Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stalemate: the German elections

To Americans, the finer points of parliamentary systems are, quite literally, foreign territory. So the recent German election results, murky and confusing to begin with, seem even murkier and more confusing to us Yanks.

One thing is clear, though: the elections have resulted in at least a temporary hiatus in which there is no real victor, and a jockeying for position in which no viable coalition has yet emerged. Jim Rose (via Willism's Carnival of Classiness) has as lucid (and entertaining) an explanation of the German situation as I've seen. And Will himself offers an analysis of the German equivalent of a Red/Blue split in the election--in this case, a Pink/Pinker split--that clearly follows the old West/East lines of Germany's literally divided years.

Why does it matter? It doesn't bode well for the US or Europe if Germany continues to postpone decisions. As Will points out, and as David Frum has written:

German voters have just elected a parliament that will not address the country's most important problems, that cannot make strong decisions and that will put off until tomorrow actions that desperately need to be taken today. That's bad news for Germany's five million unemployed. It's bad news for Europe as a whole, slumped in economic malaise. And it's bad news for North Americans, who are facing a future in which the democracies of Europe will matter less and less--and an aggressive and possibly hostile China will matter more and more.

About seventy years ago, the German parliamentary system faced a similar situation in which no party had emerged as leader and coalitions were hard to form. What was the result? Nothing less than the rise of Hitler.

No, I'm not suggesting that a new Hitler is about to emerge from the German stasis. In fact, one of the few encouraging signs in this election was that support for the neo-Nazis (whose strongest support is in the former East Germany, by the way) seems to have shrunk, and it was very small to begin with (I want to note that, in a masterful piece of understatement, the article says that the German far-right has mainly lacked a single charismatic leader since 1945).

Most of the many complex conditions that came together in a dance macabre to bring Hitler to power are--fortunately for us and the world--not present in the current crisis. But one condition definitely is, and that's an election in which there is no clear winner and shaky coalitions must be formed.

It's often forgotten that, although Hitler came to power through legal means, he and the Nazis did not do this by receiving over 50% of the votes; they were still a minority party at the time. The Nazis' ascension to the leadership of Germany was the terrible fruit of an election in which their actual share of the vote was almost exactly that of today's two leading parties in Germany: 36%.

What appears to my inexpert eyes to be an excellent summary of Hitler's rise to power can be found here. Knowing what we now know about Hitler, it is a tremendous and bitter frustration to see how lucky he was in being the beneficiary of a number of unlikely events which happened to come together to allow him to grab power, and how unlucky we all are that they did so:

Between 1931 and 1933, vicious power struggles would break out between rival political parties. The power brokers in these struggles were Hindenburg and Schleicher. The problem during this period was that no party even came close to achieving the majority required to elect its leader Chancellor. Coalitions were either impossible to build, or were so transient that they dissolved as quickly as they formed. Ambitious leaders from every party began maneuvering for power, striking deals, double-crossing each other, and trying to find the most advantageous alliances. Hitler himself would ally the Nazis to the Nationalist Party. "The chess game for power begins," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary. "The chief thing is that we remain strong and make no compromises."

In 1932, hoping to establish a clear government by majority rule, Hindenburg held two presidential elections. Hitler, among others, ran against him. A vote for Hindenburg was a vote to continue the German Republic, while a vote for Hitler was a vote against it. The Nazi party made the most clever use of propaganda, as well as the most extensive use of violence. Bloody street battles erupted between Communists and Nazis thugs, and many political figures were murdered.

In the first election, held on March 13, 1932, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote, losing badly to Hindenburg's 49.6 percent. But because Hindenburg had just missed an absolute majority, a run-off election was scheduled a month later. On April 10, 1932, Hitler increased his share of the vote to 37 percent, but Hindenburg again won, this time with a decisive 53 percent. A clear majority of the voters had thus declared their preference for a democratic republic.

However, the balance of power in the Reichstag was still unstable, lacking a majority party or coalition to rule the government. All too frequently, Hindenburg had to evoke the dictatorial powers available to him under Article 48 of the constitution to break up the political stalemate. In an attempt to resolve this crisis, he called for more elections. On July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, making them its largest party. Still, they did not command the majority needed to elect Hitler Chancellor.

