The stalemate election: can Germany move beyond Merkel?

Germany needs to progress beyond Merkel – but will it?

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

Germany’s election campaign has taken many unexpected turns. In January, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), were leading by about 20 percentage points. By April, the Greens were ahead. By July, the CDU/CSU had bounced back, and then all of a sudden, the Social Democrats (SPD) came out of nowhere to a solid lead by last weekend. The gap has since closed a little ahead of Sunday’s election — and the joyride is still not over.

What is also different about these elections is that, based on current polling, four, five or even six coalitions might be arithmetically possible. So the real battle will likely start only after the election. One plausible scenario to watch out for is a majority for the three parties of the left — the SPD, the Greens and the Left party, the successor of the former East German Communist party, in which case, Olaf Scholz, German finance minister and the SPD’s candidate, will have a good chance of succeeding Angela Merkel as the next German chancellor.

Even stranger than the mind-bogglingly complex election arithmetic is the almost total lack of ideas. In the TV debates between the three leading candidates, there was no mention of Afghanistan or any other foreign policy issue — not even of the EU. This tells you that Merkel’s strategy of benign neglect towards Brussels will likely continue under her successor.

Nothing intelligent has been said about the single most important subject of all: how to get Germany, with its cash mountains, savings banks, fax machines and mobile-phone-free zones, into the digital 21st century. It was Merkel herself who summed up Germany’s attitude towards the digital era: ‘Internet is new territory, uncharted territory to all of us.’ That was as recently as 2013, about the time when elsewhere in the world Web 3.0 started to mature in the form of cryptocurrencies, decentralised finance and blockchain. No prizes for guessing what role Web 3.0 is playing in the current German election campaign.

The candidates did discuss Mr Scholz’s demand for a 25 per cent increase in the minimum wage to around £10.30 (€12) an hour, and a guarantee not to raise the pension age or lower pension payouts. The Greens want to bring about a premature end to fuel-driven cars, demanding the end of new registrations of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 onwards. They also want a motorway speed limit — a proposal which, regardless of its merits, most Germans do not support.

How did the Greens lose the plot? The same question can be asked about the CDU and its leader, Armin Laschet. The Greens and the CDU/CSU were both so certain of their success that they chose candidates who suited their internal needs, rather than the people most likely to win votes. The CDU/CSU could have nominated Markus Söder, the Bavarian state premier. Polls suggest that if he were the candidate, he would win by a wide margin. But the CDU went for Laschet because he is one of their own. They did not want to hand the top job to the Bavarian sister party. Nobody asked the question of whether he could actually win the election because they were so far ahead in the polls.

The Greens have two leaders. One is Robert Habeck, a former minister in a state coalition in Schleswig-Holstein. He is on the conservative wing of the party — an old-school bulldozer with enemies inside his party. His co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, is younger, less experienced, but a more consensual figure. Nobody asked whether she could withstand the heat of a national election campaign. Her political team failed to check her CV for inconsistencies that were later discovered by journalists. An Austrian academic who specialises in plagiarism discovered that passages of her book contained verbatim passages from other authors, without attribution. For a month, Germany talked about nothing other than the Baerbock plagiarism scandal. This is when the Greens lost, as people stopped talking about their policies.

The SPD, by contrast, has conducted a professional (albeit boring) campaign. In terms of focus and discipline, it’s reminiscent of Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign, with one big exception. Mr Blair arrived with the promise of change. The SPD has been governing for all but four of the past 23 years. It is a party that stresses industrial-age themes such as redistribution of wealth, not a party with an affinity with 21st-century technologies.

The only really modern parties are the Greens and the free-market Free Democratic party (FDP). The most interesting poll of the election campaign has been the breakdown in party preferences according to age groups. Among the under-thirties, the Greens are leading with 36 per cent followed by the FDP with 17 per cent. Then come the established parties: the CDU/CSU at 16 per cent and the SPD on a lowly 10 per cent.

The FDP wants to champion the cause of young entrepreneurs, while the Greens prioritise green hi-tech investments. There is overlap: if the two were to find a way to work together, and focus on what they have in common, they could bring about some change in a coalition with either the SPD or the CDU/CSU.

One stumbling block could be Germany’s constitutional balanced budget rule. The SPD’s high-spending promises, the FDP’s no-tax-rise pledge and the Green investment programme cannot all happen at the same time and still be in line with constitutional budget rules. Something will have to give.

There is a good chance that Germany’s cliffhanger won’t be settled on election day and will continue for months. Negotiations may well go on into next year, while Merkel remains the acting chancellor.

My hunch is that this election will be seen as the moment when Germany missed a unique opportunity to move on from the Merkel years. The Scholz campaign is based on the claim to be Merkel’s natural heir — an idea she does not like, but one most Germans believe to be true. I suspect voters will choose continuity and reassurance over modernisation and investment. If so, Germany will continue to live a little while longer off the spoils of the golden analogue age and many well continue to wonder in amazement at this ‘uncharted territory’ also known as the internet.

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