Germany holds an election soon — and there’s more to it than meets the eye

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In just a little over a year, Britain has voted to Brexit, and
America has elected Donald Trump.

In France, extremists on the far left and the far right took
nearly half of the vote in the first round of the presidential
election. In the second round, French voters coalesced around a
candidate who is moderate yet shot to victory on the back of a
new movement that pulverized the political landscape.

Every one of these elections thus had one crucial thing in
common: It represented a huge shock to the system. So it is all
the more striking that the story heading into Germany’s vote on
Sept. 24 seems to be one of continuity rather than change.

But it was a satirical magazine that best captured the
overall feel of Merkel’s bid for re-election. With campaign
spending tightly limited, German parties traditionally rely
on billboards to get their messages out. On the fakes
designed by Titanic, though, the slogan of Merkel’s
party simply
reads
: “As if we even had to bother putting up
billboards!”

There are a few factors that explain why Merkel has barely
had to sweat—even though establishment politicians in other
Western democracies have been besieged by populist
challengers from the right and left. For one thing, Germany’s
economy has done comparatively well for the past decade. In
light of its past, Germans may also have a deeper aversion to
radical political experiments.

Finally, Merkel has undoubtedly been a competent chancellor:
Calm, moderate, and highly deliberate, she remains one of the
world’s least divisive leaders. As George Packer, quoting the
German columnist Georg Diez, wrote in the best
profile of her to date
, she “took the politics out
of politics.”


angela merkelFrancois
Lenoir/Reuters

If voters are willing to put Merkel back in charge, the
reason is in good part because, unlike her brash predecessor,
she is minimally invasive.

So it is perfectly understandable that most journalists
have focused on the remarkable stability of Germany’s
political system or celebrated Merkel’s imminent re-election
as a healthy sign for liberal democracy.

And yet, the German election campaign has been much
more eventful than most foreign observers have noticed: If
you scratch the surface, it quickly becomes apparent that
populism is making significant inroads in Germany—and that
Merkel herself is, at best, a highly imperfect defender of
liberal values.

For all of modern Germany’s supposed immunity from the far
right, extremist parties have celebrated significant
successes in local or state elections at several points in
the history of the federal republic. But when general
elections rolled around, these parties reliably failed to
garner the 5 percent of the vote they needed to win seats.

This is now likely to change. Four years ago, the
far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD,
narrowly fell short of the votes it needed to enter the
national parliament. Since then, it has entered 12 out of
16 state parliaments. Polling at just under 10 percent
nationally, it is now virtually certain to enter the
Bundestag—becoming the first right-wing extremist
party to do so since World War II.

And though the AfD likes to appear more moderate than its
far-right predecessors, there can be little doubt that it
is indeed extremist. This is in part a matter
of policy
. The party wants to take most powers back
from Brussels or (failing that) leave the European Union.
It wants to abolish the euro. It wants to close American
Army bases. It wants to ban the burqa and abolish minarets.
And of course it wants to curtail immigration and stop
refugees from reaching Germany.

But if the party’s proposed policies are radical, its
rhetoric is even more so. Alexander Gauland, one of the
party’s leaders, has called Merkel a “dictator” and
suggested that Aydan Özoguz, a Social Democratic politician
with roots in Turkey, should be “disposed
of in Anatolia
.” Meanwhile, Alice Weidel, the party’s
other leader, reportedly
wrote an email
in which she lamented that Germany is
being “overrun by foreign peoples like Arabs.” The “pigs”
who govern Germany, she suggested, “are just puppets of the
victors of World War II and have the task of keeping down
the German people by getting so many foreigners into the
country that our cities will erupt into small civil wars.”


Angela Merkel German election placard
A
supporter holds a placard depicting German Chancellor
Angela Merkel, with the slogan: “Mom’s doing it,” during a
Christian Democratic Union election campaign meeting in
Munich, September 20, 2013.

REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Even if it does better than expected, the AfD will, in the
short run, have little direct influence on public policy:
Germany’s mainstream parties will continue to shun it. And
yet, the AfD is already setting the terms of the debate: In
their only TV matchup, for example, Merkel and Schulz spent
about half of their time talking about refugees, Muslim
immigrants, and Germany’s relationship to Turkey.