In another election on November 6, 1932, the Nazis lost 34 seats in the Reichstag, reducing their total to 196. And for the first time it looked as if the Nazi threat would fade. This was for several reasons. First, the Nazis' violence and rhetoric had hardened opposition against Hitler, and it was becoming obvious that he would never achieve power democratically. Even worse, the Nazi party was running very low on money, and it could no longer afford to operate its expensive propaganda machine. Furthermore, the party was beginning to splinter and rebel under the stress of so many elections. Hitler discovered that Gregor Strasser, one of the Nazis' highest officials, had been disloyal, attempting to negotiate power for himself behind Hitler's back. The shock was so great that Hitler threatened to shoot himself.

But at the lowest ebb of the Nazis' fortunes, the backroom deal presented itself as the solution to all their problems. Deal-making, intrigues and double-crosses had been going on for years now. Schleicher, who had managed to make himself the last German Chancellor before Hitler, would eventually say: "I stayed in power only 57 days, and on each of those days I was betrayed 57 times." It's not worth tracking the ins and outs of all these schemes, but the one that got Hitler into power is worth noting.

Hitler's unexpected savior was Franz von Papen, one of the former Chancellors, a remarkably incompetent man who owed his political career to a personal friendship with Hindenburg. He had been thrown out of power by the much more capable Schleicher, who personally replaced him. To get even, Papen approached Hitler and offered to become "co-chancellors," if only Hitler would join him in a coalition to overthrow Schleicher. Hitler responded that only he could be the head of government, while Papen's supporters could be given important cabinet positions. The two reached a tentative agreement to pursue such an alliance, even though secretly they were planning to double-cross each other.

Meanwhile Schleicher was failing spectacularly in his attempts to form a coalition government, so Hindenburg forced his resignation. But by now, Hindenburg was exhausted by all the intrigue and crisis, and the prospect of civil war had moved the steely field marshal to tears. As much as he hated to do so, he seemed resigned to offering Hitler a high government position. Many people were urging him to do so: the industrialists who were financing Hitler, the military whose connections Hitler had cultivated, even Hindenburg's son, whom some historians believe the Nazis had blackmailed. The last straw came when an unfounded rumor swept through Berlin that Schleicher was about to attempt a military coup, arrest Hindenburg, and establish a military dictatorship. Alarmed, Hindenburg wasted no time offering Hitler the Chancellorship, thinking it was a last resort to save the Republic.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor.

It's too long to quote more here, but please read the whole thing. It is of particular interest today to note the role that terror played in Hitler's further consolidation of power--basically, he intimidated the opposition into cooperation through violence and the threat of violence.

In the end, when Hitler was trying to get the two-thirds majority he needed to abolish the Reichstag and become dictator under a ruling meant to give a leader increased powers during a national crisis, he used terror tactics quite worthy of today's "insurgents":

In attempting to secure the votes, the Nazis made heavy use of terror, blackmail and empty promises. The Social Democrats adamantly refused to vote for the Enabling Act, but Hitler was able to win crucial support from the Catholic Center party, by lying to them about future concessions. On March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act came up for a vote. Nazi storm troopers encircled the Reichstag, and legislators had to pass through a ring of tough-looking, black-shirted Nazi thugs to enter the building. While legislators considered the vote, they could hear the storm troopers outside chanting:

"Full powers -- or else! We want the bill -- or fire and murder!"

To paraphrase Churchill: they were offered a choice between the bill, and fire and murder. They chose the bill, and they got the fire and murder as well.

As did we all.


At 3:11 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not the Nazis!!! Here we go with everyone's bogey man once again.

At 4:40 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whats your problem?

Hitler was elected over 60 years ago!

Why are you going back and trying to find similar lines between today and years ago!

How about consider our own history.
President Bush first elected by less votes than EL Gore. Is that a " Hitler" style election? When was it?
"Oh only a few years ago right!

Germany will overcome its problems there is no way a second hitler will come, because Germany is one of most democratic and liberal countrys in the world. I wished we had that sytem in our nation.

