'Just not interested': Will Germany's voters see this week's election through a PRISM?

The country's upcoming federal election is unlikely to turn into a referendum on government co-operation with the NSA.
Written by Michael Filtz, Contributor

It all started with the Snowden leaks.

The NSA, according to the news magazine Der Spiegel (in a piece co-authored by Snowden co-operator and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras) is monitoring and storing approximately half a billion pieces of communication in Germany each month as part of its PRISM surveillance program.

And recent reports suggest that the current German government may have some involvement. Based on secret government documents, the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the federal government has willingly aided the NSA in the surveillance.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel, Germany's current chancellor

With Sunday's federal election fast approaching, these revelations would normally be cause for some concern, at least for chancellor's Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as well as its coalition partner, the business-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP). If German voters were upset enough that their government was potentially working with the NSA to monitor their communication, the election could be seen as a referendum on the current government's involvement.

But the CDU has been holding firm in the polls, and in last Sunday's elections in Bavaria — which are generally considered an indicator for the national elections — the party's regional branch, the Christian Social Union (CSU), took an absolute majority of the votes (around 47.7 percent).

So in terms of a backlash for perceived privacy violations, there has been "no influence at all", Carsten Koschmieder, political scientist at Berlin's Freie Universität, told ZDNet.

However, the issue has certainly fuelled debate. In August, the newspaper Die Welt published a lengthy how-to guide called 'how to protect your email from spying', and several local ISPs have begun providing encrypted email services. More visibly, there have been a number of major demonstrations in cities across the country — with protestors carrying signs advising the government to "Stop Watching Us" — but turnout to these events has been relatively small, and while the media has covered them quite extensively, the polls haven't really shifted.

"Germany is not a surveillance state"

For its part, the Merkel-led government has been taking some largely symbolic steps to assuage voter fears of Big Brother-like state surveillance. In a speech in July, the chancellor assured the country that "Germany is not a surveillance state", before presenting an eight-point plan to increase data privacy protection. As part of the plan, the German Federal Intelligence Service cancelled a Cold War-era spying pact with the US and Britain, which allowed for the interception and sharing of intelligence between the countries.

Among other points, Merkel's plan also calls for increasing the investment in European technology companies in order to foster viable alternatives to US technology products and services.

However, in interviews, the chancellor has repeatedly stressed the need for some level of intelligence collection, in order to pre-empt terrorism and other risks. "A country without intelligence work would be too vulnerable," she told Die Zeit in July.

Fading hopes for the opposition

"Surveillance state, never again"
An election campaign poster for the German Pirate Party. Translation: "Surveillance state, never again"

What's clear is that the PRISM revelations are not really helping the left-leaning opposition parties, who have all tried to use the issue as political leverage to gain more votes on Sunday. "The opposition parties — the Social Democrats and the Greens, and especially the German Pirate Party — they've all tried to make use of this NSA thing, and the [fact that] the German government didn't play a very good role in it," Koschmieder said.

"But the German population is just not interested."

Koschmieder speculates that this might be because it can be difficult to see the tangible effects of something as abstract as government-sponsored surveillance.

"If your real-world mail came to you in your letterbox and it was opened by the NSA and it was obviously read," Koschmieder said, "then you might say 'that's not OK, I think the government should do something about it'."

"I think that as long as there's no real visible harm done, people are just not interested."

Or perhaps it's just because voters simply assume that their government is already monitoring them, since many voluntarily make public personal information, through Facebook posts, Foursquare check-ins and the like.

It's die Ökonomie, stupid!

Instead of surveillance, what seems to be motivating German voters is the bread-and-butter of politics: taxes, unemployment, and the economy. And by focusing on surveillance, the opposition parties have moved away from these issues.

"In every election for the past 30 years, unemployment is one important topic," said Koschmieder, "and today it's also the eurozone crisis, and social equality."

Specifically, how to handle Greece's pending insolvency is turning out to be a key issue for German voters as they head to the polls.

Similarly, a report published by Deutsche Bank earlier this year (before the PRISM story broke) suggested that the eurozone crisis will figure heavily in the election. "The election campaign will be shaped, above all, by personality issues, second by the stance towards the euro crisis, and third by some modest domestic social policy issues," the report says.

Either way, whether these other issues have overshadowed fears of spying, or if the fears are simply not widespread or even understood, the NSA revelations will probably not affect the overall trajectory of the election.

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