Saturday, October 23, 2021

As Germany votes, few think Merkelism will face backlash

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German voters have voted, and Social Democrats have done well, defeating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Not surprisingly, nobody can expect an immediate backlash against “Merkelism.”

Whatever one thinks of Germany’s record on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its clash with the West over Iran and other issues, it is clear that the Social Democrats, headed by Merkel’s most recent challenger, were not well served by their leaders’ talking points. Indeed, in rejecting US and European plans for a common refugee policy, Merkel’s conservatives appear to have had a vote-shaving ploy on their minds.

According to the definitive exit polls, which are final and cannot be contested, the Social Democrats are now probably in third place. The same exit polls show that Merkel’s conservatives have an 18 percent lead, compared with 15 percent for the center-left SPD.

The results are somewhat more hopeful for Martin Schulz, the SPD leader. For the SPD to have outperformed the pollsters’ predictions is remarkable given the controversies surrounding the party and Mr. Schulz.

Among other controversies, there was his undiplomatic rhetoric, as exemplified by the post-election speech in which he suggested that, for decades to come, Germany could expect this coalition to form the new government. He overplayed the plight of refugees, appearing to forget that Austria and the rest of the EU had focused on Merkel’s asylum policies over the past couple of years. Indeed, the SPD’s adoring constituency at home was probably disappointed not to hear Schulz talk about the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, much.

But this seems like a relatively manageable matter. After all, Schulz was seen as the Social Democrats’ likely candidate to be Merkel’s successor anyway. The internal machinations in the party will be even more crucial, and the SPD will need to review its policies more carefully.

And even if the Social Democrats cannot yet admit that German nationalism was a factor in German politics, it is likely that the electorate will retain this view. The SPD barely avoided missing its target of entering the new Bundestag by the narrowest of margins. Polls suggest that between 60 and 70 percent of voters think that Germany needs to take a tougher line on security issues — in fact, it wasn’t possible to get any other outcome.

Of course, the other winners here will be the xenophobic Alternative for Germany, which has jumped from a few seats last year to almost 10. We still don’t know exactly how the AfD will vote in parliamentary debates, but they are at least starting out with influence.

Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, her Christian Democratic Union and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, could clearly make the case that for the record fourth time around, Germany needs to take care of its citizens — but what about the millions of others on the margins of German society? To provide protection to them requires resources, and this will only increase.

The older version of the German left — consisting of the Greens and other environmental parties — opposes taking on migrants from outside. Indeed, this is the main argument of Die Linke, a party sometimes mistaken for the Greens. But the voters who are most likely to be affected by radical proposals regarding migrants, such as the AfD, appear to be not Greens voters.

Well before his death, Heinz Galinski, the great leader of Die Linke, played a key role in persuading his supporters to vote for the election boycott that he had orchestrated in May. His successor, Anna Maria Schwesig, seems to have followed a similar strategy. But the AfD has spent more time and money than they, the Greens or Die Linke ever have mobilizing its voters to ensure that voters fail to show up at the polls.

In addition, the coalition in parliament has a long record of accommodating the new members of the German parliament who are not genuine activists — those excluded from it. They, too, now have a chance to create their own political landscape, and who will become their leaders may be a matter of controversy. After all, either Schulz or Merkel is likely to be called upon to form a new government at some point in the near future.

As for the really important issue, Europe is caught between two interesting currents. The European Commission wants the European Court of Justice to demand that Europeans be able to keep their hard-earned savings in the country from which they are born, and to boost competition, not only among banks but between them. But the local bankers and insurance companies are pro-regulation and will fight tooth and nail for the status quo. Another important crossroads awaits in the coming years.

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