LET­TER FROM BER­LIN: BACK ON TOP

An­gela Merkel looks set to stay in charge of Ger­many as na­tional elec­tions ap­proach, ce­ment­ing Ger­man pros­per­ity and engagement with Europe.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents -

An­gela Merkel looks set to stay in charge of Ger­many as na­tional elec­tions ap­proach

In re­cent times, dis­sat­is­fac­tion has driven elec­tions around the world – be it through the pop­ulist pushes away from the gov­ern­ing elite that led to Brexit and Donald Trump’s vic­tory, or fresh faces like French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron of­fer­ing to over­haul a stag­nat­ing econ­omy.

Yet in Ger­many, which holds its own na­tional elec­tions on Septem­ber 24, there’s a dif­fer­ent story; vot­ers are seek­ing to up­hold their sta­tus quo rather than oust it, and right now the prospects of that are look­ing pretty good.

Un­em­ploy­ment, cur­rently at 5.3 per cent, has dropped to its low­est level since Ger­man Re­uni­fi­ca­tion nearly three decades ago. Both salaries and pen­sions are in­creas­ing. Economic op­ti­mism has hit a 16-year high, with pri­vate spend­ing ex­pected to grow in the next year, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey from the GFK In­sti­tute. And in Au­gust, the govern­ment sig­nif­i­cantly ramped up state sub­si­dies for up-and-com­ing in­dus­tries such as elec­tric cars as well as broad­band In­ter­net in less cov­ered re­gions of the coun­try.

All th­ese signs of sta­bil­ity and growth are a boost for Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, whose right-of-cen­tre Chris­tian Democrats (CDU) are polling at about 14 per­cent­age points ahead of the So­cial Democrats and its cen­tre-left can­di­date Martin Schulz. Should she win, Merkel will en­ter her fourth term in a coun­try that has been gov­erned by a Chris­tian Demo­crat for 48 years out of its 68-year mod­ern his­tory as a Fed­eral Repub­lic.

“I think Merkel def­i­nitely stands for longterm con­ti­nu­ity and I think this is some­thing that a ma­jor­ity of Ger­mans ap­pre­ci­ate be­cause it gives de­grees of cer­tainty and pre­dictabil­ity,” says Jo­erg For­brig, a se­nior transat­lantic fel­low at the Ger­man Marshall Fund in Ber­lin.

Still Merkel has faced sharp crit­i­cism dur­ing her lat­est ten­ure, the bulk of which has been for her Wilkom­men skul­tur pro­gramme, which al­lowed in over one mil­lion refugees in 2015, mostly from Syria. She’s also been called out for the coun­try’s first ever wave of ter­ror­ist at­tacks in 2016, some car­ried out by more re­cent ar­rivals. Yet Merkel’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings – with 64 per­cent of Ger­mans say­ing they sup­port Merkel – are now back to where they were be­fore the refugee cri­sis. This is a re­mark­able turn­around for Merkel, who was be­ing writ­ten off at the end of 2016 by in­ter­na­tional me­dia. In De­cem­ber 2016, CNN ran a head­line say­ing that Merkel “may be the big­gest loser in 2017”.

Iron­i­cally, it is the search for se­cu­rity that has drawn many back to Merkel, es­pe­cially af­ter mass vi­o­lent riots that broke out at the G20 Sum­mit in July in the Spd-gov­erned city-state of Ham­burg. In its cam­paign, the Chris­tians Democrats have pro­posed new measures to strengthen in­ter­nal se­cu­rity, in­clud­ing boost­ing num­ber of po­lice of­fi­cers, strength­en­ing the coun­try’s de­fence bud­get to two per cent of GDP and, most con­tro­ver­sially, ex­pand­ing video surveil­lance in public places.

The Chris­tian Demo­crat pro­gramme also pro­poses measures to fur­ther strengthen the econ­omy, in­clud­ing eas­ing the tax bur­den on Ger­many’s fa­mous Mit­tel­stand, the fam­ily-run small and medium-sized busi­nesses that still make up the heart of the coun­try’s econ­omy.

