It would be unfair, however, to attribute Merkel’s relative popularity to the preference of German voters for continuity and their apprehensions about change. Under her stewardship Germany’s economy is back to growth, and it retains and has even enhanced its position as a world leader. Next week’s election is attracting much international attention because Germany’s role in ensuring the survival of the EU is vital, while some also are looking at its rise to dominance with some trepidation, because of the country’s past.
Merkel has successfully steered Germany’s economy out of the 2008 crisis, while many other Eurozone countries have struggled. When the German voters cast their ballots next Sunday, in the forefront of their minds will be that since Merkel became their chancellor in 2005 unemployment has halved, and in terms of growth the country has outperformed most of its Eurozone partners. Moreover, it would not escape voters’ attention that unlike most of the rest of the developed world Germany is running a near record budget surplus. A victory for Merkel would reaffirm Bill Clinton’s slogan when he first ran for office during a sluggish period for the American economy: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
It has been argued that the foundations of her success were laid by the center-left government before hers, and radically reformed the labor market by encouraging people to seek jobs. This might be true, but it is a test of leadership to build and improve on the foundations set by one’s predecessors. Doing so for 12 years is no mean achievement. The strength of its economy has enabled Germany to sustain a high level of public services and also enjoy one of the best social security systems in the world. It manages to do so by maintaining high levels of productivity, and by discouraging unemployment and reliance on the welfare system. These conditions make it easier for the ruling CDU to fend off any challenge, including from its main rival, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) led by Martin Schulz, who until recently was president of the European Parliament.
The German chancellor is heading for a fourth term in office because she has refused to compromise on her centrist principles and has presided over a booming economy.
Immigration, considering the current atmosphere in Europe, will inevitably play a central role in any election, provoking passionate, in many cases bellicose, debate. Germany is no exception: much of the debate revolves around immigration, and as a corollary the questions of integration and German identity. Nearly half of German voters expressed in opinion surveys their concerns about the issue of refugees and integration. No other issue is as important to Germans.
Merkel made an admirable moral stand when she opened the door for millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq over the last two years to settle in Germany. This in return drew criticism not only from her political rivals but also from within her own party. But at no point has she wavered or apologized for pursuing a principled policy, even at the expense of some vile attacks against her or losing, at least temporarily, public support. The arrival of refugees opened quite an unpleasant debate about German’s Leitkultur (leading culture), much of which has been anti-Muslim or opposed to other minorities in general, and the emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The latter, which holds abhorrent, far-right xenophobic views, will probably enter the Bundestag after these elections. This is a depressing reflection of contemporary European politics, and even more tragic when it enters legitimate German politics.
If the opinion polls are to be believed, Merkel’s 15 percent lead would enable her not only to retain office, but also to select carefully her coalition partners. Since no party wins an absolute majority in German elections, all governments are coalitions. It is not inconceivable that the current Grand Coalition between Germany’s two biggest centrist parties, the CDU and the SPD, will continue. This makes double sense for Merkel, as it will provide stability for the duration of the government, and will also keep its main rival engaged in running the country instead of preparing the ground to mount a more credible electoral challenge. However, a strong showing at the ballot box would also enable Merkel to contemplate an alternative coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), the Green Party, or even both.
Merkel dominates the political discourse by adhering to centrist messages that appeal to those who foster moderate views with slight inclinations to either the right or the left. When much of the political conversation in Europe and beyond became polarized, Merkel stuck to middle ground messages, and this seems about to pay off at the ballot box with her fourth term in office.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the
international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg