Global Affairs

Not all's quiet on the German front

Angela Merkel may appear strong politically, but she faces a changing political landscape in Germany and restive neighbours

BERLIN • Nothing could possibly go wrong. Or, could it? When German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced her decision to stand again for re-election after 11 years of uninterrupted rule, few politicians in Germany or elsewhere were surprised.

For the 62-year-old's stewardship of the German economy, Europe's biggest, has earned her plaudits both at home and abroad. She has long acted as Europe's critical security compass, the only leader able to rescue the continent from financial ruin, the only European leader capable of combining both economic heft and political vision.

And, instead of being dumbstruck by Mr Donald Trump's surprising electoral victory in the United States, she firmly articulated Europe's expectations from the President-elect in a message which earned her huge plaudits; the New York Times went as far as calling her "the liberal West's last defender".

So, as things currently stand, no leader on either side of the Atlantic doubts that Dr Merkel will win again when general elections are held in her country in October next year, thereby ensuring that she leads her nation right into the 2020s.

But, just when everything looks predictable, it may be the time to question perceived wisdom. For the reality remains that Dr Merkel's political supremacy is less certain or enduring than it currently seems. And, although Germany enjoys certain strengths few other nations can dream of, Europe's giant is considerably more fragile than is commonly believed.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The electoral arithmetic currently works in Dr Merkel's favour: According to the latest opinion polls, 60 per cent of the electorate wants her to continue into her fourth successive prime ministerial term. She also dwarfs all other German politicians; there is no one more popular than her, and very few who can even be considered as "chancellor material". But in Germany's parliamentary system, the personal vote matters far less than the party one. And, on both counts, Dr Merkel's support base is not rock solid.

One of the gravest errors European and other governments can make is to assume that German leadership is set to continue, or that Chancellor Merkel's continued rule is guaranteed.

Her popularity has suffered from her decision last year to open Germany's borders to asylum seekers, a gesture admired by everyone apart from a majority of the German electorate who resented the one million immigrants pouring in. The flow has now been stemmed largely because Dr Merkel pushed through a controversial deal with Turkey, which cut the most substantial migration route into Europe.

But the Turks are furious that none of the promises made to them in return for closing their borders were kept, and are threatening to open the floodgates again; a new immigration crisis next year just on the eve of the ballots would be catastrophic for Dr Merkel's re-election.

And even if this is averted, the dispute about Germany's high immigration rates continues to rumble. While attending her ruling Christian Democratic Party's regional conference over the weekend, Dr Merkel was confronted with sharp criticism from her closest supporters, enraged by recent revelations that, although half a million asylum-seekers have been denied rights of residence in Germany, the German government wants to deport only about 50,000 of them. "We can't tolerate so many people without residence permits," complained Mr Thomas Strobl, the party's deputy leader. But, apart from grimacing on stage, Dr Merkel offered no satisfactory answer.

The Chancellor's point-blank refusal to admit that she did anything wrong in her handling of the refugee crisis could backfire, with the danger that the campaign may turn into a national referendum on her personality.

And it is often forgotten that, although she is a very efficient administrator, Dr Merkel is actually a wooden electoral campaigner; in every election she competed in, she ended up getting fewer votes than opinion polls initially predicted, and two of her past three electoral victories were achieved by the lowest margins since the early 1970s.

CHANGING POLITICAL MAP

Furthermore, the whole nature of Germany's political map is changing in profound and potentially deeply unsettling ways. The power structure of the German Federal Republic created out of the ashes of Nazi Germany after World War II was designed for two large political parties, the Socialists and Christian Democrats, and the small centrist Liberals who usually acted as the swing coalition-maker. That provided both stable governments and the constant need for compromise, the solid consensus which served Germany so well.

Yet the system is now irrevocably shattered by the constant decline in the share of the votes given to the two major political parties, and the rise in the number of smaller parties represented in Parliament. The Greens led the way by entering Parliament as the fourth party during the 1980s, then it was the turn of the former East German communists as the fifth parliamentary party a decade ago and, if current opinion polls are to be believed, next year the Alliance for Germany, a populist anti-Euro currency and anti-immigrant movement, may enter Parliament as the sixth political formation.

The perverse result is that a system which was meant to provide stability is now locking in instability. Dr Merkel's best hope is that she continues in power after the next elections as the head of a "grand coalition" with the Socialists, a coalition which in itself stands for a failure of democracy, since by uniting left and right in a coalition with massive majorities, it gives no scope for meaningful opposition.

But it is also possible that Dr Merkel gets the highest number of votes, yet loses power to a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens - which few people in the country want. Either way, she will have to fight much harder than people imagine to maintain her position.

And the same applies to Germany's foreign policy.

For historic reasons, Germany usually prefers to cajole and persuade other European governments to accept German ideas about the management of the continent rather than merely impose its point of view. But no amount of persuasion would work if Ms Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front, becomes president at the French elections scheduled next year, six months before Germany's.

German officials in Berlin told me in no uncertain terms that, should Ms Le Pen become French president, "the EU project as currently constituted is over". The snag is that French voters won't care much about what Germans think of their potential choices.

MERKEL AND TRUMP

Nor is Dr Merkel guaranteed to succeed in "defending" the "liberal West" against US President Trump, even if she wanted to. For her congratulatory letter to America's president-elect was not well received in Washington, where it was seen as delivering a patronising homily nobody asked for, so her relations with the next occupant in the White House are not beginning on a good footing.

In the short term, Dr Merkel's biggest problem with Washington may be not so much how to remind Mr Trump of his obligations to respect European "values" but, rather,  how to contain the anti-Americanism which is always bubbling under the surface in Germany, and is certain to erupt into the open.

And, most importantly, the Germans are not at all sure that their legendary economic success will continue. In discussions with European policymakers and analysts over the weekend, Mr Peter Altmaier, who heads Dr Merkel's Chancellery Office and is instrumental in executing all her policies, confessed to his apprehensions about the impact of the German economy from the new, so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, which combines the digital with automation to overhaul manufacturing.

Unlike previous industrial revolutions, Mr Altmaier says, the current one will render not merely the unskilled, but also the educated and highly skilled people unemployed.

And it could hit Germany hardest.

The country is one of the world's largest manufacturer of cars - in particular, luxury cars. But in the driverless car of the future, software and electric batteries will provide the bulk of the added value; "The danger is that we, Germans, may be left to produce the windows and metal body of the car, items which will not amount to more than 30 or 40 per cent of a car's value. And where will we be then?" asks Mr Altmaier.

The Germans may look confident and, given their undoubted achievements, deserve to feel confident.

But one of the gravest errors European and other governments can make is to assume that German leadership is set to continue, or that Chancellor Merkel's continued rule is guaranteed.

For although nothing can be accomplished in Europe without Germany, not much can be accomplished if Germany alone is left to pull the increasingly rickety European cart.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Not all's quiet on the German front'. Print Edition | Subscribe