The big story about the upcoming elections in Germany is (supposedly) that there is no story.
In just a little over a year, Britain has voted to Brexit, and America has elected Donald Trump. In France, extremists on the far left and the far right took nearly half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. In the second round, French voters coalesced around a candidate who is moderate yet shot to victory on the back of a new movement that pulverized the political landscape. Every one of these elections thus had one crucial thing in common: It represented a huge shock to the system. So it is all the more striking that the story heading into Germany’s vote on Sept. 24 seems to be one of continuity rather than change.
With less than two weeks to go, it is very likely that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be re-elected for a fourth term in office. And at a time when politics seems to be downright histrionic in many parts of the world, Germany’s election campaign has felt surprisingly soporific. After the only TV debate between Merkel and her main challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, a Berlin paper headlined: “0–0.” Neither of the contestants, the soccer metaphor implied, had scored any goals. Indeed, the accompanying text added, for long stretches it hadn’t even seemed as though Schulz was especially interested in beating his adversary.
But it was a satirical magazine that best captured the overall feel of Merkel’s bid for re-election. With campaign spending tightly limited, German parties traditionally rely on billboards to get their messages out. On the fakes designed by Titanic, though, the slogan of Merkel’s party simply reads: “As if we even had to bother putting up billboards!”
There are a few factors that explain why Merkel has barely had to sweat—even though establishment politicians in other Western democracies have been besieged by populist challengers from the right and left. For one thing, Germany’s economy has done comparatively well for the past decade. In light of its past, Germans may also have a deeper aversion to radical political experiments. Finally, Merkel has undoubtedly been a competent chancellor: Calm, moderate, and highly deliberate, she remains one of the world’s least divisive leaders. As George Packer, quoting the German columnist Georg Diez, wrote in the best profile of her to date, she “took the politics out of politics.” If voters are willing to put Merkel back in charge, the reason is in good part because, unlike her brash predecessor, she is minimally invasive. So it is perfectly understandable that most journalists have focused on the remarkable stability of Germany’s political system or celebrated Merkel’s imminent re-election as a healthy sign for liberal democracy. And yet, the German election campaign has been much more eventful than most foreign observers have noticed: If you scratch the surface, it quickly becomes apparent that populism is making significant inroads in Germany—and that Merkel herself is, at best, a highly imperfect defender of liberal values.
For all of modern Germany’s supposed immunity from the far right, extremist parties have celebrated significant successes in local or state elections at several points in the history of the federal republic. But when general elections rolled around, these parties reliably failed to garner the 5 percent of the vote they needed to win seats.
This is now likely to change. Four years ago, the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, narrowly fell short of the votes it needed to enter the national parliament. Since then, it has entered 12 out of 16 state parliaments. Polling at just under 10 percent nationally, it is now virtually certain to enter the Bundestag—becoming the first right-wing extremist party to do so since World War II.
And though the AfD likes to appear more moderate than its far-right predecessors, there can be little doubt that it is indeed extremist. This is in part a matter of policy. The party wants to take most powers back from Brussels or (failing that) leave the European Union. It wants to abolish the euro. It wants to close American Army bases. It wants to ban the burqa and abolish minarets. And of course it wants to curtail immigration and stop refugees from reaching Germany.
But if the party’s proposed policies are radical, its rhetoric is even more so. Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s leaders, has called Merkel a “dictator” and suggested that Aydan Özoguz, a Social Democratic politician with roots in Turkey, should be “disposed of in Anatolia.” Meanwhile, Alice Weidel, the party’s other leader, reportedly wrote an email in which she lamented that Germany is being “overrun by foreign peoples like Arabs.” The “pigs” who govern Germany, she suggested, “are just puppets of the victors of World War II and have the task of keeping down the German people by getting so many foreigners into the country that our cities will erupt into small civil wars.”