At 5:00 PM, September 22, 2005, Blogger karrde said...

Frankly, I'm amazed that the details of Hitler's rise to power aren't better known.

But it is one of those things that wasn't predictable. It was the result of instability in the political system, luck, chance, and ambition.

Perhaps the hidden thought that doesn't come out too clearly is this:

It doesn't bode well for the US or Europe if Germany continues to postpone decisions.

Hitler is an example, although I doubt that we have another Hitler to fear. But the lack of a clear decision is a decision that will eventually cause trouble later.

At 6:05 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a direct product of that bogey man. My mother (age 16 and my father (age 15) were taken from their native Poland and used as slave laborers in Germany. The Nazi era will always be relevant to me.
There is a kind of disconnect that our younger generation feels toward WWII because at 60 years ago it is like ancient history to them. It's irrelevant to what is happening today in their minds. It is as if the political games played back then are not able to be played anymore. My experience tells me that the same political games played back then are being successfully being played today and only the players have changed.

At 7:38 PM, September 22, 2005, Blogger JSU said...

I think you're misreading the election's significance as to German extremism. The neo-Nazi share dropped off, in part, because the neo-Communist Left Party poached their base. Add the Communist 8.7% to the several points the NPD got and you have a disturbingly high percentage of anti-liberal vote.

Not nearly as high as France's, mind you...

At 10:20 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those readers who think I'm saying the German election results will lead to some sort of neo-Nazi resurgence, or that there's a connection to Nazism in general, I tried to make it clear that that was not my point when I wrote, "No, I'm not suggesting that a new Hitler is about to emerge from the German stasis."

This entire post was a reflection on stalemated elections and the variety of difficulties they can cause. The lack of clear results in the recent German elections probably means that the many pressing problems facing Germany will not be dealt with in the near future. The lack of clear results in the much earlier elections was part of the reason Hitler came to power, and I thought it to be a historical story of great interest that is not as well-known as it should be.

At 10:39 PM, September 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its true the Nazi's did not win a a majority vote, but that doesn't mean that they didn't come to power 'democratically.' Our founders deliberately chose a Republic for this among other reasons. Democracy always seems to eventually lead to Tyranny. Multi-party Parliamentary systems are controlled chaos at best, an invitation to anti-chaotic tyranny at worst. You don't need Adolph Hitler incarnate, there are plenty of variations on the theme; just ask the Venezuelans.

At 5:42 AM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is entirely possible that a tyrant can come to power via the ballot box. German elections have a history of being murky and multi party systems only add to the confusion at times.

At 12:12 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Chris said...

Another one of the crucial problems that Hitler took advantage of was Schleicher's use of the President's emergency powers. When he was unable to get legislation through the Reichstag, he persuaded Hindenburg to invoke his emergency powers to decree law. This further eroded what little remained of the power of the Weimar Republic in the minds of the German people.

Hitler was an opportunist of the first rank, and he took advantage of his opponents' habit of underestimating him, or thinking that they could control him. Hitler also was one of the first politicians to grasp the importance of spin, or the manipulation of the mass media. His machinations today would strike us as crude and shallow, but they were very effective at the time.

Germany also had a very limited experience with democracy, and when confronted with the chaos that often occurs in such systems, they began to pine for the comfort of a strong, dictatorial leader. Given their current experience level with the parliamentary system, the chances of another Hitler seem remote indeed.

At 5:14 PM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Toni from Germany

I'm a little bit amused.

Of course the German election brought some confusement, no clear results. But clear results aren't always the best resolutions. And even a two-party system can have it's mirk - remember your second last election.

Here in Germany we are all very relaxed. Its more like a big show -
the media does like it. Traffic light (red-yellow-green), Jamaika (black-yellow-green) or big coalition - it's amusing to follow the discussions.

Of course it will take some time - maybe 3-4 weeks, but then a strong and stabil CDU-SPD-coalition will be established, that will continue the process of reforms in Germany. Maybe this will be better then a 50-50 % divided country and strong resistance. Germany has to face a lot of problems (the reunification was a good thing, but the price is around 70-80 billion euros each year and the european union is payed mostly by Germany as well and the fall of the iron wall - as good as it is - has flouded Germany with cheap workers and neighboors which do cheaper - imagine Mexiko becoming a part of the USA), but the problems will be solved.

