Press release

Hertie current issue: Scandal? Who cares?

Andrea Römmele, Hertie's Professor for Communications in Politics and Civil Society, dissects whether or not political scandals actually have an impact on the voter on election day.

You’d almost like to accompany it with a sigh: It’s election campaign season again, this time in North Rhine-Westphalia. And – for all political parties involved – it’s here all too early. Both the CDU’s Christian democrats and the FDP’s liberals are still stuck in an initial exploratory phase and haven’t been able to book any successes so far. The social democrats of the SPD recently had to swallow their worst defeat in the party’s history and are still miles away from their old political heavyweight status. The self-professed “democratic socialists” of the Left (Linke) might even have to worry whether or not they’ll be able to take up seats in parliament. And the Greens should have a discussion as to where they actually stand before they attempt to woo possible coalition partners from all directions. In other words: Those involved don’t really want to be campaigning, and that’s exactly the reason they have to. Even if there are not a lot of gains to be made, a lot is at stake: the CDU and FDP coalition’s majority in the Bundesrat (the federal council representing Germany’s 16 states) and – as an extension – Angela Merkel’s government’s key reform plans.

This poses a dilemma, one that has a popular (cosmetic) solution in political circles: You attack your opponent even more viciously – also on a personal level – and scandalise their motives, thereby calling into question their electability as a whole. An especially easy target these days comes in the form of the FDP. Their party boss Guido Westerwelle has always been one of the Germany’s most controversial politicians, and his political roots are firmly entrenched in the state’s party branch. The links to the foreign minister’s conduct are thereby easily made with the political campaign between the Rhine and the Ruhr rivers. Especially since recent discussion about Westerwelle’s trips abroad (accompanied by business associates close to his brother and civil partner) remind us of what would otherwise have been forgotten: the murky business of political donations, granting access to politicians, and the resulting concealed influencing of North Rhine-Westphalia’s CDU party and its Minister President Jürgen Rüttgers. There are claims that he too is unable to separate his position and his mandate and should therefore relinquish one of the two.

The impression arises that these reputed scandals are a major gift to the opposition. Of course: They can reach out to the voter on an emotional level and lead to highly-publicised calls for resignation. But is this really such an advantage or even a veritable balance to those in power’s advantage of incumbency? Most likely it isn’t!

First of all, campaigns can’t only be targeted towards political opponents. Modern campaigns are minutely-organised projects, whose manifestos are craftily drafted around-the-clock with the help of ad agencies, political advisors, and media experts. Naturally, spontaneous strategical shifts are possible, for example as a reaction to an opponent’s mistakes. They can’t, however, alter the campaign as a whole, as this would make the party and its candidate seem rather untrustworthy. Secondly, there are only losers and no winners when it comes to political scandals. They help fuel the general phenomenon of disenchantment with politics, as the general public (often quite correctly!) often forms the opinion that the scandal doesn’t stand alone; instead, it could be just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not important who caused a scandal, and no party profits from one – politics as a whole suffers when it loses the trust of citizens. Thirdly, voters won’t be fooled. Of course, they orientate themselves by way of the main protagonists, and personal behaviour plays a major role. The choice in the voting booth, however, is always dictated by the topics at hand.

Scandals naturally hit a raw nerve and can influence public opinion over a longer period of time. A real “election-maker” of a scandal would have to meet a multitude of criteria: be exposed shortly before election day, be clearly ascribed solely to the political opponent, fit within a party’s campaign strategy, and not be overshadowed by other big issues and events. A scandal revolving around Schleswig-Holstein’s Minister President Uwe Barschel in 1987 came very close to this ideal situation, as Barschel had clearly crossed legal and moral borders. The current debate in North Rhine-Westphalia – with its allegedly “bought” access to the Minister President – nowhere nearly has that scope and will have evaporated by the time election day rolls around – Westerwelle or no Westerwelle.

This shouldn’t imply that these processes aren’t important. Clear and comprehensive investigations need to be carried out. The opposition should, however, strongly refrain from trying to gain political capital by way of scandalising the allegations. That won’t help at all. The only effect it would have – if any – is to further erode the level of trust voters have in politics. And that can’t be a legitimate goal of any political campaign.