Germany's Election: Where the Real Battle Is

Germany's Election: Where the Real Battle Is
Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa via AP

The third-place finisher stands to have a great impact on German policy

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Angela Merkel will win the German elections for the fourth time in a row. With less than two weeks remaining until Election Day on Sept. 24, the gap between Merkel and her top challenger, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, or SPD, is more than 15 percent, according to the latest polls. In Germany’s politics, which tend away from volatility, this is an almost unbridgeable gap. Unlike in the French or Dutch elections earlier this year, right-wing populists, represented here by the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, do not play a significant role. 

But there is still plenty of excitement in this election. The main contest in Germany is for who comes in third: That party will probably serve as coalition partner for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union for the next four years and from that position will deeply influence Germany’s political course.

Participating in Angela Merkel’s government as junior partner is a risky business. When she came to power in 2005 her opponents -- and her partners -- greatly underestimated her persistence, her political sense, her agility and stamina. She eliminates her political opposition by seeming to take over the distinctive points of their political agendas and make them her own -- no other politician has mastered this art like Merkel has. She ends up laying claim to the successes of her coalition partners, and there are plenty of examples, including Germany’s abandonment of nuclear energy in 2011 and the introduction of a minimum wage four years later. Merkel’s main challenger, the SPD, has joined Merkel twice in a so-called grand coalition: the first time between 2005 and 2009, and again in the current government. On both occasions, the SPD has been unable to develop a distinctive profile under Merkel’s large political wings. Joining her fourth government could be an act of great self-harm for the SPD. The party would risk being completely marginalized, thus sharing the fate of many of its social-democratic sister parties in Western Europe. 

That means it is all about who comes in third: Merkel will need that party to form the needed majority for her fourth reign. Four parties are in the race for that position: the Greens, the economic-liberal FDP party, the socialist Linke, and the far-right, populist AfD. Polling between 5 percent and 10 percent of the votes, these parties are fighting a zero-sum battle. Acquire less than 5 percent and your party is out of parliament, falling short of the electoral threshold. Score 10 percent, and you may be the dealmaker in the next German government. 

The two most likely candidates for a junior partnership in Merkel 4 are the Greens and the FDP -- and perhaps both. Governing with the socialist Linke or the far-right AfD seems unlikely in a nation that hews to the political center. The choice between placing the Greens or the FDP in government, however, makes a huge difference for Germany’s political course. If the Greens join, Germany probably maintains its humanitarian open border policy, speeds up the sustainability goals for the energy sector and industry, strengthens the social welfare state, and pursues idealistic foreign policy goals. As head of this coalition, Merkel, who is already seen as a rather leftist chancellor, will struggle to keep conservative support in her own party.

A coalition with FDP, the employers’ party, would be quite different. The liberals want to further deregulate the labor market and make it more flexible; apply stricter rules for migration and integration; maintain coal and gas plants; and pursue realist foreign policy goals toward Europe, the United States, and Russia. Recently the leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, said he is willing to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea since the “security and welfare of Europe is dependent on our relations with Russia.” That statement is highly controversial in Germany, one of the main negotiators in the conflict between Putin and Ukraine. Berlin introduced sanctions at the European level after the annexation of Crimea. 

A government with the FDP might also strengthen Germany’s political left in the coming years, and this could become a serious threat to Merkel’s CDU party. Merkel will be serving her last term, and there is still no sign of a possible successor within the party ranks. Many progressive centrist voters might switch back to an SPD revitalized by its time in opposition. 

With U.S. leadership in decline, the United Kingdom withdrawing from its European commitments, and the revival of the Franco-German axis, the role of Germany in European and world politics will increase. One decade of Merkel’s leadership already transformed Germany from a European power into an economic, moral, and diplomatic world player, cleverly using the European Union as her vehicle. In conflicts between Putin and the West, as well as in the Middle East and Africa, German diplomacy now plays a central role. Merkel’s open-border politics during the refugee crisis in Europe might have received much criticism in Europe. In many parts of the world, however, Germany is now seen as the new beacon of freedom and the land of opportunity. 

Since Merkel is known for leaving her coalition partners much room to maneuver, they will significantly shape the nation’s political profile. The outcome of these elections will play a large part in determining Germany’s (and Europe’s) role as a new world player. 

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