Events in Europe in 2017 are shaping up as vitally important to the security of the Western world. France faces a presidential election, Greek finances remain in turmoil, Britain has to negotiate a peaceful exit from the EU, Russian influence is on the march and Turkey remains a potential powder keg. However, the most important event may be the German elections this year.
Despite what one thinks about Angela Merkel and her policies, especially those that pertain to immigration, she is the undisputed leader in European politics. With the United States making noise as if they are withdrawing from the continent, her role will take on added significance. She will likely win reelection to a fourth term in office, but she will likewise emerge a weakened leader.
The problem for Merkel is that her center-right party will lose seats in the Bundestag. Sigmar Gabriel, her counterpart in the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), has failed to gain electoral traction. He trails Merkel in polling by 10 points and it does not appear he will close that gap. Without viable opposition at the top spot, Merkel appears poised for victory. But the real action will be in the Bundestag elections to be held in the fall on a date yet to be determined.
Reading the political tea leaves, it does not look good for Merkel’s party. There is declining support for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Elections in her home state resulted in the upstart Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gaining seats. Although Berlin usually has a more leftist government, the performance of Merkel’s party in that city was the worst since the end of World War II. The AfD is extremely anti-immigrant and anti-EU. As such, how they do in the Bundestag elections will be closely watched. They have gained seats in state legislatures and appear ready to take seats in the Bundestag. This will likely come at the expense of the Social Democrats more than Merkel’s party. However, a two-party coalition between the CDU and the SDP have created stability in Germany.
For Merkel, the continued immigrant crisis coupled with fears of another major terrorist attack on German soil, are the dark forces aligning against her- forces the AfD is exploiting to their advantage. The AfD shares much in common with other populist movements afoot in Europe: anti-globalization, anti-American, and frequently pro-Russian.
Part of the problem in Germany is their ongoing state of collective guilt over events now 80 years in the past. They have emerged as a huge economic power in Europe and it is not a status the remainder of Europe is comfortable with. Germany’s outgoing president, Joachim Gauck, is a highly respected former dissident from East Germany. The German government since the end of World War II has had a reflexive reaction of rejecting any military action. Gauck has argued that should the United States withdraw or even lessen their role in NATO, Germany must get over this post-war mindset.
He may be fighting a losing cause. A recent poll indicates that a majority of Germans oppose using their military to defend the Baltic states should they be threatened by Russia. German foreign policy is certainly lacking in boldness and is best defined as “overly cautious.” Take, for example, Germany’s relations with its two neighbors. To the west, they have cultivated a special relationship with France based on atonement and reconciliation which has proven to be the economic motor powering Europe. To the east, they have done likewise with Poland.
But, their efforts have been met with the rise of Marine LePen’s National Front in France who threatens pulling out of the EU. In Poland, an authoritarian government asks more and more from a prostrated Germany. Germany sits in the heart of Europe and shares a border with nine nations and trades with every European nation. Hence, it seeks even greater European integration, but those desires were dealt a serious setback by the Brexit vote.
And here lies the conundrum facing Merkel that will result in her diminished power and leadership. While she and Germany have been leaders in terms of the refugee crisis, in terms of the euro crisis, in terms of forced austerity in Greece, and in other areas, it has bred resentment. Germany’s unilateral decision to let in 1 million Muslim “refugees” has destabilized not only Germany, but neighboring countries. Berlin is lonely today in Europe, but it is a loneliness largely attributable to their own doing.
About 20% of Germans have an affinity for right wing populism. If Merkel is to become a strong leader or even a leader at all, she must either shrink that percentage or at least stabilize it. In effect, they represent the greatest threat to post-war German liberal democracy. They are not targeting democracy in its entirety, just the parts that advance tolerance and inclusion. Merkel has to convince these people and offer them a future. However, her strategy throughout her career and this year is simple: lull voters to sleep and hope SDP members stay home and CDU voters show up and vote. Thus far, it has worked to her benefit. But this year, unlike others, alternatives- namely the AfD- have jumped into that vacuum she created.
Domestically, Merkel has advanced three key policies. She has moved from nuclear energy to renewable sources and a balanced the budget. Perhaps, these are credible and laudable policies. The problem is they have very few tangible effects on the lives of ordinary Germans. There is a dearth of doctors in many rural areas and huge gaps in public transportation. Their schools are in poor condition.
The third policy is immigration which has proven disastrous. In fact, the one policy that has a palpable effect on the German population is Merkel’s acceptance of over 1 million Muslims into the country- a number that is growing increasingly demanding and militant. Cities are looking less “German” as Muslim enclaves visibly pop up.
Nowhere is her decreased power and leadership more on display than in her own party where she has continuously butted heads with a state secretary in the Finance Ministry and member of her CDU- Jens Spahn. Considerably to the right of Merkel on most policy concerns, at their annual convention he managed to push through and have ratified many CDU platform planks at odds with Merkel. There was the vote over dual citizenship which Spahn won. Many more right wing policies towards refugees endorsed by Spahn were approved. Then out of the blue, he introduced a paper calling for a more strict deportation policy that was adopted almost word-for-word against the wishes of Merkel.
Described as dealing with the insurgence of the AfD and attempting to woo some of those voters back to the CDU, Merkel does not believe it will have its intended effect. She does not believe the party should move more to the right to win these voters and believes that doing so will alienate many centrist voters away from the CDU.
The professional consensus is that Angela Merkel will win another term as Chancellor of Germany. More importantly, the consensus is that her party will suffer losses in the Bundestag at the expense of the Left and the AfD making a coalition government increasingly difficult and lacking in unity to deal with the many problems facing Europe in the coming year. She may join the ranks of Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer in terms of multiple terms, but she will be a weakened leader at the worst time.
For many in Germany, the survival of a vibrant liberal democracy is viewed as being at risk. Thus far, if recent state level elections are any indication, she has failed to clearly enunciate the dangers of that potential reality.