A giant electoral hoarding put up by Germany’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) shows just a pair of hands, somewhat careworn, broad and practical — a working woman’s hands. The caption reads: “What Germany needs is a steady pair of hands.”
Another CDU poster shows Ms. Merkel looking lambently, maternally, into the camera. Under it someone has scrawled “Bravo Mutti”, and that just about sums it up. For many Germans, at least those intending to put Ms. Merkel back in power as the country’s only woman and third-term leader, Angela Merkel, with her awkward gait, homely face and no nonsense trouser suits, has come to epitomise the figure of a loving but disciplining mother who will care for her children.
Stability and continuity are what Angela Merkel is promising Germany’s 61 million voters as they prepare to elect the federal Parliament, the 598-member Bundestag on Sunday.
With 34 parties of every stripe and colour campaigning in this election, the jury is out on what the exact composition of the Bundestag will be. The main contenders include Ms. Merkel’s current coalition made up of the CDU-CSU and the Free Democrats (FDP). To the left of the spectrum are the Social Democrats, the Greens and the former Communists, Die Linke. Complicating the scenario are parties like the Pirates (anti-NSA internet nerds) and the Alternative for Germany (AFD) of right-wing intellectuals who might cause a surprising flutter. What is sure is that Ms. Merkel will be reanointed Chancellor come Sunday evening, but exactly who she will govern with, remains a mystery.
Ever since she returned from vacation on August 15, Ms. Merkel has held many electoral meetings but she has hardly campaigned at all, allowing her economic success and her handling of the eurozone crisis to speak for themselves. The austerity measures she imposed on debt ridden and failing eurozone economies has wide support in Germany, and Ms. Merkel remains hugely popular, even as she is detested and derided in countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland or Italy, where the brunt of welfare, job and pension cutbacks has been borne by the weakest.
In comparison, her Social Democrat rival Peer Steinbruck has had a rough summer and is only now crawling back somewhat in the polls. Both his SPD and their coalition allies, the Greens are finding it difficult to raise social issues such as ways to reform a deregulated labour market that pays miserably low and exploitative wages to the poorest and least qualified workers in society.
As Annelise, a left-wing history student said: “They don’t have a leg to stand on. They were the ones who brought in these so-called reforms in the first place.”
Annelise works 25 hours a week in a bakery while she goes through university. “What I earn is scandalous considering the amount of work, but there is no hope of the Left coming to power. They are in trouble partly because the SPD has led a disastrous campaign, Die Linke, the former communist party is rudderless, the Greens are having trouble finding their voice, and because, overall, the Germans are very happy with Merkel,” she says with some bitterness.
Only now have French, Spanish and Italian newspapers begun taking a hard cold look at what lies behind Germany’s success. Le Monde; Le Figaro Liberation; El Pais;and Corriere della sera have all started speaking, almost simultaneously, about German “social dumping”.
The West has been grouching about emerging countries such as India, China and Brazil practising “social dumping” (reducing labour costs by not paying social security, pensions, health care, education and other benefits) only to find that Europe’s most successful and dominant economy has built its prosperity on precisely this.
The SPD and Greens have both proposed a wealth tax on the nation’s top 20 per cent and a legal minimum wage. To the delight of most conservative middle class Germans, Ms. Merkel has proposed that unions negotiate the lowest acceptable pay for every worker category.
“Where do people like me figure in this? I do not belong to a union and people tell me that at 1€ 52 cents per hour, I am already overpaid! The legal minimum wage in countries like France is 9€50. Okay, that might be a bit too much, but to earn what I do now is simply not acceptable. But what can I do, it’s the law here” says Elena (58), a charlady.
Each German voter has two ballots. The first, a direct ballot allows him to vote for the individual of his choice in his constituency. The second ballot decides the number of seats each party will get on the basis of the votes they have obtained. So there is both, some direct and some proportional voting in Germany’s very complicated electoral system.
If Ms. Merkel’s junior ally, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) gets less than five per cent of the vote, it will not be able to enter the Bundestag. She will than have to cast around for a coalition partner. A Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats is a possibility. SPD leader Mr. Steinbruck has served as Ms. Merkel’s Finance Minister in the last Grand Coalition from 2005-2009. Both leaders know each other well and observers say that it would be the best option.
But other dangers still lurk for Ms. Merkel, such as the sudden popularity of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, made up essentially of highly educated right-wing intellectuals.
If the AFD’s surge is confirmed, it could send coalition talks into disarray. Ms. Merkel’s ruling alliance is pro-euro while the AFD wants a return of the Deutche Mark.