Germany before the elections

Sonja Licht

20. September 2017

Germany before the elections

Many say the German election campaign is boring. Indeed – after the election in America less than a year ago, in the Netherlands and France this year – the elections in Germany leave an impression, at first glance, as if this most powerful country of the European Union “took a break from the rest of the world.” Thus, these days, a reputable journalist commented, along with more than forty scholars from the Robert Bosch Academy, as part of a study program dedicated to the elections in Germany. In five days we talked with a large number of actors on the public scene: from the President of the Federal Republic Steinmeier to the mayor of Grimm (a town near Leipzig, in the east of the country); from the Minister for Gender Equality and Integration of Saxony to the Vice President of the Parliament of Bavaria. With the representatives of the government and political parties, prominent journalists, as well as representatives of various areas of public life, including people of migrant origin, supplemented the story of the current political and social moment.

I put a special emphasis on them because we have been listening very often for years that Germany is not an immigrant country, unlike, for example, the United States, Canada and France. This is changing rapidly – and not only because of the three million Turks, of which 1.4 million have German citizenship, but also because of many other newcomers. In 2015, about 900,000 refugees and migrants arrived – a large number with the intention of settling in Germany, 2016, after closing the Balkan route around 260,000, and by August 2017,124,000. Apart from Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, immigrants from the North and other parts of Africa, the number of migrants from India has also been rising recently. It is interesting to note that in all of Germany there is a growing number of Jews who move from different countries of the world, including Israel. [1]

It is astonishing that migration is not the subject of the election campaign. That, perhaps, is astonishing Angel Merkel himself, who only announced in November last year that she would run again and on that occasion stressed that she expects the weight of the campaign more than it was the case of the previous time. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), undoubtedly, has grown into significant political power due to migration, but the campaign itself has almost completely bypassed it, unlike what we had the opportunity to see in France and all other European countries. What is the question here: is Germany really as resilient as a society that it succeeded in bringing out its frustration and fears that in 2015 chased the Chancellor for the first time in ten years at the helm of the state, or its economic superiority and the fact that it was the vast majority of Germans satisfied with the situation in the country has suppressed all other problems?

The paradox is that wherever you go about the story of refugees and migrants, this topic is not mentioned in the campaign. One of the members of the Academy concluded that 2015 for Germany, even Europe, had a similar effect as September 11, 2001 for America.

One of our media interlocutors asked: “What is wrong with Germany that it has such an abnormal normality?” – One answer would be how, in the quest for moderate politics (still under the pressure of the Nazi past), Germany did not experience destructive processes within political parties, and has very stable national and regional media. Relatively high standards of media reporting have been retained. Public opinion research shows how the most important requirement is the preservation of economic stability. After all, in the center of the whole campaign is stability. It is believed that global instability instigated Angel Merkel to re-run. This is a topic that has drawn the ranks of the CDU and CSU, and Chancellor’s opponents in her own coalition by February of this year have already made rows around her.

Analysts agree that the main theme of the entire campaign is trust. We suddenly heard: “She knows what she is doing.” Nobody questions the position of the most influential leader in the European Union. It should be emphasized here that Europe and the future of the Union are barely present in the campaign. Whether this is good or bad will show the post-election development of the event. Even AfD refrains from seeking a direct withdrawal from the EU. However, they are, at the same time, the “worst surprise” of these elections. Many Germans are convinced that by their entry into the Parliament, the political system of post-war Germany changes. Until this election CSU held the right wing of the political scene, and everything that was right was absolutely unacceptable for German society. That is why a large voter response is expected, although the outcome, or the victory of Angela Merkel, is quite certain. However, one should bear in mind that a little less than half of voters still do not know who will round up political parties in ten days. Reflection or AfD support can work in both directions. More and more are talking about voters who are ashamed to say they would vote for them, but in the polls of the polling station they can be more honest than in public opinion polls. Big surprises are, however, excluded. CDU / CSU less than two weeks before the election has between 36 and 40% of support, the SPD can account for 21-25%, Left, Green, Liberal and AfD from 7 to 9%. Many people worry that AfD will gain more, especially in the eastern part of the country and will become the third most powerful party in the Bundestag.

