Mer­cu­rial Win for Markel

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s near­est ri­vals, So­cial Democrats and their can­di­date Martin Schulz, came in a dis­tant sec­ond, with a post-war record low 20-21 per­cent

The Day After - - CONTENT - By dr AB­dUl rAUFF

Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, the real force be­hind the con­tin­u­a­tion of EU, clinched a fourth term in Ger­many’s elec­tion last fort­night, but her vic­tory was clouded by the hardright AfD party win­ning its first seats in par­lia­ment.

Merkel, who af­ter 12 years in power held a dou­ble-digit lead for most of the cam­paign, scored around 33 per­cent of the vote with her con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian Union (CDU/CSU) bloc, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. The exit poll made her and her sup­port­ers very happy. Its near­est ri­vals, the So­cial Democrats and their can­di­date Martin Schulz, came in a dis­tant sec­ond, with a post-war record low 20-21 per­cent.

Sup­port­ers gath­ered at the party head­quar­ters in Ber­lin cried out with joy as pub­lic tele­vi­sion re­ported the out­come, many join­ing in a cho­rus of the Ger­man na­tional an­them.

But in a bomb­shell for the Ger­man es­tab­lish­ment, the anti-Is­lam, an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) cap­tured around 13 per­cent, mak­ing it the coun­try’s third big­gest po­lit­i­cal force. The four-year-old na­tion­al­ist party with links to the far-right French Na­tional Front and Bri­tain’s UKIP has been shunned by Ger­many’s main­stream.

While the like­li­hood of the AfD win­ning seats was clear for months, com­men­ta­tors called its strong show­ing a “wa­ter­shed mo­ment” in the his­tory of the Ger­man re­pub­lic. It is now headed for the op­po­si­tion benches of the Bun­destag lower house, dra­mat­i­cally boost­ing its vis­i­bil­ity and state fi­nanc­ing.

Alarmed by the prospect of what For­eign Min­is­ter Sig­mar Gabriel branded “real Nazis” en­ter­ing the Bun­destag for the first time since World War II, the can­di­dates had used their fi­nal days of cam­paign­ing to im­plore vot­ers to re­ject the pop­ulists.

Ger­mans elected a splin­tered par­lia­ment re­flect­ing an elec­torate torn be­tween a high de­gree of sat­is­fac­tion with Merkel and a de­sire for change af­ter more than a decade of her lead­er­ship.

An­other three par­ties cleared the five-per­cent hur­dle to be rep­re­sented in par­lia­ment: the lib­eral Free Democrats at around 10 per­cent and the anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left and ecol­o­gist Greens, both at about nine per­cent.

As Merkel failed to se­cure a rul­ing ma­jor­ity on her own and with the de­jected SPD rul­ing out an­other right-left “grand coali­tion” with her, the process of coali­tion build­ing was shap­ing up to be a thorny, po­ten­tially months-long process.

Merkel, 63, whose cam­paign events were reg­u­larly dis­rupted by jeer­ing AfD sup­port­ers, said in her fi­nal stump speech in the south­ern city of Mu­nich that “the fu­ture of Ger­many will def­i­nitely not be

built with whis­tles and hollers”.

Merkel, of­ten called the most pow­er­ful woman on the global stage, ran on her record as a steady pair of hands in a tur­bu­lent world, warn­ing vot­ers not to in­dulge in “ex­per­i­ments”. Merkel’s re­as­sur­ing mes­sage of sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity res­onated in grey­ing Ger­many, where more than half of the 61 mil­lion vot­ers are aged 52 or older. Her pop­u­lar­ity had largely re­cov­ered from the in­flux since 2015 of more than one mil­lion mostly Mus­lim mi­grants and refugees, half of them from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the AfD was able to cap­i­talise on a well­spring of anger over the asy­lum is­sue dur­ing what was crit­i­cised as a largely lack­lus­tre cam­paign bereft of real clashes among the main con­tenders.

The party has made break­ing taboos its trade­mark. Gauland has called for Ger­mans to shed their guilt over two world wars and the Holo­caust and to take pride in their vet­er­ans. He has also sug­gested that Ger­many’s in­te­gra­tion com­mis­sioner Ay­dan Ozoguz, who has Turk­ish roots, should be “dis­posed of in Ana­to­lia”.

