Open Europe Berlin

Germany votes: another four years of Merkel – but which Merkel? By Michael Wohlgemuth

Prof. Dr Michael Wohlgemuth

After 12 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel will almost certainly be reelected to another term in September, when Germans vote in federal elections. As the leader of the most economically and politically stable of Europe’s large countries, it is hard to challenge her. It helps that she has a talent for changing her mind according to public opinion and political opportunity with disarming nonchalance.

With only a slight chance for a hard-left, three-party coalition that could defeat Ms. Merkel, this report focuses on her likely coalition options and how they might affect her foreign policy challenges.

Why she will (probably) win

Recent polls have given a clear lead to the center-right, which comprises Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). While they pull 38 to 41 percent of the vote, their current “grand coalition” partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), are struggling to improve on historic lows in the last two elections.

Four more parties are likely to enter the Bundestag, each earning between seven and 10 percent in polls: a populist right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD); a populist left party, Die Linke; the Green Party; and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

There is only one way Ms. Merkel can lose: a hard-left coalition of the SPD, Die Linke, and the Greens. Their math seemed to add up earlier this year when the SPD nominated former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz as its challenger to Ms. Merkel and received a surprising bump in the polls. But the “Schulz hype” quickly faded after the SPD lost three state elections in a row. At the moment, an anti-Merkel coalition is extremely unlikely to be large enough to defeat the chancellor.

The opposition has found little political substance to back a case for change. The battle cry “more social justice” hardly stirs the blood of the electorate at a time when employment is at record highs, pensions are growing and welfare spending has never been so generous. After tax and social transfers, income inequality has also decreased.

Alternative Merkels

A deeper reason for Ms. Merkel’s enduring popularity is her political flexibility. One may deride it as values-free opportunism or praise her sensitivity to changing needs and opinions. Either way, she has performed very well as a gifted tactician.

Those tactics have aimed at an “asymmetric demobilization” of her political opponents, by swiftly endorsing their popular demands – lowering turnout overall but especially for her rivals. Ms. Merkel’s latest U-turn on gay marriage, an issue that the SPD, FDP, and Greens called a prerequisite for coalition talks, was a perfect example. She allowed a rushed Bundestag vote of conscience on the issue, which the opposition won, while conservatives (including herself) were able to register their doubts. Afterward, the issue was off the chancellor’s plate.

Ms. Merkel’s tactics have created substantial wiggle room when it comes to choosing coalition partners. She will have no less than four options after the September 24 elections:

  1. Another “grand coalition” with the SPD as junior partner. Both parties see this only as a last resort, and rightly so. Grand coalitions lead to grand frustrations for their constituencies, who no longer feel that their core values are being represented, and tend to strengthen the radical fringes on both sides.
  2. A center-right/liberal coalition. The CDU/CSU and FDP have often formed coalitions in which the liberals of the FDP tried to promote economic freedom and civil liberties. The last coalition with Ms. Merkel, however, did not end well for the liberals, who lost their seats in the federal parliament. The FDP is thus trying to distance itself from Ms. Merkel – but if the numbers add up, the party will be her most natural partner.
  3. A center-right/Green coalition. Although this has been tried with some success at state and community levels, such a coalition would be difficult to manage and could easily rip apart the Green Party’s left-fundamentalist wing.
  4. Least likely would be a “Jamaica” coalition – black (CDU/CSU), yellow (FDP) and Green. In this scenario, the Greens and FDP would be needed to secure Ms. Merkel’s reelection, leaving the SPD out. This has been tested at the state level, but would be more challenging for all parties involved.

Electoral consequences

What will Ms. Merkel’s priorities be? A look at the party program does not reveal much. The promise is “prosperity and security for all,” and full employment is no longer a fanciful prospect. A 15 billion euro tax cut for low- and middle-income brackets does not seem like an overly generous offer from a government expecting a budget surplus and record high tax revenues of around 735 billion euros.

In the first potential scenario, another grand coalition, there would be disputes about tax increases for the wealthy and more spending on welfare. In the second, a coalition with the liberals, there would be a debate over more generous tax cuts. And in the third, a government with the Greens, there would be a struggle over more ambitious environmental goals. But none of these disagreements would shake the republic.

On foreign policy, too, the coalition platforms offer little cause to expect sudden changes in direction. When it comes to Germany’s refugee policy, the most difficult partner for Ms. Merkel will continue to be her Bavarian sister party, the CSU. The party remains insistent on capping the number of refugees entering the country every year, which Ms. Merkel has refused with unusual consistency. But as long as refugee numbers remain manageable – a more likely outcome now that the Balkan route has been closed – there will be no dramatic shift in refugee policy.

Ms. Merkel’s coalition partner will make a real difference, however, on EU and eurozone governance. The SPD and the Greens both support French President Emmanuel Macron’s demand for a joint eurozone budget and collectivized debt. But for the FDP, further fiscal burden-sharing and another round of debt restructuring or bailouts (for Greece, or perhaps Italy) have been excluded from their electoral manifesto. These could become “red line” issues if the FDP is in the government.

There has been a noteworthy change in Ms. Merkel’s own party platform: the United States is no longer called Germany’s “most important friend,” but only its “most important partner.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s challenge to the EU has led many to realize that Europeans and Germans have to take more responsibility for their own defense, in geopolitics, and in international trade. The CDU/CSU remains committed to devoting two percent of GDP to defense spending (the current level is 1.2 percent). But other parties, like the SPD and the Greens, are not as keen to meet NATO obligations, especially after Mr. Trump’s unceremonious handling of the issue.

Chancellor Merkel’s role in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia will remain important. She is the only Western leader who not only speaks Russian but who has dealt with Mr. Putin for more than a decade. Both the FDP and the Greens would give full support to her policy of containing Russia without isolating it (an argument can be made for dealing similarly with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey). Only parts of the SPD are flirting with Mr. Putin, and while the radical left and right (Die Linke and AfD) do have stronger ties to Russia, both are destined for the opposition.

Mr. Trump may have also changed some minds in Europe and Germany with respect to global trade. His mercantilist threats have had an unintended consequence on left and green German politics. Those parties are now more willing to embrace the virtues of free trade – not only for the benefit of German exports, but as a matter of principle and as a way to support global peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile, Brexit has hardly influenced the German elections at all. Ms. Merkel wants to avoid mutual self-harm for the two countries, but as I argued in a previous report, Germany simply cannot let the UK off easy on Brexit. And a government led by the SPD’s Martin Schulz would make things even more difficult for the British government than the status quo.

Building a legacy

By all appearances, the next term will be Angela Merkel’s last chancellorship. Usually, this makes leaders think about their legacy. What will be Ms. Merkel’s?

Her distinct lack of vision or ideology makes it hard to be sure that she even thinks in those terms. But this is exactly the trait that could be her legacy. She shies away from blurred visions or failed ideologies. Her entry in the history books may one day read: “Facing global instability and crisis, Chancellor Merkel helped make Germany relevant again, as a reliable, rational, and stable nation.”

Any government led by Ms. Merkel will stay the course as a geopolitical mediator and facilitator, as it did with some success at the G20 meeting in Hamburg this July. But one should not expect Germany to be willing or able to fill in the gap as “leader of the free world.”

Still, Ms. Merkel may want to be remembered as the woman cunning enough to outlive, and outperform, her political rivals. She has shown as much at home, and in her last four years in office, she may want to do so on the global stage, which she has come to enjoy more than domestic politics. Presidents Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and others may see a more defiant and demanding Angela Merkel in the years to come.

Published today at Geopolitical Intelligence Services.


Aug 2017


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