How will the ruling coalition look like? There are at least four possible combinations:

The first, CDU / CSU and Green – an unimaginable coalition in the 80s. Among other things, Greens would most likely seek debt relief to Greece, which would provoke resistance in Mrs Merkel’s party and make her vulnerable. Another, the so-called “Jamaica coalition” (the flag of Jamaica is black-yellow-green), therefore, the Liberals as well. In the opinion of the majority, this is one very unstable coalition because the Greens and Liberals would have, most likely, opposing attitudes and demands. Third, so-called “Big coalition” – as in the previous eight years of the CDU / CSU and SPD – some strong political figures in the country feel that if it gets more than 21% of the vote, the SPD would be under pressure to join the coalition. Many members of the SPD, however, fear that another coalition with the CDU / CSU will destroy the identity of the party itself. Interestingly, this pressure is already largely present on CDU side. Representatives of this party believe, on the occasion of the absence of the public, SPD representatives have to enter a joint coalition. Perhaps this is why the campaign is more in the spirit of cooperation than confrontation. The fourth, minority government – no one believes that the CDU / CSU would enter into such a combination, and even less is believed to be acceptable to Angela Merkel. Nothing else is possible, since none of these parties is willing to enter a coalition with AfD and / or Linke. What’s more, regardless of the serious democratic tradition they do not even want to attend the events that participate and the representatives of the Alternative for Germany. Therefore, debates at the next meeting of the Bundestag will be a big challenge for all present, and very interesting for the public.

Angela Merkel did not look back at the election campaign for the past four years, although they were full of very important results but also challenges. For example, her decision to abandon nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear power plant led to increased use of fossil fuels, primarily coal. So Germany, although a major supporter of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, failed to achieve it by itself. The question is, what kind of energy policy will the next government take? Apart from the use of coal, the question of using diesel is also being raised. In Bavaria, for example, they believe that the ban on diesel is unacceptable, as it will damage the automotive industry. That is, of course, one of the reasons why the coalition with the Greens is a huge problem. Part of the energy solution would be to increase gas supply. However, this is under question mark due to strained relations with Russia and Turkey.

Worsening relations with Turkey are making many worried, especially citizens of Turkish origin. In the vote on the referendum on changing the Turkish Constitution, which strengthened the position of President Erdogan, only 20% of potential voters came out in Germany. However, the fear of continuing the deterioration of the relationship is becoming more and more present: Turkish citizens are feeling pushed aside, much can be compromised including an agreement on migrants. Our interlocutors find that relations with Turkey for Germany are more important than relations with Russia.

Another very important topic that little or no attention was paid to the campaign are relations in the European Union. In political circles, the satisfaction that Emanuel Macron won in France remains very pronounced. It is expected that the French-German locomotive will again pull the whole of the Union forward, first of all, when it comes to deepening integration between the member states themselves. The federal level is expected to strengthen the monetary and financial union, reform and strengthen the euro zone, above all, the EU would be more competitive on the world market. This is not necessarily the case at the regional level, especially in the most developed regions, such as Bavaria. And these are the most developed regions: Bavaria, Baden-Wirtenberg and Hessen, those who fill the federal budget.

German President speaking with Ms. Licht in Berlin earlier this month.

The third issue, and also the first and most important in the campaign itself – stability and security, which was the pillar of the campaign, will have to be defined much wider. According to our interlocutors, special attention must be paid to the security of cyber space. It must go hand in hand with a much more pronounced digitization of all areas of life, especially the state administration. Chancellor Merkel advocates a speedy digitization policy.

When the driving force of political life is satisfaction and indifference, it is difficult to legitimize big steps.

All in all, the new government and parliament will have to face major issues: reprogramming or forgiving at least part of the Greek debt, strengthening the euro zone with the reform of the European Union itself, the European Union at a higher speed in response to the need for further enlargement, a unified European policy towards refugees and migrants. And the campaign showed that Germans are not ready for such issues, that they are not ready for change. When the driving force of political life is satisfaction and indifference, it is difficult to legitimize big steps. One of our interlocutors has formulated a problem that will lead Angela Merkel and the ruling coalition in the next four years: “Germany needs to reform Europe, and the Germans will not, because they are good to them.”

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* That is the case, for example, in Leipzig in 1935, 11,564 Jews (it was the sixth largest Jewish community in Germany). The last 220 Jews were deported to Teresienstat on 13 February 1945. In 1989, the Community had only 30 members and in 2012 it had risen to 1,300. Most came from the former Soviet republics.

For Novi Magazin: Sonja Licht