The fourth-term challenge

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel   | Photo Credit: Matthias Schrader/AP

The German electorate has dealt Angela Merkel a wake-up call. Her new term will define her legacy

Germany’s election was supposed to be a sedate affair. Angela Merkel would be confirmed as Chancellor. The German people, happy with brisk growth, 4% unemployment, and a high trade surplus, were supposed to rubber stamp their satisfaction with the status quo. Chancellor Merkel’s moment of peril in 2015 — when her open door policy brought more than 900,000 asylum seekers to Germany — had passed.

A different campaign

Ms. Merkel thought so too. Having overcome the twin challenges of the Eurozone and refugee crises, she relied lazily on satisfaction with the life in Germany today to carry her to victory. Together with Martin Schulz, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, she made a Faustian bargain to run the anaesthetising campaign focussed more on German happiness than hidden anxieties and future challenges. In their one and only TV debate, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz talked more about highway tolls than they did about NATO, Russia, Brexit, the Eurozone crisis, Syria, North Korea, the rise of Asia or terrorism. Even the issues that Germany is known around the world for — climate change and trade — played little if any role in the election.

But in an election that brought 75.6% of eligible voters to the polls, the German electorate dealt Ms. Merkel a wake-up call. The message was muddled. But certain trend lines — and warnings — are present.

First, Germany is entering into a period of uncertainty. Germany is not immune to the anti-establishment, reactionary forces sweeping the western world. The comfortable position that the grand coalition had after 2013 was winnowed down to a mere 54%. The right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) catapulted to the third strongest party in Parliament. It even came in first in the state of Saxony. Combined with the Communist successor party, Die Linke, extremist parties will make up 22% of the new Parliament.

Second, the German political landscape is more fragmented. Not one but two parties, the AfD and the pro-business Thatcherite Liberals, that were not in the previous Parliament are in. The size of the Bundestag will also grow from 631 to 708 seats. The Social Democrats have already indicated that Ms. Merkel is on her own to forge a new governing coalition. That leaves her with no other option than an unstable coalition with the Liberals and the ecologically-minded Green party. Most estimate that laboured coalition talks could extend into early 2018.

Third, Germany has turned toward a more insular brand of conservatism. In total, 56.4% of Germans voted for parties to the right. That compared to 37.8% for progressive parties. But what drove this process? Economic performance, at least in the top line numbers, is not responsible for the rising tide of reactionary populism in Germany. Even 73% of AfD voters would describe the economic situation in the country as good.

Behind the swing

Two elements animated the swing rightward: a simmering unease toward Muslim immigration and a resentment toward a world that thinks Germany needs to do more in the Eurozone, the European Union (EU), NATO and globally.

German voters bristled at attempts both at home and internationally to talk more about German leadership. As one former Defence Minister quipped wryly, “When Americans or Europeans talk about German ‘leadership,’ they really mean money.” It’s a resentment that many Germans feel. Some of the campaign’s best applause lines excoriated what others expected from Germans. Do more to support French President Emmanuel Macron’s EU vision with a transfer union to stabilise weak Eurozone economies; do more on domestic spending to balance out Germany’s massive trade surplus; do more on defence spending to meet NATO’s 2% mark; do more on sanctions against Russia and Iran; more on Brexit; the list goes on.

And across the spectrum, there was a new-found embrace of the politics of national identity coupled with fear and distrust of Islam in political, social and moral life. Even as the refugee crisis waned, the sparring from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan this summer drew new anxieties into high relief. Germans in Turkey jailed for no reason. Reporters suppressed. Rule of law rolled back in the wake of a shadowy coup. Mr. Erdoğan’s demagogic rhetoric attacking Germany for not allowing him to hold rallies on German soil. And all the while, over 60% of Turks from Cologne to Berlin to Hamburg voted in support of Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarian referendum. The incident left many German asking whether Germany’s Turks and Muslims share their values.

The EU factor

These elements leave Ms. Merkel more politically constrained as she enters her fourth term. She joins Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl in the pantheon of German leaders to have served for well over a decade at the helm of the Federal Republic. Adenauer saved West Germany from the ashes of World War II and firmly embedded it in the family of Western liberal democracies. To this day, he is still the most admired person in German history beating out Luther, Gutenberg, Bismarck and Einstein. Kohl was the reunification chancellor, the man who literally erased borders both between Germans and within Europe. What will Ms. Merkel’s legacy be?

Many expect her next four years to be defined by the EU. But it is hard to see how she will forge an EU with cleaner lines with a smaller majority in the Bundestag, the austerity-driven Liberals in her coalition and a Euro-hostile AfD breathing down her neck. Given the domestic constraints, it won’t be easy.

Tyson Barker is Programme Director and Fellow at the Aspen Institute Germany. He is a former U.S. State Department official

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 8:21:37 PM |

Next Story