Ger­man vot­ers long for new start, clear de­ci­sions and long-term strat­egy

The Irish Times - - World News - Derek Scally

Like mil­lions of Ger­mans, Hel­mut Gels was glued to the sus­pense-filled han­dover of power in Ham­burg.

Gels is the CDU mayor of Vechta, a ru­ral town in Lower Sax­ony where his party scored its strong­est fed­eral elec­tion re­sult in the coun­try: a whop­ping 53 per cent, dou­ble the dis­as­trous na­tional fig­ure.

But that re­sult was down 10 points on 2013, and even Gels, pro­fess­ing his “huge re­spect” for An­gela Merkel, con­cedes that her time had passed.

Merkel’s po­lit­i­cal legacy re­mains, he says: un­flap­pable in the euro crises, non­plussed by al­pha-male pop­ulists and be­hind a “coura­geous de­ci­sion in 2015 to let in peo­ple flee­ing for their lives”.

Then comes the but. “There has been too much pussy­foot­ing around,” said Gels, “and that an­noys and un­set­tles peo­ple.”

Ask him – or any other Ger­man mayor – where things are stuck, and you should brace your­self for a long list.

Three years of emer­gency sum­mit shadow-box­ing over diesel and the fu­ture of mo­bil­ity – and this in the coun­try that in­vented the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine. Doubts over whether Ger­many can man­age the so-called en­ergy tran­si­tion to re­new­ables in 2022, when the last nu­clear plant goes from the grid.

And, like Ire­land, Ger­many is tied up in pro­ce­dural knots over broad­band roll­out, with many fear­ing Europe’s lead­ing in­dus­trial na­tion will miss the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion.

Time of pros­per­ity

The 15-year Merkel era so far has been a time of pros­per­ity and sta­bil­ity in Ger­many com­pared with else­where in Europe, with a post­war record job­less low and a se­ries of bal­anced bud­gets. But crit­ics sug­gest Merkel pushed no ma­jor so­cial, eco­nomic or tax re­forms of her own, and al­lowed a dras­tic slide in Ger­many’s cli­mate change am­bi­tion.

In­stead of de­cid­ing the big fu­ture projects, Gels – echo­ing many around Ger­many – sug­gests Merkel-era Ger­many em­braced a sit-it-out ap­proach on cru­cial de­ci­sions.

“If I make a de­ci­sion I know at least one per­son will be against me,” he says, “but if I make no de­ci­sion I have ev­ery­one against me, and then the pop­ulists move in and prom­ise ev­ery­thing.”

Merkel crit­ics are quick to blame her for a so­porific mood both in the CDU and Ber­lin’s cor­ri­dors of power.

But as party leader, Merkel was re-elected bian­nu­ally with lev­els of sup­port that never dipped be­low 88 per cent. In al­most two decades, she trans­formed the CDU from an ageing party of the right be­yond ur­ban ar­eas to a cen­trist party more palat­able with younger city dwellers.

Her CDU mod­ernised – slaugh­ter­ing holy cows such as nu­clear power, mil­i­tary ser­vice and euro bailouts – but al­ways with a re­sound­ing party con­fer­ence man­date.

Even her con­tro­ver­sial Au­gust 2015 de­ci­sion not to close Ger­man bor­ders to asy­lum seek­ers, al­low­ing the rise of the far-right AfD, was backed by CDU del­e­gates four months later.

Lead­ing CDU fig­ures in Ham­burg con­ceded Ger­many, un­der Merkel, has been sleep­walk­ing into the post-Brexit EU and de­manded a “new style” of lead­er­ship.

“I un­der­stand that this chan­cel­lor­ship was in­flu­enced by crises,” said Ar­min Laschet, pow­er­ful CDU state premier of North Rhine-West­phalia. “But it would be nice if we en­tered a new era in which Ger­many sets its own im­pulses.”

Del­e­gates in Ham­burg from Vechta and en­vi­rons agreed, say­ing Ger­man vot­ers wanted a new start, clear de­ci­sions and long-term strat­egy.

As del­e­gate Nor­bert Bock­stett put it: “The ar­bi­trari­ness in Ger­many pol­i­tics has to end.”

‘‘ There has been too much pussy­foot­ing around, and that an­noys peo­ple

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