1. Willing to put Merkel back in charge
The big story about the upcoming elections in Germany is (supposedly) that there is no story.
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.
With less than two weeks to go, it is very likely that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be re-elected for a fourth term in office. And at a time when politics seems to be downright histrionic in many parts of the world, Germany’s election campaign has felt surprisingly soporific. After the only TV debate between Merkel and her main challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, a Berlin paper headlined: “0–0.” Neither of the contestants, the soccer metaphor implied, had scored any goals. Indeed, the accompanying text added, for long stretches it hadn’t even seemed as though Schulz was especially interested in beating his adversary.
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!”
Merkel is, at best, a highly imperfect defender of liberal values.
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.” 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.”
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.