The Germans want a change, but they don't want Manchester-capitalism, so they prefer evolution, not revolution.

And Hitler? No other nation had to face its crimes the way Germany did.
Maybe some other nations should face there histories as well. Promethea, its not always "self-hatred" when you accept sins of the past - or should we Germans forget our past?

But there is no similarity between todays situation and 1932.

At 8:31 PM, September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Well, if we are going to dwell on nasty, naughty, terrible white people, we may as well include more than just that one funny looking Austrian from 70 years ago. Since I don't consider myself a nasty, naughty, terrible white person, I would disagree with your suggestion of self-hatred.

Like I said at the beginning of this strand, Not The Nazis.... again!!!

At 9:27 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If everyone just followed the AMerican system of "to the victor goes the spoils", a spin off of the Roman system, a lot of bad things wouldn't have happened.

Parliamentary systems, on its surface, appears to represent the majority. But in truth, parliamentaries represent and give overwhelming power to extremist minorities like the Greens and Nazis, ideologically similar if supposedly on opposite sides of a spectrum.

Time and again, we see a party like the Christian Democrats in Germany get beaten by the Socialists, when the CDU had MORE votes than the Socialists.

The political side with more extremist parties, then forms a big "coalition" of people who think alike, and then, cha shing, power is acquired.

In America, both parties have to cater to the the MIDDLE, not the majority of extremists as you see from the isolationist left and the isolationist right, to win power. Any party that does not represent moderation, like the Democrats, will get kicked out of power eventually, and just at the right time too.

Europe isn't a democracy, they're a dictatorship of the majority. I hope they do elect terroists to positions of power so we have a nice little short and victorious war with them.

I wished we had that sytem in our nation.


And it's bad news for North Americans, who are facing a future in which the democracies of Europe will matter less and less--and an aggressive and possibly hostile China will matter more and more.

It's bad news, but let's take it in perspective.

One of the strategic visions for going into the ME was the fact that if we didn't, eventually we would be fighting China/Russia, the ME dictators, the ME terroists, the European pacifists AND the European Muslim terroists all at the same time

Therefore we had to knock off the weaker, more vulnerable player now, cause we'll be overstretched later. If Hitler had only taken out Britain first before invading Russia, he might have gotten a better chance of ultimate victory.

A person and a nation, has to know where their limits are at and to plan accordingly.

It isn't that the democracies are Europe will matter more, it is more of a matter of who they will matter for. I predict it will be the pacifists who will then enable extremist/violent terroists to gain control. Then the nuclear arsenal of France and Britain will matter, it will matter a great deal.

You don't need a Hitler, you just need some wacky socialist talking about how good this Sheik would be for the nation.

I don't respect the German people anymore. Simply because while I was hoping they would elect the CDU, the whole system is rigged. And Germans are responsible for the system that they have, we didn't force it upon them.

If the whole system is rigged, and the Germans won't do anything about it, then it doesn't really matter what they vote in.

Without a winner takes all system, there is no scientific way to control the variables enough to tell who is stupid and who is competent.

It's a self-perpetuating system of stupidity, there's no correction or fail safe. And that is just sad.

If Iraq and Afghanistan were ever put in a similar situation as Germany and Japan were in 2002 concerning the invasion, I'm pretty sure we can calculate our rate of success by seeing if we can get two out of two instead of just one out of two as in 2002.

At 9:44 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

To those readers who think I'm saying the German election results will lead to some sort of neo-Nazi resurgence, or that there's a connection to Nazism in general, I tried to make it clear that that was not my point when I wrote, "No, I'm not suggesting that a new Hitler is about to emerge from the German stasis."

It must be annoying to have to repeat yourself to people who only have to read and comprehend what you have written, instead of regurgitate and repeat what they already believe to be true.

Intellectual laziness and lack of curiosity is always annoying, especially given how slow the discourse on a letter based format can be.

In speech, you can easily overpower someone and do all their thinking for them if you had to. Or you could use SOcrate's method to make the other guy do most of his thinking ahead of time. But when it comes to writing letters, where the other person has to receive yours and then has to write his reply, to which you then receive and have to write and a reply, and so on. In those cases, having to do the other guy's thinking is amazingly inefficient.

Simply because the information required to do his thinking, arrives so slow.

This can be expressed by the constant frustration of gamers with "internet lag" when they had 56k and 28.8k modems.

At 10:23 AM, September 24, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This is pretty funny, a "Jamaica Coalition" *chuckles*

Yellow for Free Democrats, Black for CDU, Green for green.

At 5:36 AM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry ymarsakar,

but you don't really understand the parlimentary system of Germany and most European countries.
An election system like it is common in the USA and Great Britain is more of a dictatorship of the majority and even sometimes a minority. This is true in GB, where there are elections when one party may get 39%, another 37% (usually Labor or Conservatievs) and the rest will be votes for the liberals that don't count. And with that 38% background in the population you even can get nearly 60% of all seats. As you said, the winner takes it all.

In a parlimentary system it is more complicated and without a 5%-clause (like in Germany) it can get really messy. And yes, you are right, some small parties tend to the extrems (like the Nazis and the Left Party in Germany, who usually don't have a chance to get elected with a 5%-clause). But all the other parties have to look for the middle, or they don't have a chance to get a majority. What is the problem with 4 democratic parties(sorry, but the greens though more left then right, are no extremists, today they are mostly elected by upper-middle class people with high school or university degrees who are concerned about the lack of enviromental politics by the other parties - exept of California concerns about clima-change aren't a topic with Republicans or Democrats, maybe Katarina and Rita will bring a change).

In a way the two parties in the USA are coalitions in itself. The neocons and the traditional republicans are as different as liberal and more conservative democrats).

If Germany would have the USA system, Schröder would have elected president and the SPD (catching most votes of greens and lefts) stronger then the CDU (catching only the libarel votes). I don't think this to be better then todays situation.
Give it 2-3 more weeks and Germany will have a strong government again facing the German problems.
And believe me, the European states not just remain strong democracies, but the EU has already helped to transform quite a lot of West and East European states into solid democracies. The EU has a large influence in the whole area, the Ukrainia and Turkey already changing dramatically. I mean the EU has a lot more influence and results in the democratic transformation process than the later dealings of the USA.

Toni from Germany

At 5:55 AM, September 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I forgot to mention,
after the last election a lot of the European people (in Spain, Italy, France... more than in Germany) lost it's believe in the USA, a similar situation to those Americans who now loose their confindence in Germany because of the election.
What we really have to learn, is to respect other opinions and not to believe we are god who knows all and is doing allways the right.
The good thing in a democracy is after 8 or so years a change will always happen. Until then you have to accept the vote of the people, if you like it or not.
By the way getting older I'm not that partisan that I used to be when 21, nowadays I'm one of those unpredictable voters who make a change possible by changing my vote from time to time. And when it doesn't come to a change I know life goes on.

At 1:15 AM, September 27, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

An election system like it is common in the USA and Great Britain is more of a dictatorship of the majority and even sometimes a minority.

Great Britain, last time you checked, was a parliamentary system.

The winner takes all system is a system of plurality, not the rule of the majority. Therefore under the AMerican system, the CDU would only be required to have more votes than SPD, and they would gain power.

While the two party systems may appear to be coalitions, it is not a coalition at the top, where back room deals are made without seeing the light of day. It is a voter coalition, where people at the grassroots level agree on topics and vote the same way.

And with that 38% background in the population you even can get nearly 60% of all seats. As you said, the winner takes it all.

THe system might be a winner takes all one, except for the fact that it is a parliamentary system and parliamentary systems require the ruling party to hold the majority of seats to retain power.

