Vidya Ram

No real challenge to Merkel

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on August 18, 2017

Winning ways Will terror strikes such as Barcelona make a dent? Reuters

Germany’s centrist CDU is again set to return to power this September. But the rise of the Islamophobic far right is a possibility

Germany will head to the polls on September 24, the fourth closely watched election in Europe this year with the potential to send reverberations beyond its boundaries. The three that preceded it failed to match the worst expectations that many had of them, given the surge of the far right globally.

While Geert Wilders failed to beat incumbent Mark Rutte in the Netherlands (though thanks in part to Rutte’s embrace of tough language on immigration and beyond), Marine Le Pen lost decisively in the second round of the French presidential election and failed to make the headway in the national assembly elections that many had feared. The British election in June saw a collapse in support for the right-wing UK Independence Party (with votes going to both Conservatives and Labour) and a huge surge in support for the left agenda of the Labour Party.

The big question for Germany in September is whether it will follow suit in delivering a decisive defeat to the right at the polling station, and giving Angela Merkel her fourth term as Chancellor.

Stability and continuity

Most recent polls in the past month have given Merkel’s party, the CDU, and its allies the CSU a comfortable lead with 37-40 per cent of the vote, followed by the left of centre SPD (at around 24 per cent), followed by the other parties including the Greens, the FDP and the rightwing, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant AfD.

While the campaigns are in their early days (in Germany the process is kept noticeably short), many observers have noted the remarkable lack of zeal in the process. “At a federal level the election campaign is not hot or cold, it is not even lukewarm, it is nothing — it is probably the oddest election campaign in the history of the Republic,” wrote one commentator for the newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The question for many is not whether Merkel will be re-elected but what shape her return to power will take: whether a repeat of the grand coalition (including the SPD headed by the former head of the European Parliament Martin Schulz), another coalition, or on its own.

There are of course many reasons for the relative confidence with which Merkel and the CDU will approach the election: the Germany economy continues to perform well (it grew 0.6 per cent in the quarter ending June, though year-on-year growth was 2.1 per cent), while unemployment remains at a low level (5.8 per cent), defying the warnings of critics of Merkel’s historic decision to open its borders to thousands of refugees (just under 900,000 entered the country in 2015, and around 280,000 in 2016).

Merkel’s stance on refugees has also given little ground for the left parties, particularly the SPD, with Schulz adopting a dignified approach on the issue. Earlier this month he said that he would not allow the issue of immigration and refugees to be dragged into the electoral campaign. This has led to a more nuanced electoral debate, with Schulz focusing on social justice (including reforms to taxation, greater levels of public investment, and reforms to the EU) while Merkel and her allies in the CSU have focused their agenda around economic stability and continuity. Merkel is aiming for full employment by 2025, and bolstering internal security (including by boosting police numbers and the defence budget).

However, it is not just the left that Merkel will have to be wary of: one poll published this week by psephologist INSA suggested that the AfD’s share of the vote could rise as high as 10 per cent, making it the country’s third largest party. The party, once focused around Germany’s relationship with the EU (particularly in the wake of the Euro Zone crisis and ensuing bailouts), gained momentum by tapping into anti-immigrant, anti-Islam sentiment in the country.

Post-poll scenario

In a country where far-right language had once been seen as a no-go area (given the nation’s history) the right has felt increasingly emboldened to speak its mind — from the AfD’s former leader’s suggestion that police could use firearms to prevent illegal border crossings (bringing back memories from the days of division and the Berlin Wall), to a regional AfD leader who suggested the country should have a more positive relationship to its past and stop atoning for what the Nazis had done.

While the government has since toughened its stance on immigration, the extent to which the AfD will be able to make inroads remains to be seen. The far right in Europe has proved adept at exploiting recent terror attacks across the continent to its advantage. In the wake of the tragic events at Barcelona, the AfD took to highlighting Merkel’s past remarks defending Islam and her refugee policy.

The re-election of Merkel will matter hugely to Europe and beyond, particularly at a time of uncertainty: France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, has proved unpredictable and is likely to be focused on domestic politics (his ratings have fallen sharply since the election, following a string of controversies over cuts to welfare, and defence budgets, his attempt to create First Lady status for his wife, among others), while the British government remains focused on the kind of Brexit it hopes to negotiate with EU partners.

Nevertheless, while the election’s outcome may look somewhat predictable, it is what will follow that will be potentially more interesting, with many commentators suggesting that the real electoral campaign will begin on September 25, the day after the election. With the current election, the last one that Merkel will be able to stand for, will arise the question — often asked before — of her successor and the direction of the party at a challenging time for Europe. While the German economy remains robust, the difficulties facing the auto sector — which is struggling to tackle the global move away from diesel and towards electric and greener options — are an example of the challenges going forward, with negotiations with Britain over Brexit to yet to really pick up.

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Published on August 18, 2017
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