Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Sep 22, 2017
Angela Merkel will win the German elections on Sunday, but her power base is quickly eroding. Here is how she needs to change course.
The autumn of the Queen

A lot has been said about the German elections and how boring it is to have an incumbent leading the opinion polls by a margin of 10 to 15 per cent ahead of her main contender. While Chancellor Angela Merkel is all set to win her fourth term in office in the German parliamentary elections on Sunday, the upcoming four years will be all but boring — even if the majority of Germans might wish so.

As the campaigns come down the stretch, polls are suggesting that the number of voters, who are unhappy with Merkel's coalition government, consisting of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU), its Bavarian sister party (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), has grown. The support for Merkel’s CDU/CSU has come down to 36.5 % from well above 40% and the SPD with their candidate Martin Schulz are down to 22%.

Only 14% of Germans favour a continuation of the so-called "grand coalition" between the two larger parties.

Mathematically that still makes a very comfortable majority for the two political camps to form a government. The problem, however, is that everybody hates it — except Merkel herself, maybe. Only 14% of Germans favour a continuation of the so-called "grand coalition" between the two larger parties.

More popular seems to be an alliance between Merkel's conservatives and the Free Democrats Party(FDP). The party has a long history of coalitions with the Christian Democrats but was out of parliament for the last four years because it could not clear the five-percent-entry-hurdle. Under its new and dynamic leader Christian Lindner, the FDP managed to reinvent itself as a force to reckon with. Pro-market voters who are tired of the grand coalition and who see Merkel increasingly as a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat, will chose the libertarian FDP that could win up to 11% of the votes according to polls.

But that still might turn out to be insufficient to form a so-called black-and-yellow coalition between Christian Democrats and Liberals. Merkel could be forced to continue with the SPD or enter into a "Jamaica coalition" named after the colors of the Jamaican flag, black (CDU/CSU), yellow (FDP) and green (Greens). However, neither the voters nor the parties are enthused about that option.

The Greens, who disappointed with a rather conventional election campaign and will probably not win more than 8%, are deeply divided between their left and right wing and know very well that if they move too close to one of the sides, it could tear their party apart.

May Day, protests, German elections, Hamburg May Day protests, Hamburg, 2015 | Photo: Rasande Tyskar/CC BY-NC 2.0

What is more worrying is the fact that the Greens are increasingly unable to attract new voters although their progressive platform addresses many of the most pressing political problems of our times, starting with climate change, immigration, gender equality, environmental degradation and the future of labour in the age of digitalisation. Their concept of "green growth" that aims at decoupling economic growth from environmental consumption is one of the few comprehensive answers to the problems of the 21st century. But it played a minuscule role in these elections.

This brings us to the main problem. Germany is not immune to the shift in political preferences in the West that did not start with the election of Donald Trump in the US and has not ended with the defeat of right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in France earlier this year. Voters throughout the political spectrum are losing confidence in the ability of the established parties to find answers to the tectonic shift that digitalisation and the messy ascent of a multipolar global order has brought about.

Germany is not immune to the shift in political preferences in the West that did not start with the election of Donald Trump in the US and has not ended with the defeat of right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in France earlier this year.

In Germany, one fifth of voters will give their voice to one of the two parties that are skeptical about the political system and liberal democracy as such. The former Communist Left and the new kid on the block, the right-wing populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) are both set to gain 10% or even more. While The Left remains a rather regional phenomenon in Eastern Germany, the rise of the AfD has sent shock waves through Germany that is still sensitive to everything that smells of Nazis. And the anti-immigration, anti-refugees, anti-Islamic party AfD surely does.

Political contenders are blaming Angela Merkel for the ascent of populists, which is partly true. In the last 12 years, Merkel craft-fully steered her conservative party to the political middle by allowing gay marriages, introducing a women's quota for corporate boards and banning nuclear energy. All of which lead to a record support for the chancellor among voters of more leftist parties such as the Greens and the SPD, but also rendered conservatives somewhat homeless.

