And on Your Left, Behind Those Walls, Lobbyists Are at Work

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BERLIN -- The sold-out walking tour began along the Spree River here, within sight of the Reichstag's glass dome. But the group would not visit the historic Parliament building, Checkpoint Charlie or the Brandenburg Gate. About 30 people assembled instead to spend a gray Saturday afternoon in November standing outside office buildings in a cold drizzle.

They were there to follow Timo Lange, 30, dressed all in black, with a hint of stubble on his chin, to learn how influence peddlers ply their trade in the German capital. Mr. Lange is a campaigner for the nonprofit group LobbyControl, which began giving the tours in 2009, to unexpected success for such a seemingly wonky subject.

This year the group has given 144 tours for about 3,400 participants, who pay around $13 (half price for students). The tour's success reflects an electorate that, by American standards, has a low tolerance for money in politics.

"The problem is the linkage between economic power and political power," said Daniela Haug, 49, a commercial producer and photographer who joined several friends for the crash course on how interest groups, businesses and trade associations try to affect policy. "You see things differently, and you can make decisions better yourself, when you experience it firsthand."

In front of the unassuming dark brick building that is the home to offices of the German Brewers Federation, Mr. Lange explained how that group hosted parties and flattered politicians. He held up a photograph of a conservative Bavarian politician, Ilse Aigner, the group's "ambassador of German beer" for 2009, as well as one of a prominent Social Democrat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was given the same designation in 2008.

"Him?" an older woman asked with more than a hint of surprise, as she grasped the tour's first lesson: lobbying is not a game for any single party or for half of the political spectrum. Another example Mr. Lange offered: the leader of the cigarette lobby in Germany was, until last month, a former Green Party member of Parliament who does not smoke.

Mr. Lange regaled the tour group with war stories. After a series of high-profile cases of alcohol poisoning among teenagers, the brewers teamed up with broadcasters and soccer teams to derail a drive for restrictions on the sale and advertising of beer. At the next stop, he gestured at a plaque for the German Chemical Industry Association as he detailed how the chemical industry worked overtime to soften new European regulations on its products.

And then there was the Initiative for a New Social Market Economy, which paid for a soap opera to use scripts portraying unpopular labor market changes more favorably, Mr. Lange said. That backfired when the move became public.

"We are very thin-skinned when it comes to any form of propaganda," Claas Lorenz, 25, a student on the tour, said in a succinct reference to Germany's Nazi history. "We had very bad experiences with it in our past."

Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said: "Money in campaigns in the United States is freedom of speech; it's seen as a way of expressing oneself. In Germany, giving money in politics is always seen as trying to buy access."

Chancellor Angela Merkel's leading political challenger, former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, suffered a significant setback last month when it was revealed that he had made about $1.6 million from speaking fees in three years.

German attitudes toward politics and money help explain the enduring appeal of Ms. Merkel, who still lives in the apartment she got before she became chancellor, and who hikes on vacation. "Merkel is so beloved for her sober, unglamorous style of governing," said Frank Decker, a professor of political science at the University of Bonn. "With her, you would never imagine that she might use politics to become rich."

Germany is 10 months away from the parliamentary election that will determine whether Ms. Merkel wins a third term and her party, the Christian Democratic Union, maintains its grip on the Bundestag. Yet nothing awaits Germans like the multibillion-dollar orgy of political fund-raising and the mind-numbing barrage of television advertisements that tormented swing-state voters in the United States.

The Christian Democrats spent a combined total of just $112 million during the 2009 election year, which included the races for all 598 seats in the federal Parliament and elections for six state Parliaments, as well as regional and municipal votes.

German voters will have a few weeks of debates and campaign rallies. Lampposts will carry demure and even rather old-fashioned posters with little more than the names and faces of local politicians and their party affiliations. Free television advertisements will run on publicly financed stations.

"You could pay for advertising on other networks, and I think it's occasionally done," said Karl-Heinz Nassmacher, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Oldenburg, "but this is a Pandora's box, and the parties refrain from opening it. So TV advertising is basically free of charge."

It is not that the laws are stricter here than in the United States; in many cases, they are looser. Businesses can give unlimited contributions directly to political parties, as can private individuals. Donations below 10,000 euros, or about $13,000, are not reported.

The difference is largely cultural. Germans dislike costly campaigns and rampant fund-raising, and the parties have seen what happens to those too cozy with donors.

The pro-business Free Democrats had their greatest postwar showing in 2009, winning 14.6 percent of the vote in federal elections and becoming the junior partner in a coalition government. The party pushed for a reduction in the sales tax for hotels, but when news emerged that the Free Democrats had received about $1.4 million in contributions connected to a hotel chain, their popularity plunged. The party failed to reach even the 5 percent threshold for representation in several state Parliaments.

"Germans believe more strongly in social justice and not just servicing your clientele," said André Ringel, 42, a graphic designer on the tour.

Mr. Lange taught tourgoers translations of English expressions like "door opener" ("türöffner"), for the connected former politicians who can easily arrange meetings. Some terms were not translated, like "AstroTurf," for a fake grass-roots movement or campaign. "Lobbyist" works in both languages.

The rain fell harder, and umbrellas came out, but participants stuck it out. For those wishing to make the rounds in the coming off-season, LobbyControl sells a guidebook called "LobbyPlanet Berlin, the Travel Guide Through the Lobby Jungle," which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lonely Planet guides. The group, which has offices in Berlin and Cologne, produced a second edition for touring Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union.

The tour stopped in front of Café Einstein, a famous meeting place for politicians that Mr. Lange said was "too open" for effective lobbying. "You have journalists at the neighboring table," he said.

Instead, he led the group down the avenue and through a passageway to a red carpet leading to an elevator door marked with the emblem of the China Club, a members-only establishment where politicians can meet with lobbyists without worrying about who might be seated at the next table.

"There's an underground garage entrance if you don't want to be seen at all," Mr. Lange said.

Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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