Less than two weeks before the 24 September election, the headlines in Germany are dominated by Irma rather than Angela. And the hurricane in the Caribbean isn’t the only event to attract more interest among Germans than the likely election result: Bayern Munich’s loss last weekend to lowly Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga was one; the Rolling Stones’ gig in front of 82,000 fans in Hamburg was another.
Travelling across Germany in recent weeks, I’ve come across plenty of stalls run by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian groups, but relatively few signs of the forty-two political parties vying for votes. The elections aren’t a topic of conversation in pubs or supermarkets, on local buses or trains, or at the barber. Posters advertising the main parties are surprisingly low-key.
Partly this is because the contest between Angela Merkel and her main challenger, the Social Democrats’ Martin Schulz, resembles a friendly — and inconsequential — exchange of banter rather than a dispute between two political adversaries. Partly it’s because the result seems a foregone conclusion.
The Social Democrats are the junior partner in the current black–red coalition. At the last polls, in 2013, they won 25.7 per cent of the vote, less than two-thirds of the 41.5 per cent gained by the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU. The two major parties and the CSU formed a coalition, with the Greens and the Left making up the parliamentary opposition. The Free Democrats and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, both narrowly missed the 5 per cent threshold required to enter parliament.
Unlike the second Merkel government, 2009–13, which relied on the support of the Free Democrats, this third Merkel government has not seen significant disagreements between the major coalition partners. That’s not least because Merkel has been happy to adopt key Social Democratic policies — such as the introduction of a minimum wage — and not to oppose other popular Social Democratic initiatives, making it all but impossible for the Social Democrats to distinguish their position from her own. Most recently, in June, Merkel paved the way for the Bundestag to legislate marriage equality, although she, like most Christian Democrats, voted against the bill.
The appearance of harmony between Merkel and the Social Democrats also reflects the support the latter gave her during the so-called refugee crisis, the defining issue of her third government. Then, Merkel’s main critic was one of her own: the Bavarian premier and CSU leader, Horst Seehofer. He demanded — unsuccessfully — that Germany impose an upper limit of 200,000 asylum seekers and refugees per year. Seehofer also accused Merkel of having broken European and German law by allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter Germany, and publicly humiliated her when she attended the CSU’s annual congress in November 2015. On other occasions too, the CSU rather than the Social Democrats has seemed to be Merkel’s more difficult partner.
Merkel’s willingness to adopt Social Democratic positions, and the Social Democrats’ unwillingness to side with either Seehofer or the Greens–Left opposition, allowed her to consolidate her position. According to Germany’s seven leading pollsters, the Christian Democrats and the CSU combined will win around 38 per cent of the vote, while the Social Democrats are expected to come a distant second, with around 23 per cent. Four minor parties — the Greens, the Left, the Free Democratic Party and the AfD — will each receive between 7 and 11 per cent. No other party will get anywhere close to the 5 per cent threshold.
Maybe the pollsters will be proven wrong. I suspect the AfD will be slightly more successful than predicted because it mobilises many traditional non-voters. The result will also depend on how many Germans cast their vote. But unless something unpredictable happens — a last-minute Russian or Turkish intervention in the campaign, for example — it is hard to see how Merkel could lose from here.
To become chancellor, Martin Schulz would need the support of the Greens and the Left, but if today’s polls were accurate, such a red–red–green coalition would have the backing of barely more Germans than the Christian Democrats and the CSU in their own right. If the polls aren’t way off the mark, then Merkel, rather than Schulz, will form the next government.
What is hard to predict is the composition of Merkel’s fourth government. Will it be once more a black–red coalition (with possibly disastrous consequences for the Social Democrats)? Will it be a black–green government — a coalition between Christian Democrats, the CSU and the Greens? Although that is probably Merkel’s preferred option, it would be bitterly opposed by many conservative Christian Democrats and most in the CSU (though two West German states are governed by a black–green coalition, one of them, Baden-Württemberg, with the Christian Democrats as the minor partner).
Will Merkel once again seek the support of the Free Democrats? That would embolden her conservative opponents. Or will the election produce a “Jamaica coalition” between Christian Democrats and CSU (black), Free Democrats (yellow) and Greens (green)?
Martin Schulz has never before played a role in federal politics. He used to be a local politician, and from 1987 to 1998 served as mayor of Würselen, a town of about 40,000 near Aachen in the far west of Germany. He was elected to the European parliament in 1994, becoming the leader, first, of the parliament’s German Social Democrats, and then of the Socialist faction. From 2012 until 2017, he was president of the European Parliament. When it became clear that the next president would be a member of that parliament’s conservative faction, Schulz decided to seek a seat in the German Bundestag.
