By most reckonings, globalization has been a boon to Germany. The world's No. 1 exporter peddles everything from luxury cars to industrial machinery to an eager world. Its once self-absorbed banks and conglomerates have unlocked new value through aggressive corporate restructuring. Its surging economic recovery has pushed the nation's unemployment below 10% for the first time in four years. But that's not the reckoning of most ordinary Germans; for them, globalization is a dirty word. Ten years ago, Germans were evenly divided on whether globalization presented more opportunities or risks, according to the Allensbach Institute, a polling agency; by 2006, twice as many saw more risks.
Voters expressed that anxiety in two major German state elections on Jan. 27. In the state of Hesse, which includes Germany's financial capital, Frankfurt, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) posted an 8 percentage point gain in the popular vote at the expense of its conservative rivals, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with a campaign for "social justice" and a statutory minimum wage. In both Hesse and neighboring Lower Saxony, a far-left-wing party with roots in the former East Germany won seats in a major west German parliament for the first time. "Today we have changed the cultural and political landscape of the German Federal Republic," Left Party Secretary-General Dietmar Bartsch told supporters after the vote. Hesse's SPD leader, Andrea Ypsilanti, was equally jubilant, declaring: "Social democracy is back."
Well, maybe: Ypsilanti severely wounded the CDU incumbent, Roland Koch, but she didn't quite surpass his vote tally. And the SPD fared poorly in Lower Saxony, where a clean-cut CDU candidate played to the center and the Left Party gnawed at the SPD's union base. But after 10 years in which German politics and the SPD remained largely in the political center, left-wing economic policies are winning votes again, marking a break with a decade of cautious reformism. That sets a new tone for elections in Hamburg and Bavaria later this year, as well as for federal elections in late 2009. In Berlin, it makes further economic reforms unlikely until a new government is sitting in the Bundes-tag. "Germans fear the negative effects of globalization," says Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "The political parties have sensed that."
This particular brand of angst spread comparatively late among Germans. Back in the mid-1990s, they were still more consumed with the economic consequences of German reunification. Pollsters say that only in the past five years or so did Germans look up and start worrying about the costs of globalization, and their concerns seem to be growing. Last month the country rose as one in protest when Finnish mobile-phone giant Nokia announced it was shutting down its plant in the Rhineland city of Bochum to move to Romania, threatening 2,300 German jobs. When the local SPD branch called for a nationwide boycott of Nokia products, billboards blared NO NOKIA all the way to Berlin. Some 56% of Germans in one poll say they're ready to sign on.
German unease with globalization has some justification. True, rising exports have boosted corporate profits, joblessness is declining, and the economy grew by a respectable 2.5% in 2007. But real incomes, adjusted for inflation and taxes, are as low now as at any time since the 1980s. In a recent poll, 83% of Germans reported that they had not felt the benefits of Germany's recent economic recovery, and nor had their friends or relatives. "People are losing the feeling that if the economy is doing well, we are also doing well," says Allensbach spokesman Edgar Piel. The number of Germans who believe that only those with "lots of capital" benefit from globalization rose from 32% in 1998 to almost 50% in 2006.