Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

It’s her moment

The fate of the European project may be decided by German voters on 22 September, reports Mohamed Selim from Osnabrück

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the first vote in the German elections being cast at 8am on Sunday 22 September and the last at 6pm on the same day, Germany won’t be alone in waiting for the final results. The United States, Russia and China, whose economic, geopolitical and historical ties with Germany are very close, will be monitoring how the Germans will vote in this decisive election.

The European countries, whether in the north or in the crisis-ridden south, the so-called PIGS of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, will also be eagerly awaiting the results, using them to calculate the fate of the Euro zone and of the European project.

The mood in Germany is tantamount to a referendum on the German chancellor’s handling of her job over the past eight years. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU), along with its offshoot in the state of Bavaria the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been flooding the streets with campaign posters carrying her photograph and the slogan “Together, we’re Successful.”

The party’s rank-and-file are resorting to her popularity and the contented mood among many Germans to maintain their 237 seats out of 620 in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament.

Angie, as she is referred to on campaign posters, is by far the most popular politician in Germany, with a more than 60 per cent approval rating in the latest polls by the German TV channel ZDF. However, the parliamentary elections, run on a first-past-the post voting system, do not depend only on the popularity of the current chancellor or on the relative economic stability during her government’s eight years at the helm. Instead, the result will depend on what kind of coalition the CDU/CSU can form.

“Germany’s electoral system is unique in that each voter does not only vote for his or her representative in the Bundestag, but also votes for a parliamentary list that represents a specific political party. Thus, it is a two-vote system, in which each vote counts in helping the political parties pass the five per cent hurdle to be represented in the aisles of the Bundestag,” said Roland Czada, professor of government and public policy at the University of Osnabrück in Lower Saxony.

The moment the elections are over, and if the CDU/CSU gets the majority of the votes as the opinion polls are forecasting, the negotiation process will begin between the parties to gain a majority on the floor of the Bundestag that will enable them to form the next four-year government.

The current coalition government, whose mandate will end with the elections, is a Black-Yellow Coalition, sometimes referred to in the media as the Tiger-Duck Coalition, being an alliance between the chancellor’s CDU/CSU, represented by its traditional black, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), represented by yellow. The latter party has been having difficulties rallying its supporters, and many pollsters are projecting that it will not reach the five per cent hurdle required in the elections to return MPs to the Bundestag.

This could leave the chancellor, called “mommy” by party enthusiasts, with a choice between two scenarios: either to form a grand coalition with her main contenders, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), represented by their traditional red colour, or to try to enter into a coalition with the newly formed Germany’s Alternative Party, which contains a number of prominent euro-sceptics.

If she goes for the first choice, the government will be similar to the one she headed during her first term in office as chancellor from 2005 until 2009, when her finance minister was Peer Steinbrück, her current challenger for the chancellorship. If she goes for the latter, she will find herself in coalition with euro-sceptics who are trying to rally support in Germany for an exit from the Euro and a return to the country’s former currency, the German Mark.

The Alternative Party’s founders, a group of intellectuals headed by Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, have been making their case to a weary German electorate that has been feeling the negative impacts of the austerity plans carried out by the Merkel government, notably, they say, by increasing the taxes paid by hard-working Germans to bail out debt-stricken southern Europeans. Such a message clearly widens the gap in trust between the north and south of Europe.

The way the contending parties have been representing themselves in this campaign season has been dominated by economic and financial issues that include paying more taxes — the Green Party wants to raise taxes, while the Merkel government abhors the idea — and a minimum wage, with the Left Party, drawing on its East German Communist past, promising a minimum of Ä10/hour and the SPD/Greens promising Ä8.5/hour. There have also been the respective parties’ positions on the ongoing Euro crisis.

While the Merkel government has promised to stay on its present course, which it says has helped many of the countries affected by the crisis to pull themselves back from the brink and to honour their debts, the opposition, flanked by the SPD/Greens and the Left Party, projected to form a Red-Red-Green government should it win the elections, saying that the way Merkel has handled the Euro crisis has created more problems than it has solved, not only for tax-payers, but also for the whole future of the European project.

The question remains why the sole TV debate between Merkel and Steinbrück did not discuss any foreign policy issues, aside from the crisis in Syria, which, according to Article 16a of the German constitution, will oblige the country to accept a possible 5,000 Syrian refugees.

“Foreign policy isn’t on the electoral agenda due to the post-World War II tradition of consensus policy-making in Germany on foreign affairs. The clearest example is that, with the exception of the Left Party, all the major parties share the chancellor’s view of handling the Syrian crisis. The ‘reluctant hegemon’, as Germany is known in Europe, is still shy about breaking from a long tradition of leaving foreign policy initiatives to its major allies, particularly the United States, France and the UK,” Czada said.

But the opposition’s criticisms of Merkel do not seem to have struck a chord with the majority of Germans, of whom 74 per cent believe she has done a good job in her tenure as chancellor, according to Pew Research. “She is an intelligent realist with a soft-spoken charisma that makes her risk-averse, and she uses her down-to-earth personality very well to reach out to all Germans, regardless of their ideological backgrounds, and to assure them that they are in safe hands,” Czada said.

Her nickname of “mommy” and the famous “Merkel-rhombus” —the way she holds her hands before any official photo-ops — are features of a political brand that makes Merkel an unbeatable asset for the CDU/CSU. “She knows how to speak to the Germans, and they love to listen to her,” exclaimed Czada. “It’s an enigma that it will require historians and sociologists to research and report on. Her ‘Merkevellianism’ — her political style of asymmetric demobilisation — will likely continue to astonish us for years to come.”

 

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