The So­cial Demo­crat party (SPD), which has spent more money than any other po­lit­i­cal party in Ger­many on its cam­paign, is try­ing to catch up. The party’s pop­u­lar­ity briefly spiked ear­lier this year – es­pe­cially among younger vot­ers – when charis­matic Martin Schutz re­placed Sig­mar Gabriel as party leader and can­di­date for chan­cel­lor. Dubbed by the me­dia here as the “Ger­man Ber­lin San­ders”, Schutz ran on a so­cial jus­tice ticket for the “ev­ery­day man”, in­tro­duc­ing new measures to re­lieve the tax bur­den on low and mid­dle in­come peo­ple.

But the fail­ure of the so-called “Schutz ef­fect” shows that pop­ulism on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum doesn’t seem to do well in Ger­many. Many Ger­mans ini­tially feared the rise of the right-wing Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AFD), which in state elec­tions last Septem­ber made it into 13 out of 16 state par­lia­ments. Ini­tially founded on an anti-euro plat­form in 2013, the party is now mainly geared to­wards stop­ping or se­verely re­strict­ing refugees. The Afd’s pop­u­lar­ity has waned as party lead­ers have de­scend­ing into se­ri­ous in­fight­ing and chaos.

While AFD may re­ceive the five per­cent vote thresh­old it needs to make it into the

na­tional par­lia­ment, hav­ing nar­rowly missed it in the 2013 elec­tions, it is un­likely to find a party to form a coali­tion with – a nor­mal task in Ger­man pol­i­tics. The party also stands against the Ger­man Zeit­geist in many ways: it is skep­ti­cal about global warm­ing, call­ing for Ger­many to spend less on wind en­ergy. Yet 71 per­cent of Ger­mans de­clare cli­mate change as their big­gest per­sonal fear, more than ter­ror­ism, in a poll car­ried out this sum­mer by the Kan­tar EMNID opin­ion re­search cen­tre.

Back in Ber­lin, it is hard to tell that elec­tions are on the way. No po­lit­i­cal posters are yet on the streets, as Ger­man law does not al­low such cam­paign­ing un­til six weeks be­fore the elec­tions. Even Merkel has left for her typ­i­cal three weeks of hol­i­day in the Ital­ian Alps in Au­gust. Yet the CDU has al­ready pre­pared its cam­paign posters, dis­play­ing a sense of na­tional pride that in re­cent times in Ger­many was mostly just felt at foot­ball matches. In a se­ries of CDU elec­tion cam­paign posters, Merkel stands con­fi­dently be­hind a Ger­man tri-color flag – in the past, flags were muted in po­lit­i­cal posters – with the motto “For a Ger­many in which we live well and hap­pily.”

Back in Ber­lin, or­derly cam­paign posters — al­lowed to be un­veiled only six weeks be­fore the elec­tions — are the main sign elec­tions are un­der­way. No cut­throat cam­paign­ing ev­i­dent in other coun­tries is here: Merkel has only re­cently re­turned from her typ­i­cal three week hol­i­day in the Ital­ian Alps in Au­gust. Her CDU posters dis­play a sense of na­tional pride that in re­cent times in Ger­many was were mostly just felt at foot­ball matches. In them, Merkel stands con­fi­dently be­hind a Ger­man trip-color flag — in the past, flags were muted in po­lit­i­cal posters — with a motto “For a Ger­many in which we live well and hap­pily.”

ON THE COVER GUO GUANGCHANG PHO­TOG­RA­PHY GARY FU @ STARS PRO­DUC­TION

RACHEL STERN Rachel Stern is a Ber­lin-based jour­nal­ist who has cov­ered Ger­man and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for a wide va­ri­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Die Zeit, Deutsche Welle and USA To­day.

Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel at G20 sum­mit on July 08, 2017 in Ham­burg, Ger­many.

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