The Social Democratic leadership anointed Schulz as their candidate for the office of Bundeskanzler, or federal chancellor, in late January. In March, an extraordinary party congress confirmed the choice and unanimously elected Schulz party leader. The decision of vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel not to stand, and the surprise nomination of Schulz led to a temporary surge in the polls. In late March, the Social Democrats reached 33 per cent in the polls and drew level with the Christian Democrats and the CSU. But five months later, after three state election losses — in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and Nordrhein-Westfalen — the Social Democrats’ prospects are as poor as they were just before Schulz was drafted.
Until early this month, though, the party remained hopeful, and many observers believed that Schulz would be able to significantly narrow the gap between his party and Merkel’s. His opportunity to make up lost ground came on 3 September, during the only public debate between Merkel and her main challenger. But anybody who had expected a fight was bitterly disappointed. The much-anticipated “duel” turned out to be little more than a civil conversation between two politicians who seemed to agree on just about everything. Schulz, who as recently as late July had wanted to make refugee policy a key issue in the campaign, expressed approval of Merkel’s handling of the 2015 refugee “crisis.” When it came to national security, their policies were indistinguishable. At one point, the Social Democrat took Merkel by surprise by proposing to lobby the other European governments to end negotiations with Turkey over its accession to the European Union, but she was quick to agree with him, thus depriving him of an opportunity to present himself as an alternative even on that issue.
Rather than providing the Social Democrats with much-needed momentum, the debate enhanced Merkel’s position. Most viewers — sixteen million, or one in five, Germans were watching — believed that Merkel presented the better arguments, was more competent and made a more favourable impression.
The real winners of the debate were the minor parties. The day after the Merkel–Schulz encounter, in another televised debate, the leaders of the minor parties emphasised that their positions differ, often substantially, from those of the two major parties. This second debate demonstrated that the electorate does have a choice between radically different alternative visions — for example, between that of the Greens, on the one hand, and that of the AfD, on the other. The second debate was also evidence of synergies that carry the potential for intriguing alliances: between the Greens and the CSU, or between the AfD and the Left.
Four days after his “duel” with the chancellor, Martin Schulz spoke in Kassel, a city of 200,000 in the Social Democrats’ heartland. More than 2000 people gathered on Königsplatz, a square in the centre of the city. Since 1949, Kassel has always been won by a Social Democrat. In 1972, Holger Börner, who later became premier of Hessen and who in 1985 led the first coalition government involving the Greens at state level, won more than 60 per cent of the vote there. At the last election, the Social Democrat candidate attracted 40 per cent, but his party won only 34 per cent of the party vote, with the Christian Democrats coming a close second. This time, the Christian Democrats have a realistic chance of wresting the electorate from the Social Democrats.
The Martin Schulz speaking on Königsplatz was more combative than the candidate who had debated Angela Merkel on television. On that occasion, many viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that Schulz’s only ambition was to become Merkel’s foreign minister. This time, he referred to himself as the next German chancellor. But such a claim was no longer credible.
In Kassel, too, Merkel was not the main target of Schulz’s passionate speech. Instead, he lambasted the Turkish and American presidents, both of whom are popular targets in Germany at the moment. He also targeted the AfD, which he labelled “a shame for Germany.” That remark earned him the loudest round of applause of the evening. The remainder of the speech was received politely but without much enthusiasm. At least half of the onlookers seemed to have come out of curiosity rather than to show their support for the candidate.
Telling contrast: a Social Democratic Party poster showing former chancellor Willy Brandt, displayed recently in Leverkusen. Federico Gambarini/dpa
Even the diehard Social Democrats in the audience remained reserved. Schulz is knowledgeable and earnest. He is committed to the Social Democratic cause. He can be charming, and he appears to be passionate about core Social Democratic themes, such as social justice. The fact that he doesn’t wear designer clothes and that he sports an unfashionable beard — that he looks like a tram conductor, as one journalist commented — makes him appear to be authentic. But anybody yearning for a rock star candidate would have been well advised to attend the Rolling Stones concert in Hamburg, rather than one of Schulz’s campaign events.
The Social Democrats would have done well if they had been able to present a candidate with Mick Jagger appeal. After all, a lack of charisma is one of Merkel’s weaknesses. Schulz’s inability to capitalise on Merkel’s weak point was highlighted a few days ago, when a poster from the 1972 election campaign, featuring the then Social Democratic chancellor, Willy Brandt, was put up in the West German city of Leverkusen, and immediately attracted nationwide attention. Social Democrats with memories reaching back forty-five years would have reflected on the contrast between the larger-than-life and divisive Brandt and the pedestrian but amiable Schulz.
