Dispatches From the Edge: German Thunder; Brazilian Muscle; Sign Wars

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 12:05:00 PM

Germany’s upcoming national elections were supposed to be less of a competition than a coronation for Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But rising unemployment, the country’s worst economic crisis in 50 years, the erosion of the social safety net and the Afghan War combined to punish the right and give the newly minted Left Party a huge boost. 

The “Linke” is a merger of left social democrats, trade unionists, peace activists and the Party of Democratic Socialism based in eastern Germany. The Left Party programs calls for strict regulation of business and finance, a guaranteed minimum wage and maximum working hours. In Berlin, the Party’s slogan was “Tax the Rich,” a demand to raise the top income tax to 53 percent for those earning over $93,000 per year. 

The biggest win for the Left was in the Saarland, a state sandwiched between France and Luxembourg, which gave the new party 21.5 percent of the vote. The CDU emerged the winner with 31 percent, but their total was a 13 percent drop since the 2005 election. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) took 24.5 percent. 

To remain in power the CDU will have to go into a coalition with the Party’s current national partners, the SDP, or a preferred alliance with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). But a CDU-FDP front will need the three Green Party representatives to pull it off, a so-called “Jamaican Coalition,” so named for the colors of the three parties: green, CDU black and FDP yellow. 

An obvious alternative would be the Greens, the Left Party and the SDP, or a red-red-green coalition. On the other hand, the Greens may choose to forget their once leftist roots and join with the CDU as it did in Hamburg. 

The CDU took a beating in the eastern German state of Thuringia, where it dropped 13 percent to 31.3 percent. The Left party came in second with 27.6 percent.  

As in the Saarland, the CDU and the FDP don’t have enough seats to govern, although both could form a coalition with the SPD or the Greens. Again, the obvious partnership would be a red-red-green alliance, but there is tension among the Greens, the SDP and the Left Party. 

In Saxony, the Left Party paid the price for internal divisions. While it emerged as the number two party at 21 percent, the CDU took 40 percent of the vote. The FDP was third, the SDP fourth. The far right took a bath. Saxony will likely be run by a black-yellow coalition. 

The refusal of the SDP to unite with the Left Party nationwide may come back to haunt it. “The SDP says it will cooperate with the Left in states but not nationally,” says political scientist Frank Decker. “They might have a perfectly good reason for that, but it is still hard for voters to understand that logic.” 

According to political scientist Karl Rudolf-Korte of Duisburg-Essen University, the SDP will eventually have to ally with the Left Party if it has any hope of returning to power, and the time seems ripe. He points out that when a red-red alliance was suggested last year in Hesse it caused a national uproar, but there has been nothing similar about the Saarland and Thuringia situation. “Evidently, no one’s afraid of ‘red-red’ anymore,” he says. 

What the recent voting showed is that the upcoming federal elections may not be a slam-dunk for Merkel and the CDU. The Left Party’s focus on unemployment, social welfare and their strong opposition to the unpopular war in Afghanistan has clearly resonated with voters. 

“This is an important day in the history of the left,” said Left Party parliamentary leader Gregor Gysi. Left Party leader Dietman Bartsch added, “Today, we’re one of the three biggest [parties].” Linke members gathered all over Germany to sing the Queen song, “We are the champions.” 

Tune in Sept. 28. 


Brazil is flexing its muscles in international trade, muscles fueled by an oil and gas bonanza that promises to change north-south power relations in the 21st century. 

For the past seven years Brazil has chafed at the $3 billion in U.S. subsidies handed out to American cotton farmers, subsidies that undercut Brazilian trade and violate World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. In 2005 the WTO ruled that the subsidies did indeed distort the international price of cotton and contravened trade agreements. 

For more than three years Brazil has tried to negotiate the issue with Washington, reluctant to pick a fight with its number one trading partner. But this past March China became Brazil’s and Latin America’s number one trading partner, and suddenly north-south chemistry changed. 

In late August, Brazil announced it would retaliate for the subsidies by allowing Brazilian pharmaceutical companies to break U.S. patents and produce cheaper generic drugs. The move will not only shake up the Americans, it will result in reasonably priced medicines for Brazilians. 

