No Drama Merkel: Leader of Free World Cruises to Reelection

Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo credit: European People's Party / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chancellor Angela Merkel now looks unstoppable in Germany’s national election as she seeks to add another term to her 12 years in power.

The United States has much at stake in the electoral fate of the longest serving and most experienced head of state in the Western world. Polls reveal more Americans have confidence in Merkel than in their own president (56% to 46%); a survey of 37 nations shows people see her, rather than Trump, as the “leader of the free world.”

Merkel is running a huge lead over her Social Democratic (SPD) rival Martin Schulz ahead of the Sept. 24 ballot. Many political observers, claiming the race for first place is already over, are focused on Merkel’s next coalition government. Will her Conservative Democratic Union (CDU) party join forces with the Social Democrats, pro-business Free Democratic Party, or Greens?

Like Americans in 2016, German voters are confronted with questions about immigration, the challenge of fake news, the threat of hacking attacks and leaks, and the rise of white nationalism. But with one of the strongest economies in the world, driven largely by exports, Germans do not see globalization as a threat. Political parties representing most of the electorate largely agree on fundamentals like a formidable social safety net.

The political abyss that Merkel nearly fell into — after she gambled vast political capital on a decision to open the German border in 2015-16 to a million refugees — has been camouflaged by a campaign “full of sunshine and devoid of substance.”

The US media has shown limited interest in the uneventful reelection campaign of the world’s most powerful woman, which Germans themselves call “boring.”

Martin Schulz

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
Photo credit: Tim Reckmann / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Gone is the American media’s fixation with a European election “super year” and a possible demise of the European Union (EU). Far-right, anti-EU leaders in The Netherlands, France and Austria, looking to Brexit and the Trump “revolution” for inspiration, advanced in the polls but failed to achieve his spectacular success.

Are Americans losing interest in transatlantic elections because the results don’t produce a Dutch, French or German “Trump”?

Merkel is anathema to the American right. Her historic decision to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war zones in Syria and elsewhere was the ultimate offense to their sensibilities. “Angela Merkel must go,” wrote New York Times columnist Ross Douthat last year. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump predicted that “The German people are going to riot … [and] end up overthrowing that woman.”

On her own continent, the Chancellor of the free world is regarded by the far right as Europe’s most dangerous woman.

The contrast with Trump, who ran for president promising to engage in mass deportations, could hardly be starker. Under his presidency, the US has imposed a ban on six mainly Muslim countries for essentially political reasons and set in motion a process to that could lead to the deportation of 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

For 74%, the US is “untrustworthy,” which is essentially the same level of mistrust registered by Germans towards Russia.

Like Americans in 2016, German voters are confronted with questions about immigration, the challenge of fake news, the threat of hacking attacks and leaks, and the rise of white nationalism. But with one of the strongest economies in the world, driven largely by exports, Germans do not see globalization as a threat. Political parties representing most of the electorate largely agree on fundamentals like a formidable social safety net.

refugees

Syrian refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany, Sept. 6, 2015. Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Can a campaign that is so “boring,” some Germans ask, be good for democracy?

Weaponizing Boredom

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Merkel’s political comeback is “an astonishing achievement,” says Robin Alexander, the author of a best-selling book about Merkel and the refugee crisis. “When the Social Democrats announced her opponent would be Martin Schulz, they jumped ten points in the polls. Everyone thought this would be a very interesting campaign but now it’s the opposite. It’s clear that Merkel will win again.”

A scientist by training, with iron self-discipline, the “Chancellor of boredom” is often accused of intentionally putting people to sleep. Political scientists have labeled her strategy “asymmetrical demobilization.”

Merkel’s campaign platform scarcely mentions divisive topics like refugees, immigration or Islam. She avoids attacking the political opposition, even when she is being pelted with tomatoes by the radical right.

If “left” and “right” no longer seem very far apart in German politics, it is partly the chancellor’s doing. She has mastered the art of outflanking the Social Democrats on social issues while holding on to her center and center-right base.

Despite its name, Merkel’s Conservative Democratic Party pursues policies on social welfare and the environment that are to the left of anything in American politics except perhaps the “democratic socialism” of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The consensus on most issues was on full display September 3, in the only one-on-one television debate between the chancellor and her challenger. It was civilized, nuanced and mature, in glaring contrast to the nasty Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump contests of a year ago. A poll by public broadcaster ARD declared Merkel to be the winner with 55% vs Schultz’s 35%. The German daily Die Welt worried it was so boring as to “scare off young voters who are just beginning to take an interest in politics.”