Along with her open-door policy for refugees, this created a huge gap on the right of the political spectrum for contenders such as the AfD to jump in. But Merkel's critics should make no mistakes. The chancellor would be neither more popular nor successful if she had followed a more conservative playbook. Right-wing populism is a pan-European phenomenon and it is a reaction to a crisis, that does not end at the borders of Germany. It therefore can be tackled only on a European level (if we leave out the United States for the time being as there seems to be little chance to change Donald Trump).

This also means that Merkel's political strategy (that was her success formula for twelve years) has reached a dead end. She will have to seriously change course if she wants to prepare her country (and her party) for the future. Not in order to appease the AfD. Their shine will wither away once they enter parliament and continue the infighting between Nazis and moderates that became manifest on the campaign trail.

In the last four years of her chancellorship, Merkel must boldly take her country where no one has gone before. This requires a different form of leadership than the one she has shown so far. It requires more risk-taking than she has been willing to show. But at the last stretch of her political career, she has little to lose. Instead of carefully waiting for the political tide to surface and jump on it in the last minute to ride it, she needs to take the helm of political developments.

Domestically it means that she needs to make Germany fit for the 21st century by investing much more in education, green and digital innovation. The German educational system, especially schools, are absurdly underfunded, given the fact that numbers of students are dwindling, and dragging behind technological developments. The same is true for parts of the German industry, especially the mighty automotive sector, that has badly damaged its image by trying to cheat itself around a new digital and carbon-free revolution.

Merkel needs to make Germany fit for the 21st century by investing much more in education, green and digital innovation.

Which country, if not Germany with its long history of science and innovation and who if not Angela Merkel, a physicist herself, could come up with answers to the question how the shrinking societies of Europe can innovate in order to maintain their level of wellbeing for the citizens?

Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, German elections Source: European Council/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With the new French President Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel has a partner who is eager to give new answers to the questions that have frustrated a good number of voters: rising inequality and shrinking incomes. Macron is also the right address to go to when it comes to the crisis of the European Union. Both leaders know that on a European level everything needs to change if everything shall remain the same. That means peaceful, democratic and prosperous. They also know that this can be achieved only in a French-German tandem that does not ignore difficult neighbors such as Poland.

Merkel therefore needs to become both, more flexible and more innovative in her approach to Europe. That also means less austerity-oriented regarding the Eurozone crisis and investment into infrastructure in Germany. Blaming Brussels for everything that goes wrong has simply become self-destructive. Keeping calm and carrying on is also no option anymore after Brexit. Structural changes are needed in order to keep the European Union together and functional.

Domestically, Merkel has to come up with a policy that addresses the inverted demographic pyramid of aging Western societies. For this, she needs to shed the ill-conceived policy of doling out goodies to pensioners, who are a strong voter base but who are extremely well off for now. Problems will start in 15 years, when the baby boomers are retiring and there are significantly less younger people working to support them. It would send a strong signal to this generation who already feels that it is economically worse off than their parents and many of whom, especially women are afraid of old-age poverty.

Opening Germany's doors for refugees was the right impulse but it was badly prepared.

And here we come to immigration. Opening Germany's doors for refugees was the right impulse but it was badly prepared, although the refugee crisis had been lingering on the doorsteps of the EU for years before Merkel opened the borders in 2016. The reason is that the need for immigration was always argued for as an economic necessity, which it is, but it is as much a cultural challenge. The right-wing populist narrative of a Christian Europe under attack from Muslims needs a strong corrective based on facts and history.

Redefining our relationship with the Muslim countries at Europe's borders is a tall order, especially under this kind of simplistic pressure. But it is unavoidable that Europe embraces its hybrid cultural past and present that includes a significant number of Muslim citizens. It therefore needs to create stronger bonds with neighboring Islamic countries, even if it becomes more difficult, as in the case of Turkey. This certainly is a long-term, generational project but for the new government it means to firmly hold it’s ground against xenophobic, anti-Islamic pressure.

These are just a few of the challenges that the German government (and many others) failed to address so far and that helped right-wing populists to gain voters well beyond the small group of people who are actually right-wing extremists. Angela Merkel now has the chance and the duty to do so. If she manages to solve some of the problems, she will become indeed not only a great German chancellor, but the European leader of the free world, that some have prematurely called her.

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