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.
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