The Trump Effect

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Merkel’s political comeback in recent months has something to do with Trump. Since his election victory last year, Trump has given Germans no choice but to rethink their relationship to the United States, their most important ally. He has also changed the way they view their Chancellor.

Angela Merkel, Donald Trump

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump hold joint press conference in the White House on March 17. Photo credit: The White House / Wikimedia

In an Infratest dimap survey published in June, 92% of Germans said they disapprove of Trump with only 5 per cent approving of him. For 74%, the US is “untrustworthy,” which is essentially the same level of mistrust registered by Germans towards Russia. It is unprecedented and astonishing. Germany’s economy depends on exports, to the USA in particular, and there are 35,000 American troops stationed on German soil.

The stoical way Merkel handled Trump in their first meeting resonated with German voters. Standing in the White House, next to the former TV reality star and current US president, the chancellor, whose minimalist body language spoke volumes, arched her eyebrows.

Martin Schulz tried at one point to portray Trump as Merkel’s ally. But Merkel, as de facto leader of Europe, has stood up to Trump, albeit cautiously, over NATO, trade and the Paris Climate Change agreement. At a rally in a beer tent in Munich, following her first G8 meeting with Trump abroad, Merkel issued a declaration of independence, “we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” and raised a liter glass of beer. Trump retaliated with threats in a tweet that only added to her popularity.

No More Open Door to Refugees

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Behind the scenes, Merkel has successfully headed off the biggest challenge to her reelection: the struggle to integrate the roughly 1.5 million refugees who have arrived since 2015.

The issue of refugees dominates German life but not German politics. The only party publicly attacking Merkel over immigration is the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Merkel has done everything in her power to limit the number of refugees arriving in Germany: negotiating a deal with Turkey to close its borders; accelerating the deportation of failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin; and suspending family reunification, at least until next year. The number of migrants arriving in Germany has dropped by two thirds, lending credibility to her assertion that the refugee crisis is over.

A recent poll shows that more than half of all Germans think that coping with immigration is the biggest challenge their nation faces. But the figure has dropped to 56% from 86% in 2016.

There have been deep disagreements over immigration between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its more conservative Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), but she has hushed them up. This so-called “Union block” governs Germany in a “grand coalition” with the left-of-center Social Democrats for whom the refugee policy is not an election issue.

pro-refugee demonstration, Hamburg

Hamburg demonstration in support of refugees on July 5, 2014.
Photo credit: Rasande Tyskar / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Merkel has staunchly resisted right-wing attempts to blame refugees for attacks on women in Cologne, a spate of violent assaults in Bavaria and a deadly terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas Market. She remains unwavering in their defense — they “are not a threat,” and that she would let them in again if she “had to.” But any reference to an open door is in the past tense. The German response to the flood of refugees, she says, was a “historic achievement” that “won’t repeat itself.”

Robin Alexander calls it “her promise to German voters… who don’t think it was a catastrophe to let in refugees and are not hostile but don’t want to ever again see a sudden loss of control over who crosses the border.”

Social scientist Menno Smid, of the Institute for Applied Social Science, conducted a broad survey of Germans one month before the election, and found no evidence of a backlash against refugees.

Based on results that he calls “astounding,” German society is largely cosmopolitan, tolerant and liberal. Fully 71 percent of respondents included refugees in their personal definition of “we.” The figure was 82% for “people of other religions.”

Germany’s election, Smid told WhoWhatWhy, is more about values — pitting the cosmopolitan liberalism of the majority against the populism of a small minority — than traditional left-right political positions. He estimates that only 5% of Germans are hardcore adherents to the anti-refugee AfD while another 18% feel varying degrees of affinity.

Unlike in the United States, there has been no backlash against globalization, according to Smid. “Every German has a relationship to the world because of our economy,” he says. “We are the winners of globalization.”

The Far Right Enters Parliament

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Even if “boring” beats populism by a wide margin, Germany’s election will have one radical outcome. For the first time since World War II, far-right extremists will seat delegates in parliament — representing a party that struggles to credibly distance itself from neo-nazis.

The anti-refugee, anti-EU AfD is polling at 12%, well above the 5% threshold to win seats in Germany’s Bundestag (“parliament”). The party has already surged in regional elections — it is now represented in 13 out of 16 German federal states.

