Who is Big Enough to Fill Angela Merkel's Boots?

Published August 10th, 2021 - 12:40 GMT
 Angela Merkel - The Final Hour
Angela Merkel steps down as Chancellor of Germany after 16 years at the helm. AFP

Germany has entered the election season as September approaches. The elections on Sept. 26 will mark the end of Merkel’s 16-year term while determining whether the Greens, who have made significant strides in recent years toward becoming a “mass” party rather than a “marginal” party, will be elected for the first time in Germany.

Furthermore, the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in German politics, as well as the question of whether the “old” mass party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), will reverse its downward trend, are among the most pressing questions waiting to be answered.

The two strongest candidates for the Chancellor’s office, the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) President Armin Laschet, and the Greens’ Co-Chair Annalena Baerbock, defeated their rivals in the intra-party competition in April this year and were elected as Chancellor candidates.

Baerbock ran against fellow co-chairman Robert Habeck to become the Greens’ first candidate for federal prime minister, while Laschet became CDU/CSU leader after a tough race against the powerful Christian Social Union (CSU) chairman, Markus Söder, with whom they consistently and brotherly ran for federal elections. He was accepted as a Chancellor candidate.

As soon as their nominations were announced, both politicians began their campaigns but were confronted with serious issues that would wear them down. While both were accused of plagiarism in their published books, Laschet was heavily chastised on social media after he was caught laughing at the cameras while visiting flood-ravaged areas in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where he was prime minister.

Another area where Annalena Baerbock was exhausted was that she did not report her additional incomes other than her parliamentary income after announcing her candidacy. Laschet and Baerbock were bled in this way by opponents, and they fell behind SPD candidate Olaf Scholz in polls released this week, which asked pollsters, “Who would you choose as federal prime minister?”.

Despite the favorable polls, Scholz’s chances of becoming Chancellor are very slim because the SPD is trailing the CDU/CSU and the Greens in opinion polls. Recent polls on the basis of the party show that the CDU/CSU and the Greens will compete for power.

According to surveys conducted by various organizations between the end of July and the beginning of August, the CDU/CSU received between 26 and 30% of the vote, while the Greens received between 18 and 20%. Although these figures can be interpreted as the Christian Union Parties largely repelling the Greens’ challenge, the fact that the Greens outvoted the CDU/CSU in polls taken in June 2019 and May 2021 suggests that there may be significant fluctuations in German politics.

The fact that the elections are still seven weeks away suggests that the Greens could launch another attack and take the lead, as evidenced by the May poll. Manipulative interventions from countries such as Russia and the United States in the politics of countries such as Germany, which are important in European and global politics, reduce the chances of presenting a clear picture of the election results at this stage.

The fact that the SPD is stuck in the 15-17% margin in opinion polls indicates that this party, which is the CDU/CSU’s main traditional rival, is now losing its position as a mass party. Recent crises (global economic crisis, refugee crisis, and Covid-19 pandemic) have pushed extreme right and left marginal parties and social movements to the center of European politics while pushing traditional centrist mass parties to the periphery.

As a result, while the SPD and CDU/CSU lost their dominant positions in Germany’s political system, “marginal” parties such as the Greens and the AfD increased their votes and political weight. However, opinion polls show that the far-right AfD’s upward trend, which began with the refugee crisis, has largely ended, and the party now has a 10-12% margin.

The tendency of the German people to see traditional parties as more competent in dealing with the crisis and to avoid “adventurous” pursuits during the pandemic is said to be the deciding factor. In each of the three elections held so far in German states in 2021, the CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the SPD emerged as the winning parties. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens received 30.2% of the vote, while the SPD received 36.2% in Rhineland Palatinate and the CDU received 29% in Sachsen-Anhalt.

In the aforementioned provinces, the far-right AfD received 15%, 12.6 %, and 24.2% of the vote, respectively. These results and opinion polls indicate that, unless something very unusual happens, the CDU/CSU and Green candidates will compete for the Federal Chancellery in the federal parliamentary elections on September 26. The SPD will almost certainly emerge as the election’s third party. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), also known as the “employers’ party,” will vie with the SPD for third place in an effort to rejoin the coalition after a long absence.