The Königsplatz crowd was heterogeneous: young and old, men and women. The audience also included a large proportion of recent migrants. The same couldn’t be said of the Social Democrats accompanying Schulz or speaking before him. Most of them looked like marginally younger and slightly more fashionable versions of their leader: white men in their late forties or fifties, balding, with glasses, wearing suits with red ties (unlike Schulz, who chose a boring blue).
Compared to the people who dominated the AfD campaign event I attended the following day, however, even the Social Democrats in Kassel, who did include a couple of women, seemed a colourful lot. The AfD candidates and office-bearers in attendance were all white men, and so were most of the people who had come to listen to them. This time, the main attraction was Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD in Thüringen.
Höcke is notorious for being one of the most prominent figures in the AfD’s new right faction. Even in his own party he is a controversial figure. In a speech in January, he referred to the national Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and called for a 180-degree turn in German memorial politics. Other AfD leaders distanced themselves from Höcke and initiated a process that could lead to his expulsion from the party. But so far it has proven difficult to dislodge him, because he is popular among the AfD base, particularly in East Germany.
I encountered Höcke in the banquet hall of a restaurant in Nordhausen, a town of 42,000 about 100 kilometres east of Kassel. Although geographically close, Nordhausen and Kassel are worlds apart. Ausländer, or non-Germans, make up only 2.3 per cent of Nordhausen’s population, whereas 17 per cent of Kassel’s residents are non-citizens. Kassel is in the comparatively affluent West German state of Hessen, governed by a coalition of Christian Democrats and Greens. Nordhausen is in the comparatively poor East German state of Thüringen, the only state in Germany with a premier belonging to the Left. The federal electorate that includes Nordhausen, however, has always been won by the Christian Democrats.
Höcke himself is not contesting the elections of 24 September. His close ally, and candidate for the local electorate, Jürgen Pohl, is one of the AfD’s twelve candidates in Thüringen (all of whom are men), and he was the other speaker at the AfD event. Like Höcke, Pohl is positioned on the far right of a far-right party. He occupies the promising second spot on the AfD’s state ticket, and is likely to represent the AfD in the next Bundestag.
I had braced myself for incendiary speeches, but Höcke did not live up to his reputation. (He did so two days later in East Berlin.) Unlike Schulz, Höcke is not only charming but also charismatic. Unlike the Social Democrats who greeted Schulz in Kassel, the local AfD supporters in Nordhausen clearly adored their man. Schulz tried his best but failed to sound confident; those curious to see him up close probably came to catch a glimpse of the party leader about to lose the election, rather than the next chancellor. He is somebody who elicits pity. Höcke and Pohl oozed self-confidence. So did their audience. They know that even if the AfD wins less than 10 per cent of the national vote, and despite the fact that it will not be involved in forming the next government, it will be able to set much of the political agenda.
The unemployment rate in Germany is now at its lowest since Reunification in 1990. In Kassel, it’s 5.9 per cent, which is also a record low. In Nordhausen, it’s 6.3 per cent, only marginally higher. The Christian Democrats’ key slogan of this campaign is “Für ein Deutschland, in dem wir gut und gerne leben” (For a Germany where we like to live and where we live well). That slogan makes sense to most Germans, including the crowd on Königsplatz. The majority of Germans are content and believe they are well-off, and it is therefore not surprising that most Germans would prefer things remain the same, and for the next government to be led by Angela Merkel.
The 120 or so people who came to hear Höcke and Pohl in Nordhausen live in a different reality. Although they are now materially almost as well-off as people in Kassel, many East Germans believe that they have been short-changed and marginalised. The Germany they envisage is not a continuation of the country administered by Merkel for the past twelve years. They want a country that is culturally homogeneous and in many respects like the old German Democratic Republic: a country in which the state takes care of everything and everybody, and which is closely aligned with Russia rather than with Western Europe.
Schulz managed to get the Kassel crowd excited only once: when he reminded his listeners that a local AfD politician had called a work of art on Königsplatz “entstellte Kunst,” a term that is reminiscent of the Nazis’ “entartete Kunst,” or degenerate art. The work is Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe’s Das Fremdling und Flüchtlinge Monument, a sixteen-metre-high obelisk with the inscription “I was a stranger and you took me in.” It’s part of the Documenta, arguably the world’s most important show of contemporary art, which is staged in Kassel every five years. The local Social Democrats who spoke before Schulz were proud of the Documenta. Their praise for provocative publicly funded art won them applause.
