Influence of Interest Groups: How Lobbyists Get Involved in the Election Campaign

Status: 13.09.2021 1:20 p.m.

Many interest groups try to influence the outcome of the election. A business-related organization is placing advertisements against the Green candidate Baerbock, and climate activists are putting up fake posters against the CDU.

By Hans-Joachim Vieweger, ARD capital studio

“Everyone is talking about the climate. We are ruining it” – this is what it says on advertisements bearing the CDU logo, but of course not from the CDU. Rather, radical climate activists from “Extinction Rebellion” have struck. “Adbusting” is what you can translate as “alienated advertising”.

Previously, the “Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft” (New Social Market Economy Initiative), which was mainly financed by business associations, had placed advertisements against Annalena Baerbock: The green candidate for Chancellor was presented as a modern Moses with lots of prohibition signs – the reference to the Ten Commandments of the Bible was widely criticized.

Lobbyism as a threat to democracy?

Regardless of how you feel about actions like these: They show that representatives from business and the environmental movement are by no means indifferent to the outcome of the general election on September 26th. But other social groups are also involved in the election campaign: social associations present election test stones, the trade unions and the major churches call for votes and emphasize aspects such as solidarity and justice.

Somehow it goes without saying that the most diverse interests are also emphasized in the election campaign. Lobbyism is often viewed negatively in the public eye. Corruption cannot go far where interests are represented, and democracy may even be in danger – that is the thought. The non-attached MP Marco Bülow, who left the SPD in 2018, takes this position pointedly when he writes: “We are approaching feudal structures in which the co-determination and participation of many at the expense of a few is increasingly restricted.”

However, Ralf Kleinfeld considers this thought to be wrong. The political scientist, who together with colleagues has written a standard work on the subject, considers lobbying in a plural democracy not only legitimate, but necessary: ​​”The articulation of interests is part of our liberal order,” said Kleinfeld It is crucial that the competition of interests is fair and transparent.

Influence is constantly changing

At the same time, Kleinfeld considers it a utopia that all interest groups have the same amount of power in competition: “Who should evaluate that? There is no authority that could decide that – and rightly so.” Established associations would of course have more options because, for example, they are asked about their opinion on the legislative process during parliamentary hearings. But lobbying is always in flux. New organizations emerge and usually gain influence through publicity campaigns.

Example: Fridays for Future. It has long since ceased to be just a demonstration on the street, and representatives of the movement have now been invited several times by Chancellor Angela Merkel to take part in an exchange. And ecologically oriented think tanks such as “Agora Energiewende” develop climate protection programs that are also given a lot of attention by politicians.

A question of transparency

The dispute over the power of the lobbyists has of course become a political battlefield in itself. Organizations such as Lobbycontrol advocate transparency in the possible influence of interest groups on politicians – and in doing so they have mainly targeted business organizations, which they accuse of preventing climate protection.

For example, on the Economic Council of the CDU, because although it bears the party name in its title, it is not a party organization at all. There is a smooth transition between the party and the lobby association, according to Christina Deckwirth from Lobbycontrol. The Economic Council counters: You do not represent the interests of individual companies, but stand for the social market economy, so its General Secretary Wolfgang Steiger.

Power and counter-power

While environmental organizations criticize business associations, they speak conversely of the superiority of non-governmental organizations. For example, Deutsche Umwelthilfe pursues its goals not only through public relations work, but also by issuing warnings to companies that are subject to a fee and through legal proceedings: Only a few days ago, lawsuits were announced against the major German carmakers who were advocating a faster changeover to a CO2-neutral one against Umwelthilfe To commit production. And activist shareholders try to influence company policy at general meetings.

According to the political scientist Kleinfeld, it has been shown that classic principles of democratic control also work in the area of ​​lobbying: “There is power and countervailing power. The various interest representatives observe each other.” This applies not only to the economy and the environment, but also to employers and trade unions or landlords and tenants.

Accountability for lobbyists

The media also played an important role in controlling lobbyists and thus in the game of power and countervailing power or “checks and balances”, said Kleinfeld. He refers, for example, to reports with which the so-called “mask affair” came to the public.

The alleged advantages of MPs when procuring masks in the Corona crisis also show how sensitive it is when politicians mix personal interests with their mandate. “That is why it is right to apply strict standards here and point out possible conflicts of interest.” In line with the new transparency rules, which stipulate that interest representatives will have to register in a lobby register from next year and be accountable for their contacts with politicians.

There is one more thing to keep in mind when it comes to this subject, says Kleinfeld: The real hour of the lobbyists will only come in the phase of government formation and the negotiation of a coalition agreement. Because whatever interests are in focus – from the economy to the environment: Everyone knows that, especially in a coalition of several parties, it is difficult to put issues on the cabinet’s agenda afterwards. So then it’s time to be all the more vigilant.

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