The far-right AfD will receive around 10% of the vote, solidifying its position in the German political system, but it will fall short of preventing the formation of a government without itself. Finally, the ultra-leftist Die Linke (the Left Party), which has been unable to overcome intra-party crises, will struggle to break through the 5% threshold.

Why do German elections matter? Many countries, particularly those in Europe, are keeping a close eye on the elections that will determine Germany’s post-Merkel era. It is widely acknowledged that Germany, along with France, is one of the two most influential actors shaping EU policy. In fact, given that Germany is the largest economic power in Europe and makes the largest contribution to the EU budget, Berlin is more effective than Paris.

As a result, all EU countries, particularly those that require the EU’s economic assistance the most, are wondering whether Laschet or Baerbock will lead the new German government, which parties will form the coalition, and what Germany’s next EU policy will be. If the CDU/CSU forms a government and Laschet becomes the new federal Chancellor, no significant changes in Berlin’s EU policy are expected, regardless of the coalition partner or partners.

If the Greens succeed in appointing a Chancellor or becoming a government partner, radical environmental and climate protection measures may be on the table both at the EU level and in Germany. When it comes to the significance of the German elections for the United States and Russia, it should be noted that both countries are concerned about who is in power in Berlin and are making efforts to influence this issue.

Since the Cold War, Germany has been an important US ally that it could never afford to lose. It is critical for Washington to maintain close ties with its traditional allies, especially as global competition with China and Russia heats up. Germany recognizes the US’ global leadership and has sided with Washington in the fight against China.

However, Berlin’s prioritization of its own economic interests, particularly in Russia and, on occasion, China, and the US’ refusal to maintain its sanctions policy against these countries cause dissatisfaction in Washington. As a result, the US prefers the Greens, who have close ties to Washington, or the Atlanticist wing of the CDU, to win the German elections. The Greens, who generally support US foreign policy, winning the federal Chancellery race would be ideal for Washington.

Russia, on the other hand, wants the Left Party and the SPD, which are more critical of the US, to win the elections. The fact that Germany distanced itself from Washington and grew closer to Moscow during the tenure of Gerhard Schröder, the last federal Chancellor from the SPD, is a good example that helps to explain the Russian tendency in this regard. It should be noted, however, that Moscow does not put all of its eggs in the same basket, and that it seeks close relations with the CSU wing of the Christian Union parties, which has a better chance of electoral success.

Furthermore, some argue that Russia is attempting to influence German politics by supporting the far-right AfD. Both the United States and Russia are attempting to influence the outcome of the German elections through traditional and social media, which they use particularly effectively in Germany.

Finally, in terms of the significance of the German elections for Turkey, it should be noted that given the intensity of the two countries’ economic, cultural, and political ties, the question of who will be the Chancellor in Berlin after Merkel is significant for Ankara. With the CDU remaining the coalition’s major partner and Armin Laschet becoming federal prime minister, there will be no significant changes in German policy toward Turkey. The Greens’ entry into this coalition as a junior partner may have some negative consequences for Turkish-German relations, given the presence of anti-Turkey politicians in this party, but the CDU, the coalition’s main partner, is expected to stick to Merkel’s “rational” stance.

The Greens joining the coalition as a major partner may cause serious rifts in Turkish-German relations because it is highly likely that this party, which has a similar attitude to the US in terms of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, will not observe the principle of “equal relations respecting sovereignty” in its relations with Turkey. Ankara places a strong emphasis on this principle. If the Greens become a coalition partner, they will almost certainly act on the negative agendas of their Turkish-origin politicians.

In terms of Turkish-German relations, the worst-case scenario would be a coalition formed by the Greens and the Left Party. However, the current outlook indicates that a coalition government led by the CDU/CSU is far more likely.

Prof. Kemal Inat is a faculty member at the Department of International Relations in the Faculty of Political Science at Sakarya University.

© Copyright Andolu Ajansi

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