For all the posters and placards that clutter every German city, it’s hard for many Germans to be entirely enthusiastic about this election.
A year or so ago, there were doubts about Angela Merkel’s chances of securing a fourth successive term in the Bundestag. Merkel heads an alliance between the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands and the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, or CDU/CSU).
Her decision to open Germany’s borders to over one million migrants, many fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, was a wager on both Europe’s willingness to stand with her and Germany’s capacity to integrate its new arrivals. Sensing blood, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party, or SPD) brought in Martin Schultz, a veteran politician and President of the European Parliament from 2012 – 2017, to try and oust Merkel from her grip on power.
However, despite Merkel’s belief in Europe’s willingness to receive migrants turning out to be naïve, Germany has done a far better job than many expected in integrating them.
Further, the SPD has not been in a position to take advantage of the momentary weakness of Merkel’s CDU/CSU coalition. The party has hardened its stance on migrants for this electoral campaign, however this does not avoid the fact that it was also in government at the time of the migrant crisis. Indeed, one remarkable aspect of the televised ‘debate’ between Schulz and Merkel was the stark lack of difference in their opinions on most issues.
As Britain’s Liberal Democrat Party discovered in 2015, being the junior partner in a governing coalition means taking responsibility for the decisions of a government. Voters are less likely to persevere with a party that sets itself up as an opposition whilst voting alongside the government.
In defending this so-called “grand coalition”, there are those whose say “Es gibt keine Alternative” (There is no alternative). The challenge to this consensus comes from the far-right through the emphatically titled Alternative für Deutschland (the Alternative for Germany, or AfD).
Originally formed as a protest party in the wake of the German-led bail out of Greece in 2013, the AfD had been on the cusp of petering out as a political force before migrant crisis of 2015. They have since used the influx of predominantly Muslim migrants to promote a narrative that Germans are “having their country taken away from them”.
Their policies include leaving the Schengen zone and the Euro, stricter asylum rules, putting all imams through a strict state-vetting regime, as well as banning minarets and criminalising the wearing of any form of veil. Their rise has upset the German establishment. On Thursday, Merkel’s Chief of Staff, Peter Altmeier urged voters to stay at home rather than vote for the far-right.
Whilst the AfD will almost certainly gain more than the 5% of votes necessary to take seats in the Bundestag, polls on Friday suggested that the AfD would garner 11-13% of the vote. Even so, it is unlikely to be higher. The post-war German predilection to shun radicalism has perhaps been heightened by events over the past twelve months.
Not only are many rather aghast at political developments in Anglo-Saxon nations, but they also look at neighbouring Poland, where the right-wing Law and Justice Party have been increasing their hold on power, attempt to curb women’s right to abortion and threatening media independence. Austria too came within a whisker of electing its first far-right president last year.
Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance is set to gain around 36% of the vote. This leaves two potential coalition outcomes – the first, and most likely, would see a continuation of the status quo, with Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance partnering with the SDP to form another “grand coalition”. The second possibility is that of the “Jamaika-Koalition” (Jamaica Coalition), so called because the colours of the three parties that it would comprise – the CDU-CSU, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) – correspond to those the Caribbean nation’s flag.
No change likely
Either way, it is almost inconceivable that Merkel will be vacating her position as chancellor. Should she see out her term, this will make her one of Europe’s longest serving post-war leaders. It is rare for an individual to rule for so long without their political brand stagnating or the individual abusing their power. The latter has occurred in Turkey and Russia whereas long-serving British leaders tend to suffer coups from within their own party.
The US convention, now codified in the constitution, is for two four-year terms. A fourth term for Merkel will see her closing in on Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in power. In a frenetic political landscape Merkel appears to be a rock of serenity. Her mantra “Wir schaffen das” (“we’ll handle it”), has served her well thus far. Who is to say that it won’t continue to do so?