In Ger­many, anger is the pre­vail­ing mood

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - MATTHIAS KOLB

Ahead of the Bavar­ian elec­tion, anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ment and an­tipa­thy to­ward Merkel is rife – and nine mil­lion vot­ers stand to shake things up

Ed­i­tor for Sud­deutsche Zeitung in Mu­nich, and an Arthur F. Burns fel­low

Ina so­ci­ety as ob­sessed with soc­cer as Ger­many, the per­for­mance­ofit­sna­tion­al­teamis of­ten seen as a barom­e­ter for the state of the whole coun­try. In 2006, one year af­ter she nar­rowly won her first fed­eral elec­tion, chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel en­joyed four spec­tac­u­lar weeks as “fan-in-chief,” dur­ing which time Ger­many hosted the World Cup and al­most made it to the fi­nal – a suc­cess­ful show­ing that lifted the na­tion’s spirit and co­in­cided with an eco­nomic boom.

In June, the Na­tional­mannschaft ar­rived at this year’s World Cup in Rus­sia as de­fend­ing cham­pion. The team, how­ever, played poorly and didn’t sur­vive the group phase. This un­ex­pected hu­mil­i­a­tion was a big sur­prise to Ger­many’s soc­cer fans (a.k.a. the en­tire coun­try) and has, in sub­se­quent months, fu­elled an emo­tional, of­ten ir­ra­tional de­bate about Ger­man iden­tity, its role in the world and the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture of Ms. Merkel. Two years ago, af­ter Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion to the White House, she was de­scribed as both “the leader of the free world” and “the most pow­er­ful woman in the world.” Since then, her power has slowly faded away and, very soon, it will be even harder for her to gov­ern Europe’s most-im­por­tant econ­omy.

This Sun­day, nine mil­lion vot­ers in Bavaria will dis­rupt Ger­man pol­i­tics. The re­gion has long been con­trolled by the con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU). The party, on the fed­eral level, aligns with Ms. Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU), which doesn’t com­pete in Bavar­ian elec­tions. This time, polls pre­dict the CSU will lose a sig­nif­i­cant amount of sup­port – the lat­est num­bers show the party hov­er­ing around 33 per cent, down from the 48 per cent share of the pop­u­lar vote it re­ceived in 2013. At the same time, the xeno­pho­bic Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) is neck-and-neck with the Green Party. If the polls are ac­cu­rate, this will be the CSU’s worst show­ing since 1950.

The hor­ri­ble num­bers are sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing the state of the re­gion, where unem­ploy­ment is un­der 3 per cent. (Bavaria is home not only to Ok­to­ber­fest but to BMW, Audi and Siemens.) But many Ger­mans are still an­gry that, three years ago, Ms. Merkel al­lowed­hun­dred­soft­hou­sand­sof refugees to en­ter the coun­try. The rise of the AfD is di­rectly con­nected to the fear of many vot­ers that this in­flux (of mostly Mus­lims) from Syria and Iraq will change the fab­ric of Ger­man so­ci­ety and Ms. Merkel, who is not the most skilled pub­lic speaker, has not been able to ef­fi­ciently counter this sen­ti­ment. Even more dam­ag­ing is that one of her big­gest crit­ics has been Horst See­hofer, the leader of CSU and who also hap­pen­sto­beMin­is­teroftheIn­te­rior – which over­sees refugee and mi­gra­tion pol­icy – in Ms. Merkel’s cab­i­net.

No politi­cian has con­trib­uted more to the grow­ing dis­gust Ger­mans feel to­ward the po­lit­i­cal sys- tem than the 69-year-old Mr. See­hofer. With the Bavar­ian re­gional elec­tions loom­ing, the CSU leader and his un­der­lings of­ten seemed to par­rot the ex­ag­ger­ated slo­gans of the AfD about refugees be­ing a se­cu­rity risk for the coun­try. In June, he al­most caused the split of the gov­ern­ment over an ir­rel­e­vant but sym­bolic is­sue: asy­lum seek­ers cross­ing the bor­der from Aus­tria to Bavaria. But the only party to profit from this cir­cus was the AfD, whose lead­ers and fol­low­ers talk about refugees non­stop. How did An­gela Merkel re­act? She shrugged off all the per­sonal in­sults and went back to work.

This first gov­ern­ment cri­sis took place be­fore the World Cup, and mil­lions of Ger­mans no doubt hoped the tour­na­ment would pro­vide a much-needed break from this di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal de­bate. But the dis­mal per­for­mance of the na­tional team started a heated dis­cus­sion about what it means to be Ger­man. For weeks, the­coun­try­dis­cussedapic­tureon In­sta­gram that showed na­tional player Me­sut Ozil with Turkey’s pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. Mr. Ozil was born in Ger­many to Turk­ish par­ents and took the pic­ture with the pres­i­dent out of “re­spect.” For­mer soc­cer stars, AfD and the coun­try’s big­gest tabloid, Bild, went crazy – ques­tion­ing Mr. Ozil’s sol­i­dar­ity with Ger­many and blam­ing him for the na­tional team’s hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feat.

The rea­son­able crit­i­cism – should a star player be seen palling around with an au­to­cratic politi­cian? – was over­shad­owed by a nasty rhetoric that laid bare ugly stereo­types. On so­cial me­dia, Ger­mans with for­eign par­ents told sto­ries of ev­ery­day racism and the feel­ingth­atthey­w­ere­only­ac­cepted so long as they be­haved prop­erly, i.e. like a “Ger­man.” As Mr. Ozil put it in his let­ter of res­ig­na­tion from the team: “I’m Ger­man when we win and an im­mi­grant when we lose.”

