With German elections on Sunday, who will be the victors and losers? And who will be best for Britain?
Sunday sees the elections of 2017 to the German Bundestag, the results of which will determine the makeup of the German government, and indeed the direction of the EU, for the next four years. No observers expect Angela Merkel’s CDU to be anything other than the clear victor. Although generally regarded as a poor debater, she was the victor of the televised election debate at the start of September, when Martin Schultz of the SPD failed to score any points against her. Despite a moment of parity in the polls when Schultz became leader at the start of the year, the SPD have since fallen to some ten or fifteen points behind the CDU’s predicted thirty-five to forty percent.
Given this, a central question is what will happen to the other parties? Currently the Bundestag contains five, expected to rise to seven. For the first time in its history the free market liberal FDP has been without representation in Germany’s lower house since 2013. They are expected to return. Similarly, the rise of the AfD, although now past their peak in the polls, will see this UKIP-on speed movement in parliament for the first time (though shunned by the rest of Germany’s mainstream). The Green and The Left, likely to see their representation remain roughly constant, make up the rest.
So with the CDU on top, and with the largest changes expected only among the minor parties, what actually will be the consequences of this election? In two areas: policies and personalities. Despite many previous suggestions that she had closely noted the example of Chancellor Kohl’s declining powers during his second decade in office, Merkel has powered past the ten-year mark and looks on track to complete a fourth four-year term as Chancellor. Of her contemporaries as world leaders, only Shinzo Abe (with albeit with a five-year period in opposition after 2007) and Vladimir Putin (despite four years behind the scenes managing his puppet Medvedev) survive. She is certainly not a visionary, but a pragmatist, a fixer, and ruthless. A challenge may arise from Emmanuel Macron, clearly with ambitions to restore the kind of Franco-German partnership last seen when Nicolas Sarkozy provided a more forceful French presence in European affairs. Yet as long as Merkel’s position in German politics is unassailable, so is her position as the most important leader in Europe – and indeed the democratic world.
Next after Merkel, Wolfgang Schäuble, Finance Minister since 2009. The grand old man of German policies, successor proper of Kohl but long eclipsed by Merkel as party leader, he remains at the heart of German government and the key figure in the Eurozone. With Germany’s economic clout it is Schäuble who arguably is the second figure in Europe today. Other national politicians, such Thomas de Maizière and Ursula von der Leyen are indispensable competent figures, but have not the same weight. With the recovery of the CDU in the polls, her opponents in the party, notably the leader of the allied CSU Horst Seehofer, have quieted criticism of her leadership.
Despite having become party leader only at the start of the year, Martin Schultz’s position looks shaky if he fails to deliver an improvement on the 2013 result, and a poorer result than 2009 would certainly be politically fatal. Having spent almost his whole political career in the European Parliament, the last five as its President (Speaker), Schultz is perhaps the keenest pro-European in German politics. It would not be to Britain’s advantage if he was to enter the Federal Government in any capacity.
Questions already are being raised about whether the SPD can ever recover popularity as long as it remains in government with the CDU – a particularly poor result may make it politically impossible for the party to have any share in office whatsoever. If it does, however, Sigmar Gabriel, erstwhile leader of the SPD, looks like a canny maneuverer in handing over to Schultz the burden of owning a heavy defeat. If the SPD remains in government, he is likely to remain in office.
Despite the current CDU-SPD grand collation there is no doubt that Merkel would prefer a coalition with the CDU’s usual FDP partners – as in 2009-2013. Christian Linder, their former solider and entrepreneur leader would bring a degree of dynamism and energy to the government. If his performance is particularly assured then a coalition between these two centre-right parties of Germany alone may even be possible.
The alternative, however, would be less happy. The Left is an equivalent to the Corbynite Labour party, or the France Insoumise of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Meanwhile Schultz, with a tin ear for the policy challenges of the uncertain 21st century is demanding no nuclear weapons be allowed on German soil and attacking the CDU for their commitment (albeit more in words than actions) to meet the NATO target of 2% of GDP on defence spending (up from 1.2% currently).
So as a Conservative we can have some confidence that, if the election goes as forecast, Germany will maintain a pragmatic stance in international affairs. The danger is that pacifist and isolationist elements in certain parties may be in a better position after the election to see those policies put into action and their proponents higher in German government than at present.
The Conservative Internationalist.