Holding on to Merkel seems motivated by the wish to preserve the status quo.
If Eris - the Greek goddess of strife - symbolizes the electoral climate in the UK, US and France these days, Harmonia - her antagonist in Greek mythology - must be watching over Berlin. A few weeks before Election Day on September 24, the “hot phase” of the campaign should be in full swing. Yet the temperature of German politics does not allow for any kitchen metaphors other than the refrigerator.
To be sure, there have been deeply controversial campaigns in the past – witness Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in 1972 or Gerhard Schröder’s opposition to the Iraq war in the 2002 campaign. But these seem long ago under the current circumstances.
Clearly, this election is not about foreign policy. Unlike the US presidential campaign, which was shaped by Donald Trump’s tirade against open trade regimes and immigration, Germans generally see themselves as among the winners of globalization. While many industrial jobs have been lost, overall employment is high, the export industry is strong and illegal immigration appears to be under control. Terrorism is an issue, but one that is seen as a domestic matter for law enforcement rather a foreign policy challenge.
The French presidential elections saw around 40% of voters opt for Marine Le Pen’s message of a beleaguered country, dominated by hostile powers in Brussels or Berlin and overrun my migrants from the south. In Germany the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) pushes a similar message, but it has no chance of winning similar following - though they will likely pass the 5% threshold to enter the German Bundestag. In spite of endless public debates about social justice, the German electorate seems to be remarkably confident and resilient to agitation from the fringes, be they left or right. Europe plays no important role, because voters do not perceive the EU as threatening, constraining or dominating Germany.
It is not that German politics doesn’t recognize foreign policy challenges facing the country. The EU needs to be strengthened against erosion in order to protect the most responsive and conducive political environment that united Germany has ever experienced. But “more Europe” is hard to translate into concrete terms when voters would prefer not to see more powers being pooled at the EU level or more German tax money being spent elsewhere. Many would welcome more Brussels rule over other member states in the south and east of the EU, but not over Berlin.
This deepening gap between East and West on the continent is of deep concern to German policy makers. Germany is significantly exposed to events in the east and is the pivotal actor on the European position towards Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Yet Germany’s economic leverage over Russia has been weakening for years – and not just because of Russia’s foreign policies.
All the principal actors in German politics know that the refugee/migration crisis is at best only tamed for now, and that it is possibly unsolvable in the medium term. As with the other foreign policy issues, the mainstream parties differ in nuance but agree on the substance of migration policy. Everyone is aware that managing borders will require cooperation with difficult partners such as Erdogan’s Turkey, the fragile political constellation in Libya, and questionable powers in Sudan and Ethiopia.
In the campaign debates, these issues come up but are cautiously treated by the Chancellor and her challenger, SPD-chairman Martin Schulz. Neither one wishes to frighten the public or fuel the fires of the fringes. So Schulz blames Merkel somewhat for not engaging in spending politics on the EU level, Foreign Minister Gabriel seems to enjoy his war of words with political leaders in Turkey as it makes him look tough on Ankara, while Merkel is holding back. Christian Lindner, chairman of the Liberal Party - which will likely return to Parliament and might even form a government with Merkel’s party if they can obtain a combined majority - captured attention for half a week by proposing that Germany should not lose sleep over Crimea and freeze the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Trump and US politics are no real issue as Merkel has distanced herself early and visibly enough: her opponent has nothing to win from stirring up the latent anti-American sentiments among the German public.
While consensus and continuity shape the public discourse in this campaign, there is a scent of change in the air, which resonates in some of the campaign events, interviews, and speeches. This change will be triggered by the next industrial revolution and its impact on industries and employment, the transformation to a multi-ethnic society, a possible trade war between the US and China, or more broadly the return of great power politics and its existential risks.
Obviously, Germans are hoping for a few more years without having to deal with all that change. Why couldn’t this German moment stay for just a little bit longer? To end the Merkel era now would feel like pushing the door open to that challenging future. There is no one in German politics wishing to play that role – neither in Merkel’s own party nor among the leading Social Democrats, Liberals or Greens, and certainly not in the ranks of Die Linke or AfD, which merely pursue illusions of a past that will never come back.