks of delegates and office holders is to pursue specific interests of the electorate and to shape and influence politics accordingly. Hence, the political activists from Israel had several opportunities to learn more about those duties from deputies and members of parliament, including Mr. Danny Freymark, Member of the House of Deputies (Berlin), Mr. MP Dr. Peter Tauber, Ms. Barbara Richstein, Member of State Parliament (Brandenburg), and Mr. Andreas Göbel, Member of State Parliament (Rhineland-Palatinate). In the course of those encounters, the participants openly talked about day-to-day political issues in Germany, Europe and Israel, the negotiating of a political agenda in the parliament, maintaining contact to the constituency and the varying tasks of representatives depending on their belonging to either a fraction of the government or the opposition.

Furthermore, staff members of delegates to the Bundestag shared their impressions of everyday life in an office in Berlin, which is similar to the procedures in the Knesset in Jerusalem. But what seems to be a major difference in Germany, is the work of MPs in their constituencies where almost half of the legislative term is spent. Thus, it is vital to convey policies in a people-oriented fashion, to communicate complex issues understandably and to be accessible for a wide range of issues.

German-Israeli Relations

Besides dealing with practical issues of politics in Germany and the way how different actors interact, the study tour also aimed to look at the international work of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and to pay attention to the German-Israeli relations. A lively, even partially controversially conducted talk within the Israeli group arose when meeting Mr. Dr. Gerhard Wahlers, deputy secretary-general and head of the department of European and international cooperation, Mr. Thomas Birringer, head of team Africa and Middle East, and Mr. Dr. Oliver Ernst, country officer for Israel.

Two issues were of major concern during the conversation: first, the domestic situation in Israel and the expectations towards the government that took office in March this year, and second, the prospects for Israel's development in the region of the Middle East. Central topics that were not only relevant during the recent election campaign, but keep on dominating the political agenda of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are the necessary reforms in the areas of education, burden-sharing in the society (e.g. in terms of paying taxes) and equity in conscription to the Israeli army.

One reason why the 2012 formed party Yesh Atid became the second strongest group in the Knesset, was among other things the focus on socio-economic problems. Mr. Gal Bareket, representative of the liberal wing in Likud, expressed the hope the Government recognized the request for changes in Israeli society and that actions followed soon. The prospects for new approaches were auspicious, because currently no ultra-Orthodox party was part of the governing coalition. Especially when it came to increase the ratio of the ultra-Orthodox of the labor force, a window of opportunity had opened and constructive decisions could be implemented.

How important it was to strengthen German-Israeli relations at the people-to-people level, became clear during a visit to the city of Gelnhausen in Hesse. MP Dr. Peter Tauber invited the Israeli guests to the local Grimmelshausen Gymnasium where an encounter took place with students, teachers and parents. In small groups, everybody got engaged in an exchange on life in Israel, Judaism and the upheavals in the Arab world.

Learning about Germany History

How the recent German past has affected the present political system of the Federal Republic, was something the young politicians learned about in many ways. For example, touring the Reichstag meant to gain knowledge about the history of parliamentarism in Germany. In particular, the experience of the Weimar Republic (1919 – 1933) led in 1949 to the creation of a sound Basic Law, containing protective mechanisms against anti-democratic attacks.

The consequences of hostility to democracy in Germany are well known. The Weimar Republic was followed by the totalitarian rule of the Nazis, leading to war and the systematic persecution and extermination of dissidents and avowed enemies of the regime. The visit of the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” and of the corresponding documentation centre impressively conveyed that part of German history, but also showed that the topic remains very present in the public discourse.

To become acquainted with the second dictatorship on German soil, the era of socialism in Eastern Germany (1949 – 1989), contemporary witnesses of that time met with the young politicians. Mrs. Dr. Maria Nooke, Deputy Director of the Foundation Berlin Wall, gave an in-depth report about politics and society in the GDR and specifically related the history of the wall and its peaceful breaking-down in the autumn of 1989. The people in Eastern Germany took the streets to demand freedom and self-determination. As a result they brought down a regime, but had to learn democracy step by step. Basically, this learning process is still going on, because it will take a generation or two to change attitudes.

To what extent the system of the GDR was directed against its own people, became evident after talking to Mrs. MP Vera Lengsfeld, herself a founder of the “Church from Below” (“Kirche von Unten”) in 1987. Back then, she campaigned with like-minded people for the recognition of human and civil rights in the GDR. For those activities, the authority of the security police – the Stasi – put her in prison in 1988. Together with the delegation from Israel, Mrs. Lengsfeld toured that very prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, which now serves as a memorial site open to the public. And taking her personal story as an example, Mrs. Lengsfeld portrayed the cruel surveillance methods of the Stasi. It was a moving and extraordinary experience. That piece of the recent history should be kept in mind when trying to understand present-day Germany.

Conclusion

What was to be learnt from this week-long and intensive study program? First of all, there were many opportunities have a closer look at mutual perceptions – Germany in Israel and Israel in Germany, respectively – and how they are reflected in the special features of the political systems. Comparisons to the situation in Israel could be drawn, at the same time the German interlocutors learned many interesting facts about the political events in Israel. The progressive approach towards new media and the dynamics in politics where particularly impressive to hear. Access to politics seems oftentimes to be easier than in Germany, where in turn the forms of governance and the decision-making process are well-established and less tailored to a single person.

The program came to an end with many new insights and knowledge. All participants expressed their conviction to spread what they had learnt. As for the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel, the task is to follow up on the program and to deepen contacts with the concerned parties, as well as to continue with parts of the study program in workshops and seminars.