Law stu­dent Sabine Maier dis­missed the AfD as “too ex­treme” as she voted in Ber­lin. But she also crit­i­cised the me­dia for lav­ishly cov­er­ing the most out­ra­geous com­ments by the up­start party. “They aren’t all fas­cists,” she said.

The SPD said its cat­a­strophic re­sult would lead it to seek a stint in op­po­si­tion to rekin­dle its fight­ing spirit. “This is a dif­fi­cult and bit­ter day for Ger­man so­cial democ­racy,” a grim-faced Schulz, a for­mer Euro­pean Par­lia­ment chief, told re­porters, adding that he hoped to re­main party leader.

This would leave Merkel in need of new coali­tion part­ners — pos­si­bly the probusi­ness Free Democrats, who staged a come­back af­ter crash­ing out of par­lia­ment four years ago. In the­ory they could join forces with the left-lean­ing Greens, who, how­ever, starkly dif­fer from the FDP on is­sues from cli­mate change to mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

Schulz, 61, strug­gled to gain trac­tion with his calls for a more so­cially just Ger­many at a time when the econ­omy is hum­ming and em­ploy­ment is at a record low. The SPD also found it hard to shine af­ter four years as the ju­nior part­ner in Merkel’s left­right “grand coali­tion”, marked by broad agree­ment on ma­jor is­sues, from for­eign pol­icy to mi­gra­tion. In the fi­nal stretch, the more out­spo­ken Schulz told vot­ers to re­ject Merkel’s “sleep­ing-pill pol­i­tics” and vote against “an­other four years of stag­na­tion and lethargy”.

An­gela Merkel has been de­rided as Europe’s “aus­ter­ity queen”, cheered as a saviour by refugees and hailed as the new “leader of the free world”. But as the pas­tor’s daugh­ter raised be­hind the Iron Cur­tain just won a fourth term at the helm of Europe’s big­gest econ­omy, many Ger­mans sim­ply call her the “eter­nal chan­cel­lor”.

Merkel was born An­gela Dorothea Kas­ner in 1954 in the port city of Ham­burg. Weeks later her fa­ther, a left­ist Lutheran cler­gy­man, moved the fam­ily to a small town in the com­mu­nist East at a time when most peo­ple were headed the other way.

Biog­ra­phers say life in a po­lice state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts be­hind a poker face. Like most stu­dents, she joined the state’s so­cial­ist youth move­ment but re­jected an of­fer to in­form for the Stasi se­cret po­lice while also stay­ing clear of risky pro-democ­racy ac­tivism.

A top stu­dent, she ex­celled in Rus­sian, which would later help her keep up the di­a­logue with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB of­fi­cer in Dres­den when the Ber­lin Wall fell in 1989.

Dur­ing that mo­men­tous up­heaval, Merkel joined the nascent Demo­cratic Awak­en­ing group, which later merged with the Chris­tian Democrats (CDU) of then-chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl, who fondly if pa­tro­n­is­ingly dubbed Merkel his “girl”. But Merkel’s men­tor was not the last politi­cian to un­der­es­ti­mate her and pay the price. When Kohl be­came em­broiled in a cam­paign fi­nance scan­dal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self­de­clared “old warhorse”.

The move, which has been de­scribed as “Merkelvel­lian”, kicked off her me­te­oric rise. As an out­sider, she re­made the CDU, an­chor­ing it in the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre by push­ing pro­gres­sive so­cial poli­cies, abol­ish­ing com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice and scrap­ping nu­clear power. She emerged as Europe’s go-to leader dur­ing the debt cri­sis, though she was de­rided as a pu­ri­tan­i­cal “aus­ter­ity queen” in the worst-hit south­ern coun­tries.

As she starts her fourth term, there is no chal­lenger in sight, but plenty of chal­lenges ahead for Merkel, whom New Yorker mag­a­zine just la­beled “the most pow­er­ful woman in a world filled with un­sta­ble men”. Brexit and con­sol­i­da­tion of EU, Tur­key’s le­git­i­mate EU mem­ber­ship are some of the is­sues she is likely to con­cen­trate on in the near fu­ture.

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