She is considered the indispensable European, yet one of the biggest questions looming over the Continent’s crucial elections this year is whether Germany still regards Angela Merkel as indispensable, too.
Seven months before national elections in Germany, the prevailing wisdom has held that Ms. Merkel, now seeking a fourth four-year term as chancellor, is most vulnerable to the rising popularity of the country’s far right, just as other populist, far-right parties are gaining in coming elections in the Netherlands and France.
Yet suddenly, Germany’s left has unexpectedly resurged, prompting Der Spiegel magazine this weekend to pose a question on its cover: “Will She Fall?”
A reliable answer is not in sight. The shocks of 2016 — Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States — have profoundly shaken Germany, which depends more than any other European nation on Pax Americana and global institutions set up after World War II.
But on Sunday, the rebound of the left — along with the broad German distaste for Mr. Trump that has helped fuel it — was on full display. The center-left Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has served in Ms. Merkel’s coalition government as foreign minister for seven years, won the presidency with 931 votes in the 1,260-member assembly that elects the president to a five-year term.
Despite being a largely ceremonial position, the presidency provides stature and an important platform for Mr. Steinmeier, a popular and charismatic politician. In his brief acceptance speech, he encouraged Germans to be bold in difficult times.
“If we want to give others courage, then we must have some ourselves,” he said on a day when many other speakers evoked the country’s dark past and its emergence as a democracy after the Nazis’ defeat in World War II.
One marvel of traveling the world, he said, was to realize that Germany has become a model. “Isn’t it wonderful that this, our difficult fatherland, is seen as an anchor of hope for many people in the world?” Mr. Steinmeier said.
Before the vote, the conservative head of parliament, Norbert Lammert, gave a surprisingly fiery speech that — without mentioning names — attacked Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for trying to divide or weaken Europe.
“Whoever champions a closed mind instead of openness to the world, whoever literally walls themselves in, bets on protectionism instead of free trade and preaches isolationism instead of states cooperating, and declares ‘We first’ as a program, should not be surprised if others do the same — with all the fatal side effects for international ties which we know from the 20th century,” Mr. Lammert said. That goes, he added, for individual European states “but also for our great partner country across the Atlantic.”
Once, it would have been rare for German politicians to lecture other democracies on values, especially the United States, but Germany is now regarded as a critical pillar in upholding the liberal Western order, which is one reason the Sept. 24 national elections are being watched so closely.
It is also why some of Ms. Merkel’s fellow conservatives quietly grumbled that she was outfoxed when she agreed to put Mr. Steinmeier forward as the presidential candidate of her grand coalition government, which unites her conservative bloc with the center-left Social Democrats. Even as the presidency stands above party politics, Mr. Steinmeier, 61, a lawyer and lifelong politician, is likely to be a boon for his party.
His election coincided with a Social Democratic surge in polls since the center-left chose Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, to lead them into battle against Ms. Merkel in the elections.
Mr. Schulz grew up in a village in the Aachen area, becoming mayor of the nearby town of Würselen in 1987, and likes to tell stories from those days to portray himself as an ordinary guy. He first won election to the European Parliament in 1994, going on to become president in 2012. Most unusually for a German politician, he did not finish high school with a certificate, and trained initially as a bookseller.
He outpolled Ms. Merkel in personal popularity, 50 percent to 34 percent, in the Infratest dimap survey this month, albeit with a slightly smaller degree of support than Ms. Merkel’s last Social Democratic challenger had at a similar stage of the 2013 race.
Perhaps because he has spent most of his political career in European institutions in Brussels, Mr. Schulz can appear fresh to German voters.
“What he is doing is filling a vacuum which has obviously arisen,” said Franz Müntefering, a veteran Social Democratic leader. “He is reaching people through emotions.”
In its weekend cover story, Der Spiegel described the current period as “the twilight of Merkel” and noted that she had appeared listless of late.
Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc appears somewhat rattled. Her respected finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, the longest-sitting member of Germany’s parliament, used an interview in Der Spiegel this weekend to accuse Mr. Schulz of Trump-style populism.
“When Schulz lets his supporters shout, ‘Make Europe great again,’ then it is almost word for word Trump,” Mr. Schäuble told the newsmagazine.
Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrat who has replaced Mr. Steinmeier as foreign minister, swiftly retaliated: “The radical and ill-intentioned mockery” in American politics “should not be swept in to Germany,” he said.
Unquestionably, Mr. Trump’s election has so deeply altered the geopolitical landscape for Ms. Merkel. She has kept a cool distance, and the two leaders are expected to meet for the first time this spring.
Domestically, Ms. Merkel is contending with a continuing political backlash to her 2015 decision to admit more than one million migrants, many of them Muslim, into the country. The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which started as a movement against the euro currency, now carries an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim message and has leaders who have sympathy for Mr. Trump’s politics.
Tellingly, Frauke Petry and other Alternative for Germany leaders did not applaud with everyone else during Mr. Lammert’s speech when he attacked isolationism or what he termed a “We first” attitude. Under pressure, Ms. Merkel has backpedaled somewhat in recent months, reducing the influx of migrants and taking a tougher line on deportations.
As is often the case, people outside the bubble of national politics sounded considerably less stirred when asked about Ms. Merkel’s standing.
Metin Elcivan, 41, who helps run a corner store in western Berlin’s Schöneberg district, was certain that German voters would prove conservative. “I think nothing will change at the elections,” he said, “and that we will have a grand coalition again, with Merkel as chancellor.”
Source: New York Times
By: Alison Smale
12 February 2017