Once the AfD is represented in the Bundestag, its ability
to set the agenda will only keep growing. And if the
experience of other European countries is any guide, this
will give people like Gauland and Weidel a big opportunity
to expand their base over the coming years. Though its
success so far is less spectacular than that of similar
parties in other parts of the continent, it would be
bizarre to see the AfD’s breakthrough as anything other
than a potential turning point in Germany’s postwar
history.

But doesn’t it count for something that Angela Merkel can
keep standing up for liberal values over the next four
years?

It is easy to understand why Merkel has been invested with
such high hopes. In a famous
photograph
from the spring of 2016, Merkel is pictured
standing between Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David
Cameron, French President François Hollande, and Italian
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at a G-8 summit. All four of
the others have long since left office. As the last woman
standing, Merkel has quickly come to be seen as “the new
leader of the free world
.” But this fundamentally
misunderstands both Germany’s ability and its willingness
to defend liberal values around the globe.

Since Merkel has always relied on coalition partners to
cobble together a parliamentary majority—and will likely
have to keep doing so after this election—these limitations
are in part imposed by the views of her allies. Her current
coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party,
for example, has abandoned all sense of responsibility over
the course of the campaign. Gerhard Schröder, the party’s
most recent chancellor, recently accepted a position on the
board of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian gas
giant—essentially joining the class of Russian kleptocrats.

Meanwhile, Sigmar Gabriel, the current foreign secretary,
joined Schröder and Vladimir Putin for a secret
dinner
in St. Petersburg, Russia; around the same time,
he attacked the notion that Germany might one day spend 2
percent of its GDP on its military, as required by NATO, as
“absurd.” To complete the trifecta, Hubertus Heil, the
party’s general secretary, takes every opportunity to rail
against “autocrats like Erdogan and Trump”—but remains
strangely silent on Vladimir Putin. So the better her
current coalition partner does, the more difficult it will
prove for Merkel to hold a tough line on Russia.


merkel putin
Russian
President Vladimir Putin (R) and German Chancellor Angela
Merkel answer journalists’ questions during a joint news
conference in Moscow, November 16, 2012.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Unlike the SPD, Merkel does not harbor any illusions about
the threat Putin poses. But when it comes to other key
issues on which German leadership would be desperately
needed in the world, she has been little better than them.

For one, Merkel has been blatantly unwilling to take a
principled stance on the populist strongmen who are
increasingly undermining liberal democracy in neighboring
countries like Hungary.

Shockingly, for example, the Fidesz party led by
Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s increasingly
autocratic
leader, is still a member of the “European
People’s Party,” the same grouping in the European
Parliament to which Merkel’s Christian Democrats also
belong.

For another, Merkel has so far proved unwilling to reform
the European Union in a meaningful way. While she has done
just enough to stop Greece from crashing out of the
eurozone, she refused to countenance the structural changes
that would be needed to solve the lingering problems of the
single currency.

By proposing to give the eurozone a lot more
freedom—including a budget and an independent finance
minister—Emmanuel Macron has raised hopes that the EU might
finally address its flaws. As in the past, Merkel has
signaled her willingness to consider these plans. But as in
the past, her deep reluctance to go beyond the realm of the
immediately necessary makes it unlikely that she would
allow Macron’s proposals to turn into reality. And so her
lack of political vision may once again doom a valiant
effort to make the euro sustainable.

With Merkel set to return to the chancellery this month,
Germany is, for the next four years, unlikely to slide
into the kind of political crisis that is now consuming
Britain and the United States. In highly turbulent times,
this is something to savor—and for Germans to take pride
in.

But the political calm that has so widely been celebrated
both within and outside Germany is rather more vulnerable
than it seems. The forces of populism are rapidly rising
within the country. The next government will likely find
it just as difficult to promote liberal democracy, or to
fix Europe’s problems, as the previous one. While the
crisis is not yet imminent, discontent with the status
quo goes much deeper than most observers have
acknowledged.

Thinking about Germany’s political situation over the
past days, an old German saying has kept coming back to
me: “aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben”—to put something
off is not to cancel it. The storm that so many people
had predicted is, thank God, being postponed; but there
is every reason to fear that the country’s current calm
won’t hold forever.



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