By attacking the AfD over its attempt to label a work of art as degenerate, Schulz reaffirmed the view that the new Germany must define its identity also negatively — as that of a country that has severed all links with its Nazi past. In Kassel, as elsewhere in West Germany, that view is largely uncontroversial.
In West Germany, the process whereby the nation came to distance itself from its Nazi past was slow and difficult. It was, initially at least, driven by civil society, rather than by the government. That was different in East Germany. There, the communist government tried to offer Germans a positive identity: as the citizens of a nation-state with anti-fascist credentials. At the hotel where I was staying in Nordhausen, a large plaque opposite the reception desk says “Ich weiss, dass wir die Sieger sein werden” (I know that we will be the victors). It’s next to a portrait of Albert Kuntz, a communist member of parliament, who after having been imprisoned in concentration camps for almost twelve years, was murdered in the infamous Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp in Nordhausen three months before its liberation.
The Dora-Mittelbau memorial is not far from the hall where Höcke and Pohl campaigned for the AfD. The street that leads to the memorial is called Straße der OdF, or OdF Street. OdF stands for “Opfer des Faschismus,” victims of fascism. Attempts to make the citizens of the German Democratic Republic believe that they were victors were largely unsuccessful (except, perhaps, every four years during the Olympics). East Germans also did not readily identify with the victims of fascism. But they did identify as victims: of Adolf Hitler, of their own government, of the Soviet Union or of the capitalist West. Now, twenty-seven years after Reunification, many of them still think of themselves as victims: of globalisation, of their very own Angela Merkel, or of West Germany. Höcke and Pohl, a lawyer who calls himself “Volksanwalt,” the lawyer of the people, appeal to that sense of victimhood.
With Merkel and Schulz behaving as if they were an old couple who intend to live together amicably for many years to come, and with right-wing extremists like Höcke and Pohl trying to make people believe that they are moderates, is there any room for emotions in this election campaign?
There is. Ask Angela Merkel, who more than any other German politician is able to control her own emotions. More than any other German politician she has also been able to arouse emotions. In order to see those emotions at work, journalists flock to Merkel’s campaign events in East Germany. There she is greeted with chants of “Merkel muss weg” (Merkel has to go), and worse. Much worse. In Bitterfeld, she was pelted with tomatoes. In Torgau, riot police were needed to shield her from the crowd. More angry protesters greeted her in Finsterwalde. When she was due to speak in Wolgast, the local Christian Democrats moved her campaign event indoors — allegedly because of the inclement weather, but more likely because they anticipated violent protests.
In Nordhausen, those listening to Höcke and Pohl were enthusiastic listeners — much more so than the crowd in Kassel — but they did not abuse their political opponents. Nor did they chant racist slogans. There was no need for that kind of aggression; they were, after all, among friends. If Merkel had visited Nordhausen, the reception she would have received might have been similar to that in Bitterfeld or Torgau.
Germans who identify as victims are no longer just bitter; now many of them are angry and full of hatred. And they demonstrate their hatred — and particularly their loathing for Merkel — publicly. As the AfD’s stocks have risen over the past four years, some of its followers sense that there is an opportunity to do something with their anger, and to take revenge. It’s difficult to take revenge by attacking global capitalism. Sometimes it’s possible to take revenge by pelting politicians such as Merkel with tomatoes. It’s comparatively easy for those who feel they have been short-changed to direct their anger at others: at asylum seekers and refugees, for instance.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the challenge of dealing with the anger and hatred of Germans who feel they have been left out remains. AfD politicians like Pohl are likely to give voice to that anger in the Bundestag, and could perhaps thereby defuse some of the aggressive energy that drives people to throw tomatoes at Merkel and stones at the windows of asylum seeker hostels. But there are also indications that the rise of the AfD has the opposite effect: the AfD makes hate speech appear to be respectable. That was on display during the encounter between Merkel and Schulz, when one of the four journalists adopted the language of the populist far right when asking some of his questions.
Merkel will win these elections, but so will the AfD. The most intriguing question might therefore not be whether Merkel will form a coalition with the Greens, the Social Democrats or the Free Democrats. What I would really like to know is what she will do about the AfD. In an interview published in Frankfurter Rundschau this week, Merkel says that she doesn’t mind being abused when campaigning in East Germany, and that she keeps her appointments in the East to encourage “those who are taking a stance against the hatred.” But Merkel is not known as somebody who easily forgives and forgets. •