As of this February, Germany has a new president: centre-left Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former Foreign Minister. However, the world has its eyes firmly set on a much more important election this fall, the one for the German chancellor, where Angela Merkel will run for a fourth consecutive term.
The role of the German president would be described as more ceremonial than the Chancellor’s, as the president has the power to appoint and dismiss the Chancellor and Federal Ministers as well as the authority to dissolve the Bundestag. The Chancellor, on the other hand, presides over the destiny of the country, especially in regards to orientation of German foreign and European policy. Angela Merkel assumed this office in 2005 and has established herself as the leading figure in European and global politics, and as a model of longevity compared to an overwhelming majority of European politicians.
Merkel is in many ways controversial – not necessarily because of the radical nature of her policies, but rather because she tends to occupy the centrist point of view in many discussions, and due to her often cautious approach to decision-making. At the point where the winds of aggressive nationalism and hard-line right-wing approaches have taken over many important countries (Trump, Le Pen, May…), Merkel remains one of the last influential liberal politicians on the global political stage.
This makes pointing out Merkel’s contradictions an interesting exercise. When she claimed in 2010 that the multiculturalist approach “has utterly failed”, one wouldn’t expect her to take the lead in welcoming nearly 1 million migrants into Germany in 2015. Even though her actions were based on human rights law, this decision earned her very clear disapproval from leaders of central-eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary and some German citizens alike. It became even harder to earn back their respect after the December terrorist attack in Berlin, that was at the time attributed to terrorist cells hiding among incoming immigrants and again pointed out the contradiction in integration issues.
Angela Merkel nonetheless remains the key figure in the EU, balanced between the firm German financial policies and the somewhat protective position of Germany towards other countries of European Union.
However, recent polls indicate that Angela Merkel should face a tough re-election challenge after 12 years in place, coming from Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and ex-leader of the S&D, in these elections representing the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD).
His rise to the post of chairman of SPD swung voters’ preferences up from 8 % to 28 % for SPD, after replacing the former chairman Sigmar Gabriel who accepted a position as the Foreign Minister. Since then, SPD has been going up considerably, reaching 33 % on February 9 and scoring a set of ties and wins from Merkel’s CDU. The latest polling result from March 24 (INSEN) is indeed a tie of 32 % for both SPD and CDU, but SPD is scoring more and more wins, effectively threatening to arrive in a leading position.
It can be said that Angela Merkel was previously quite lucky to face weaker centre-left SPD candidates in federal elections so far, but Schulz’s new coalition with the far-left Die Linke and the Green party might prove a bigger challenge for her. Although one could think that these two rivals probably occupy utterly opposite sides of discussion when it comes to “hot topics” in Germany (refugee crisis, future of EU, terrorism), it isn’t quite so. Like Merkel, Martin Schulz is very open to accepting refugees and just as unyielding when it comes to Putin’s policy against Ukraine. He also shares Merkel’s assessment of the new president of the United States.
“If Trump is now driving a wrecking ball through this set of values, then I will tell him as chancellor: that’s not the policy of Germany and Europe,” he said in regards to United States’ historical fight for democracy and freedom. His hard-line approach to the Russian president is also in sync with Merkel’s: “We must tell Putin very clearly that Russia is obliged to respect and defend international law,” he commented on the Minsk peace agreement.
What differentiates Schulz from Merkel and appeals to potential voters is his approach to social politics and protection of employees. He has argued for raising the salaries in both public and private sectors, countering the liberal economic views of Angela Merkel and her willingness to leave these decisions to the worker and trade unions themselves.
Though Merkel v. Schulz is the duel most of the world probably has their eyes set on, there will of course be other candidates running to become Germany’s next chancellor. The right-wing anti-immigrant populist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) currently occupies approximately 11 % of potential votes and has decided to present a team of candidates instead of one. Frauke Petry explained so at the beginning of February, after having been ruled out as a single candidate by other party executives. Not to be forgotten is the center-right Christian Lindner, who leads the Free Democratic Party. Their current popularity ranges around 5 %. CSU (Christian Social Union) leader Horst Seehofer will present a joint strategy together with Merkel.
To sum it up, what are the likely outcomes and their impact on Germany, Europe and Czech Republic? If Schulz were to prevail, Germany would probably take on a more socialist approach – we would most likely see a rise in both public and private sector salaries, as well as a growth in the minimum wage and benefits for the unemployed.
However, some media suggest that in his approach to foreign policy, Schulz might “risk winning Europe and losing Germany”. His stance to financial matters regarding European Union clashes not only with Angela Merkel’s, but also with that of most German public, especially on the topic of shared euro-area debt and easing up on Greece.
With Schulz and Merkel, one thing is certain, then. Unless an extremist party (unlikely) wins the election, Germany won’t join the global trend of aggressive nationalism just yet.EUROPEUM