The emo­tional Ozil de­bate had other, un­for­tu­nate side ef­fects, such as pre­vent­ing Ger­mans from dis­cussing more-press­ing and im­por­tant chal­lenges fac­ing the coun­try, as well as mak­ing ev­ery­one for­get just how blessed the coun­try re­ally was. Cheer Up, Deutsch­land­wasthe­head­li­ne­ofa re­cent ar­ti­cle in The Econ­o­mist that iden­ti­fied a very dif­fer­ent threat to Ger­many: its out-of-size pes­simism. Life is also pretty good out­side­ofBavari­a­too: Theecon­omy is do­ing well, the qual­ity of life is high (Ger­many ranks num­ber 5 in the United Na­tion’s lat­est Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex, while Canada is at 12) and the crime rate is at its low­est lev­els in 30 years.

At the same time, moans The Econ­o­mist, many Ger­mans ig­nore the good news about im­mi­grants: “By April this year 26% of refugees ad­mit­ted to Ger­many since 2015 were in em­ploy­ment, more than ex­pected” and “the pro­por­tionofnon-eth­nicGer­man res­i­dents is ris­ing fast, with ever more reach­ing prom­i­nent roles in pub­lic life. The share of MPs with a mi­grant back­ground rose from 3% to 9% over the two elec­tions to 2017.” This week, Mr. See­hofer had to ac­knowl­edge that the num­ber of refugees ar­riv­ing in Ger­many will be ap­prox­i­mately 160,000 in 2018 – sig­nif­i­cantly lower than he had pre­dicted to sup­port his strict poli­cies.

Has the time to calm down fi­nally ar­rived? Not re­ally, be­cause the pre­vail­ing mood in Ger­many these days is anger. Con­ser­va­tive vot­ers are mad at Ms. Merkel for mod­ern­iz­ing their party, pro­gres­sivesinthecitiesareafraid­of­both the AfD and Mr. See­hofer, and many racial­ized Ger­mans are scared­to­trav­el­toeast­ernGer­man cities such as Chem­nitz, where a far-right mob chased mi­grants through the streets in Au­gust. This made head­lines around the world and led to an­other, bizarre episode: Hans-Ge­org Maassen, the head of Ger­many’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence, told a tabloid that the videos show­ing the in­ci­dent were fake de­spite the fact he had no ev­i­dence to back up his claim. He was ac­cused of play­ing down far-right vi­o­lence. When calls for his res­ig­na­tion grew louder, the spy­mas­ter was in­stead in­ex­pli­ca­bly given a pro­mo­tion (and higher salary) in Mr. See­hofer’s min­istry. The pub­lic out­cry was so huge that one week later Mr. Maassen was given a dif­fer­ent job and Ms. Merkel of­fered a rare apol­ogy.

The Maassen episode il­lu­mi­nated an­other prob­lem for both Ms. Merkel and Mr. See­hofer: They have be­come out-of-touch with the elec­torate, and the CSU, es­pe­cially, will pay the price on Sun­day. In po­lit­i­cal cir­cles in Ber­lin and Mu­nich ru­mours swirl that Mr. See­hofer will be made the scape­goat for Sun­day’s (ex­pected) disas­trous results and be forced out of pol­i­tics. Ms. Merkel would rid her­self of an an­noy­ing an­tag­o­nist, but­leave­hercoali­tion gov­ern­ment weak­ened. If that hap­pens, some in the CDU worry their Bavar­ian sis­ter party might be­gin act­ing like a “wounded boar.” Such a sit­u­a­tion could prove un­pre­dictable, fears one CDU of­fi­cial: “No­body knows how a boar will re­act when you shoot it but don’t kill it. The hunter knows only that it’s a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion.”

Ms. Merkel won’t get a break any­time soon: An­other re­gional elec­tion (in Hesse) takes place in late Oc­to­ber, while in De­cem­ber Ms. Merkel will be chal­lenged for the first time in 18 years in her re­elec­tion bid for the CDU lead­er­ship.

Al­though she is still ad­mired around the world for her lead­er­ship and feared in Brus­sels and other Euro­pean cap­i­tals for her ne­go­ti­at­ing skills, Merkel fa­tigue is ev­ery­where in Ger­many. Ev­ery­one can see her di­min­ished author­ity. Many vot­ers long for pas­sion and bold ideas – which are ex­actly the things that the ul­tra­prag­ma­tist Ms. Merkel avoids. Po­lit­i­cal pre­dic­tions are a mug’s game, but the rest of the world should slowly get used to the idea of some­one else gov­ern­ing Europe’s big­gest coun­try in the notso-dis­tant fu­ture.

The Maassen episode il­lu­mi­nated an­other prob­lem for both Ms. Merkel and Mr. See­hofer: They have be­come out-of-touch with the elec­torate, and the CSU, es­pe­cially, will pay the price on Sun­day.

CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

De­stroyed posters for Bavar­ian Min­is­ter-Pres­i­dent Markus Soder of the Chris­tian So­cial Union are seen in Mu­nich on Oct. 10. The CSU aligns with An­gela Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union; the CDU doesn’t com­pete in Bavaria. Polls pre­dict the CSU will lose much sup­port in the re­gion.

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