Alexander Gauland

Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the Germany’s far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Photo credit: James Rea / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, said last week that Germany has “the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.” Gauland, a former member of Merkel’s party, split with her over refugees.

The AfD has a shot at becoming the third-largest party, after Merkel’s CDU and the SPD but ahead of the centrist FDP and the Greens. If the two main parties form another coalition government after the election, the AfD might become Germany’s largest opposition party.

France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy all have far-right politicians in parliament but Germany currently does not.

“We are the country that committed the Holocaust … We have a different past,” says Robin Alexander. “Right-wing extremism in Germany, by nature, is something different.”

Alexander argues that seeing the AfD in the Bundestag might be part of Merkel’s political legacy. “Even if you support Merkel’s policy on the refugee crisis, the price we pay is that now we will have a right-wing party in parliament … Her predecessors, as chancellors of the conservative party, always managed to avoid that,” he adds. “You can argue that it was worth it. But that is the price.”

Far-Right Facebook Fans & Fake News

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How much have fake news and false reporting helped the far right?

The AfD has more fans on Facebook than the two mainstream parties combined.

Some of what they read consists of online smear stories and conspiracy theories. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that seven of the ten top-performing German Facebook posts written about Angela Merkel in the last five years were either “false or a hoax.”

To tackle hate speech online, German parliament passed the much-criticized Network Enforcement Act, also known as the “Facebook Law.” It imposes fines of up to €50 million ($60 million) on social media companies if they fail to delete hate speech and fake news within 24 hours or seven days, depending on the extremist content.

The post most shared and commented on — “Angela Merkel: Germans have to accept foreigners’ violence” — is a video clip edited to turn a real statement into the opposite of what Merkel meant. The website was traced to a Moscow address.

Breitbart News did not follow through on its promise to launch a German edition to disrupt Merkel’s reelection chances but has attacked her relentlessly on its London and US sites with headlines such as “Germany’s Secret Islamic Horror: How Blind Elites Are Destroying A Once-Great Nation.”

What is striking about the fake news phenomenon in Germany is that everyone, beginning with Merkel, saw it coming, ; and that lawmakers and citizens alike have tried to do something about it.

Germany, unlike the United States, bans Nazi symbols and criminalizes hate speech. To tackle hate speech online, German parliament passed the much-criticized Network Enforcement Act, also known as the “Facebook Law.” It imposes fines of up to €50 million ($60 million) on social media companies if they fail to delete hate speech and fake news within 24 hours or seven days, depending on the extremist content. But the law will only come into force in October, after the election.

Under this kind of legal pressure, Facebook Germany is now attempting a purge of fake news in partnership with a team of investigative journalists.

A German ethnologist in Leipzig has created an online hoaxmap with links to local news reports correcting or debunking fake stories about migrants, often involving sexual assault and mugging, in the hope that people “will be persuaded by facts and change their opinion.”

A former aide to Hillary Clinton is also soldiering in Berlin on the anti-fake news front.

Putin vs. Merkel

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As Americans deepen their investigation into Russian interference in the US 2016 election, German intelligence and government officials are bracing for Kremlin-launched hack and leak scenarios.

Putin has a powerful motive to interfere with Merkel’s reelection since she has backed sanctions against Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

The Social Democrats advocate a less hawkish foreign policy towards Russia, while many members of the radical Left Party and the AfD are openly sympathetic to Putin.

There have already been repeated hacks of the German parliament and a vast amount of data has been stolen, including emails. They could be released any day. Cyber attacks also regularly take aim at political institutions, individual lawmakers, political parties and think tanks.

Worst of all, hackers from Germany’s Computer Chaos Club have found what they call a “host of problems and security holes” in German election software.

data pirate flag

Data Pirate flag at Chaos Communication Congress in 2014.
Photo credit: miguel / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For all the ways Putin has of potentially disrupting Germany’s national election, however, it seems unlikely that even a wide-scale Russian operation could come between Merkel and a fourth term.

Germans are not polarized like Americans were last year (and still are). Merkel is not fighting for her political life as she was a year ago. There is massive popular support for centrist parties.

Who knows? Merkel, now that her reelection is almost a forgone conclusion, might remain on the world stage longer than Putin.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Angela Merkel (U.S. Department of Commerce / Flickr).

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