Even if it does better than expected, the AfD will, in the short run, have little direct influence on public policy: Germany’s mainstream parties will continue to shun it. And yet, the AfD is already setting the terms of the debate: In their only TV matchup, for example, Merkel and Schulz spent about half of their time talking about refugees, Muslim immigrants, and Germany’s relationship to Turkey.
Once the AfD is represented in the Bundestag, its ability to set the agenda will only keep growing. And if the experience of other European countries is any guide, this will give people like Gauland and Weidel a big opportunity to expand their base over the coming years. Though its success so far is less spectacular than that of similar parties in other parts of the continent, it would be bizarre to see the AfD’s breakthrough as anything other than a potential turning point in Germany’s postwar history.
But doesn’t it count for something that Angela Merkel can keep standing up for liberal values over the next four years?
It is easy to understand why Merkel has been invested with such high hopes. In a famous photograph from the spring of 2016, Merkel is pictured standing between Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at a G-8 summit. All four of the others have long since left office. As the last woman standing, Merkel has quickly come to be seen as “the new leader of the free world.” But this fundamentally misunderstands both Germany’s ability and its willingness to defend liberal values around the globe.
Since Merkel has always relied on coalition partners to cobble together a parliamentary majority—and will likely have to keep doing so after this election—these limitations are in part imposed by the views of her allies. Her current coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, for example, has abandoned all sense of responsibility over the course of the campaign. Gerhard Schröder, the party’s most recent chancellor, recently accepted a position on the board of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian gas giant—essentially joining the class of Russian kleptocrats. Meanwhile, Sigmar Gabriel, the current foreign secretary, joined Schröder and Vladimir Putin for a secret dinner in St. Petersburg, Russia; around the same time, he attacked the notion that Germany might one day spend 2 percent of its GDP on its military, as required by NATO, as “absurd.” To complete the trifecta, Hubertus Heil, the party’s general secretary, takes every opportunity to rail against “autocrats like Erdogan and Trump”—but remains strangely silent on Vladimir Putin. So the better her current coalition partner does, the more difficult it will prove for Merkel to hold a tough line on Russia.
Unlike the SPD, Merkel does not harbor any illusions about the threat Putin poses. But when it comes to other key issues on which German leadership would be desperately needed in the world, she has been little better than them.
For one, Merkel has been blatantly unwilling to take a principled stance on the populist strongmen who are increasingly undermining liberal democracy in neighboring countries like Hungary. Shockingly, for example, the Fidesz party led by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader, is still a member of the “European People’s Party,” the same grouping in the European Parliament to which Merkel’s Christian Democrats also belong.
For another, Merkel has so far proved unwilling to reform the European Union in a meaningful way. While she has done just enough to stop Greece from crashing out of the eurozone, she refused to countenance the structural changes that would be needed to solve the lingering problems of the single currency. By proposing to give the eurozone a lot more freedom—including a budget and an independent finance minister—Emmanuel Macron has raised hopes that the EU might finally address its flaws. As in the past, Merkel has signaled her willingness to consider these plans. But as in the past, her deep reluctance to go beyond the realm of the immediately necessary makes it unlikely that she would allow Macron’s proposals to turn into reality. And so her lack of political vision may once again doom a valiant effort to make the euro sustainable.
With Merkel set to return to the chancellery this month, Germany is, for the next four years, unlikely to slide into the kind of political crisis that is now consuming Britain and the United States. In highly turbulent times, this is something to savor—and for Germans to take pride in.
But the political calm that has so widely been celebrated both within and outside Germany is rather more vulnerable than it seems. The forces of populism are rapidly rising within the country. The next government will likely find it just as difficult to promote liberal democracy, or to fix Europe’s problems, as the previous one. While the crisis is not yet imminent, discontent with the status quo goes much deeper than most observers have acknowledged.
Thinking about Germany’s political situation over the past days, an old German saying has kept coming back to me: “aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben”—to put something off is not to cancel it. The storm that so many people had predicted is, thank God, being postponed; but there is every reason to fear that the country’s current calm won’t hold forever.