Brazilian exports to China jumped 65 percent in 2008, reaching $5.6 billion. Both countries just negotiated a $800 million credit loan between Brazil’s National Bank for Social Development and China’s Development Bank. The latter also agreed to loan $10 billion to Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras. In return, China got an agreement from Brazil to supply 200,000 barrels of oil a day. 

The $10 billion will go toward developing the huge “pre-salt” oil fields, an enormous off-shore find estimated to be as large as the North Sea oil discovery. Brazil currently has about 12 billion barrels in reserves. The new discovery could boost that to between 60 to 100 billion barrels, matching Venezuela’s massive Orinoco Basin reserves.  

Extracting the oil will be a daunting task, however, because the fields are more than 100 miles at sea and at depths of up to 20,000 feet. Once developed, Brazil will join Venezuela as a major gas and oil exporter. 

Lula da Silva’s government is developing plans to make sure the benefits go to the average Brazilian, not to the international energy cartels. Rather than handing out concessions to huge multinationals, like ExxonMobil, ConocoPhilips, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Spain’s Reposal, Portugal’s Galp, and Total Eni, da Silva has put four bills before the Brazilian congress, one of which will create a “shared production” relationship with foreign oil companies. 

The bills would also form a fully state-owned oil company, Petrosal. The government controls Petrobras, but the latter is a publicly traded company. Petrobras would also be strengthened with $50 billion in new capital. 

Most importantly, the government plans to set up a fund to direct revenues into social spending, including poverty relief, education and infrastructure. The da Silva government has already raised the national income by handing out small cash payments to the poor, which has done a great deal to close what was formally the hemisphere’s widest wealth divide. The “pre-salt” fields would allow an enormous expansion of that program.  

The off-shore fields are one reason Brazil is unhappy about Washington’s reactivation of its Latin American Fourth Fleet. The Brazilian Navy recently carried out Operation Aderex, which simulated a defense of the country’s off-shore energy resources. 

“Now, with 85 percent of the oil being taken from the ocean, protection of the continental shelf requires a greater presence of the navy,” said the commander of the Brazilian fleet, Vice-Admiral Fernando Eduardo Studart Wiemer. 

Brazil currently has five submarines, is purchasing another seven, and will eventually go nuclear. “It is essential to develop the nuclear sub,” Wiemer said, “We already know how to build a sub, and we are developing a nuclear reactor.” 


Sign wars are breaking out all over Jerusalem. “On a recent night in this ethnically divided city, an Israeli and two American Jews patrolled the streets, armed with a ladder, adhesive spray and a pile of handwritten placards,” writes Daniel Estrin in The Forward. “Every few minutes they hopped out of the car, slapped a sticker onto a road sign and snapped a picture.” 

On the placards are street names in Arabic script. The original Arabic had been defaced by ultra-nationalists. “In Jerusalem you have lots of nationalists who do not accept the very existence of Arabs,” Sammy Smooha, an Israeli sociologist at the University of Haifa, told The Forward. “Arabic signs gave them the feeling of bi-nationalism, that the Jews have no exclusive monopoly on the town.” 

In 1999, an Israeli court ruled that street signs in mixed cities had to be in Hebrew, English and Arabic. 

The ultra-nationalist vandals have little to fear from the police, who turn a blind eye to their activities. “The police are not working against this phenomenon. People are not deterred because there is no accountability,” says Abber Baker, a lawyer for the Arab rights group, Adalah. 

The idea for countering right-wing graffiti came from Ilana Sichel, a New Israeli Fund Fellow. She recruited another Fellow, Josh Berer, who studied traditional Arabic calligraphy in Yemen. Calling themselves “The Maintenance Group,” they drive around repairing signs where the Arabic has been blacked out. 

“This is fundamentally an issue of decency and neighborliness,” Sichel told The Forward.  

The cost of the project comes from the Maintenance Group’s pockets. If you want to make a donation to the New Israel Fund, send a check to the organization’s Washington office at 1101 14th Street, Sixth Floor, Washington DC, 20005, or to New Israel Fund, P.O. Box 53410, Jerusalem 91534. You can also go to the organization’s website and donate on-line. 

This is the kind of graffiti you can get behind.