For some reason 39% of the votes equaling 60% of the seats, is what I call "made up math". By last count, CDU had

Number of seats in the next Bundestag:

– SPD: 222 seats (2002: 251)
– CDU: 179 seats (2002: 190)
– CSU: 46 seats (2002: 58)
– GRÜNE: 51 seats (2002: 55)
– FDP: 61 seats (2002: 47)
– Die Linke.: 54 seats (2002: 2)

That ends up as 36% of the seats with 35% of the vote. The numbers correlate so close, because "seats" are based solely on population.

Therefore, if you are good at demagoguery and propaganda like Schroeder is, then you can win, bar none.

But all the other parties have to look for the middle, or they don't have a chance to get a majority.

The SDP and the Green coalition weren't representing the middle of German politics. Most of their votes came from the East.

That's funny, you have 10 parties, and all of them are looking for the so called middle. It is a wonder they don't become glued or get into a traffic accident on the AutoBahn.

One would think the point of a multi-party system is not to become similar to each other, but to differentiate as much as possible so the voters can select their choice.

f Germany would have the USA system, Schröder would have elected president and the SPD (catching most votes of greens and lefts) stronger then the CDU (catching only the libarel votes).

When you vote for a US President, you vote for leadership. When you vote for Congress, you vote on domestic policies.

This gives people a better choice, since they are not forced to vote for Schoeder just to get his economic policies for example, if they don't like his leadership, they can still get the economics of socialism and welfare, but pick another leader.

That's what most Americans did between 2000 and 2004.

A bunch of liberals voted straight Democrat, then voted for Bush, the only Republican on their ticket.

The idea of hyberdized, representative politics, is not something familiar to a person living under the parliamentary system as in Germany. If you want leadership in foreign politics and military defense, you have to vote for his party as well. In America, we tend to believe that leadership is an individual trait, independent of party affiliation.

It might feel natural to split the vote by adding SPD to Green and saying Schroeder would have been elected as President under a US system, but people don't vote the same domestically as they do for foreign affairs. People have very different combinations of political beliefs.

And believe me, the European states not just remain strong democracies, but the EU has already helped to transform quite a lot of West and East European states into solid democracies.

From what I've seen, East Germany was the only one helped by Western European states, and they vote Socialist SPD, anti-American straight down the line. Where most of the independent Eastern European countries, Poland, vote for America most of the time.

Ain't that a difference between being helped by the West and being left alone by the west.

It's kind of hard to remain strong democracies when millions of your constituents are Muslim disaffected youths and terroists.

I mean the EU has a lot more influence and results in the democratic transformation process than the later dealings of the USA.

Given what Chirac said concerning Eastern Europe, I don't think Eastern Europe is guillible enough to believe the EU will foster their interests as well as the US would.

At 6:52 AM, September 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think the main problem is, that today in Germany noone in the political class has a vision of Germany's future in our current world.

The voters know, that the old ways don't fit anymore - therefore Schroeder lost popularity. But the CDU's program seemed to be too harsh in terms of neo-liberalism. So one month prior to the election, the voters started backing away from the decision they had made - and the SPD gained a lot again.

So if there is no credible alternative, people can't decide - which results in the stalemate conditions we see.

We need somebody with a vision for Germany - before people start blaming politician's failures on the democratic system.

greetings from Germany


PS: Yes the NPD didn't show up well in the elections, but don't underestimate them. Drunken Skinheads appeal to noone so they are slowly building a community in run down cities by behaving like the nice, righteous, patriotic guy next door helping old people etc. There are villages near where I live, where they got 14% - 18% compared to 3% or 4% at the last elections.


Extremist parties can't win in a democratic state - as long as it stays democratic. Look at Austria: Since Chancelor Schüssel took the great strategic decision to govern with a FPÖ coalition, the FPÖ is wasted. Down to ca. 10% from ca. 30%.

I guess since Germany is the only country in Europe without a big right wing party, we might have get accustomed to having one. And accustomed means NOT tolerating because thats how things are, accustomed means battling for democracy while accepting that in every country there are 5%-25% of people that don't like democracy.

As someone said, everything flows, so we have to fight for democracy every single day again.

At 4:11 PM, October 02, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The Green party, with around 10% of the vote, who forms the second party of the coalition in power before the 2005 elections, is not extreme?

I doubt that.


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