European Affairs

Perspective: German Election—Staying in the comfort zone     Print
By Markus Ziener, Berlin

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The prank election poster in white and red reads: “Okay, one more time Merkel. But then it’s enough. SPD”. The SPD, the Social Democrats, are the junior partner of the conservative CDU in the currently governing grand coalition - and they want anything but another four years with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Published by a German satire magazine, the spoof went viral on the internet. Why? Because in a nutshell it captures the dilemma of the SPD. As long as Angela Merkel is on the stage there does not seem to be a way around her. Merkel is set to win the national elections for a fourth time. And the SPD is set to lose, once again.
 
Earlier this year there was a sliver of hope for the Social Democrats that the party of Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder may have had a realistic shot at the chancellery. Martin Schulz, the new headliner of the SPD, was magically rising in the polls and with him his party. Only just imported from Brussels, the former head of the European Parliament embodied everything that is needed for success: A fresh face, new ideas, a multi-linguist with a sound European background while at the same time exhibiting the right social democratic pedigree. Alas, the high hopes only lasted for a historical second. A few weeks after Schulz’ meteoric rise the numbers again slumped. Now, only days away from election day on September 24, the SPD is back to square one, i.e. the time before Schulz, supported by barely 25 percent of the people polled.
 
Why is that? Because from Merkel’s campaign perspective, the events of the past six months have created a happy perfect storm. The numbers of incoming refugees went down, the economy continues to do extremely well, unemployment figures are at an over-two-decades low, but most of all: The emergence of populists like Donald Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the earlier threat of having right-wing Marine Le Pen ruling France made Merkel look like the sole voice of reason in a sea of irrationality. So why on earth should Germans just at this moment in time venture for the unknown by electing Schulz? Merkel, an educated physicist who later worked as a chemist, appears to be the urgently needed antidote to Trump & Co.: Calm, analytical, soft-spoken, always composed, scandal-free.   Those otherwise boring qualities seem to be exactly what Germany is looking for.
 
What is glossed over though is the fact that another four years of Merkel may not benefit the country internally. Multiple times, the Chancellor proven herself to be the perfect crisis manager when hazardous foreign policy issues were topping the agenda. This has been the case during the Greek crisis, the financial and the Euro crisis, the Brexit debate and the conflict over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Every time Merkel’s shortcomings on the domestic front were about to become more visible, an external crisis arose - and made her look much better.
 
Merkel also still benefits from the wide-ranging economic reforms (“Agenda 2010”) implemented by her social democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder more than a dozen years ago. Germany, then called “The Sick Man Of Europe” (The Economist, 2004), had pulled off an astonishing upswing of its economy. Schröder liberalized the labor market, significantly cut social welfare - and had to pay dearly for it. In 2005, the highly unpopular reforms cost him the support of his party and eventually the chancellorship. The positive results then fell in the lap of - Angela Merkel. 
 
But this is now long ago and new reforms in many areas are overdue. Germany for instance badly needs an overhaul of its pension system. In spite of the more than one million refugees that have settled in Germany over the past two years, immigration alone is not going to solve the country’s aging demographic challenge - although it has eased it somewhat. It is still not clear whether the integration of immigrants in a highly specialized labor market will work. What Germany needs is an immigration law, such as Canada’s, using askills scoring system. The SPD is proposing exactly this - but Merkel refuses to go down this road. She is afraid that an immigration law that allows people based on education merits and quotas could undercut Germany’s right of political asylum, which is anchored in the German constitution. However, once the generation of baby boomers starts to retire in less than ten years, Germany will need a workforce that will be able to finance an increasingly ageing society. If immigration is not doing the trick then the pension system, and with it the healthcare sector, will have to be fully revised. 
 
Also overdue is comprehensive tax reform. Although Wolfgang Schäuble, the German minister of finance, has his coffers full of money, Germany is still a country with a high tax burden. Simultaneously, a rising number of citizens feel left behind and unable to participate in the country’s economic well-being. Although it is debatable if social inequality in Germany in fact is on the rise, there is no question that precarious work conditions are up. Temporary employment contracts nowadays are prevalent, and the term “generation internship” is commonplace, indicating that many Germans barely have an income once they leave the education system. The current system of taxation and redistribution in Germany is not meeting those challenges, even though it is this sense of unfairness that often fuels support for populists. What is needed is a new approach, but Merkel remains silent on this front.
 
There is also much more work to be done, whether it is adapting an education system that struggles to meet the needs of vast number of students, the obvious decay of infrastructure particularly in the Western part of the country, Germany’s lagging behind in the field of digitization, let alone the troubles of German car manufacturing, the backbone of the German economy. 
 
In addition: The populist threat - although in check for now - is still looming. After the election of the centrist Emmanuel Macron in France Europe (with the exceptions of Poland and Hungary) may be spared the fate of the US in having to deal with an irrational and unpredictable leader. But in order to build a solid ring of defense and reform the European Union, the French-German axis has to work harder than ever. 
 
If re-elected in September, by the end of her newest term in 2021 Angela Merkel will have been in office for 16 years. She will then join the late Helmut Kohl as the longest serving Chancellor in Germany’s post-war history. But will she still have enough fire in the belly to live up to all those challenges?
 
If Merkel’s campaign is any indication of what to expect from her in a fourth term, then there is reason for doubt. Merkel has opted to radiate a feel-good atmosphere rather than to address major issues, offering vague promises that she will work things out somehow. The main slogan of the CDU election campaign goes: “For a Germany where we like to live in and live good.” For many German voters this is undeniably comfortable: One may keep sitting on the fence and watch her rule. So why not say: “Okay. One more time Merkel.”
 
Markus Ziener is Professor of Journalism in Berlin and former Washington and Moscow Correspondent for German Business Daily Handelsblatt.
 
Perspectives is a periodic feature of European Affairs, reflecting the opinion of members of The European Institute on timely issues.