Elections this year in the Netherlands and France commanded the attention of the world’s media. The rise of populism, the election of US President Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the EU were the hot topics of the time. Tensions eased when Mark Rutte was returned to run Holland and Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France.
No one can escape coverage of the German election in the German-speaking part of Europe. On the global stage, however, the media seem more or less oblivious to the campaign.
Initially, Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) declined in popularity, because Germans were grappling with how to deal with and integrate all those refugees from significantly different cultural backgrounds. As the campaign continues, though, it has become obvious that the CDU and the other main party, the social democrats (SPD), are advancing similar causes and values. Both chose family policies, pension reform, securing jobs and the integration of immigrants as cornerstones of their campaigns. The CDU advocates a more center-right position and the SPD a more center-left one, as might be expected from two parties whose “big coalition” government has ruled for the past four years. Even the two parties’ campaign posters might seem to the outsider to be interchangeable — with the exception that the CDU emphasises that Merkel is the only true leader.
Merkel and the SPD leader Martin Schulz, a former head of the European Parliament, faced off on Sunday night in their only televised debate. Schulz has had a difficult time gaining ground. In late spring he came in with a lot of bravado, but his early poll lead has evaporated. It has been difficult for him to advance his positions. He is a candidate pure and simple, with no public office, giving him much less media coverage than if he had held a ministerial position.
The debate did not go badly for Schulz. He exceeded expectations. However, it went very well for Merkel, who demonstrated clear leadership. The most noteworthy aspect of the debate was that two thirds of the time was allocated to foreign policy issues: Refugees and their integration, how to deal with the fraught relationship with Turkey and how Europe should deal with US foreign policy under Donald Trump. Only one third of the time was allocated to jobs, pensions, education and family, which after all are the core campaign issues of both parties, alongside the refugee crisis. The leader of the Green Party, Katrin Goering-Eckardt, summed it up nicely when she joked that Schulz came across well as a future foreign minister under Chancellor Merkel.
The world’s attention is understandably elsewhere, but how Germans vote this month will have profound significance far outside their borders.
It looks probable that the CDU will capture enough seats to build the next government. The question will be who the coalition partner should be: The Liberal Democrats (LDP), if they make it again into Parliament, or the SPD — or even the Greens, which is less likely. Merkel will have her work cut out to convince any party to join her in governing. Neither the LDP nor the SPD emerged from their coalitions with the CDU unscathed, earning Merkel the nickname of the Teflon Chancellor. During the debate she drew a clear red line by saying that she would never enter into coalition with either the ultra-right, populist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) or the ultra-left Linke.
Who Merkel choses to rule with is not the only important issue. The electoral performance of the AfD and the Linke will matter too. Those two parties and what they stand for polarize the political landscape well beyond Germany.
Both parties are popular in the former East Germany, mainly because of economic, demographic and social imbalances. The states that once belonged to the German Democratic Republic have not shared in Germany’s economic success over the past decade and are home to proportionally more long-term unemployed than the Western states. Many young people left for the West in search of jobs. Indeed, if the former East Germany were separated from the Federation, it would have the world’s oldest population.
Global media may have neglected the German elections so far. They can be forgiven for being preoccupied with the big issues of the day such as Korea, Hurricane Harvey and Donald Trump. However, what happens on Sept. 24 in Germany will be important to the world economy and to the political fabric of Europe.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources