While Americans try to swallow the prospect of four Trump years, Germans can now wonder, after months of suspense, about the chance of four more Angela Merkel years. Between the two there are certainly huge differences, not only in gender and language. Most obviously, while he spoke often of throwing immigrants out, she was spotlighted for calls to let them in. Only gradually, under great pressure, has she reduced this; not any and all immigrants, only refugees from certain war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria – and not too many more of them.
There was pressure from many sides, also within her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but far more from its sister party (Christian Social Union, CSU), which has a separate status only in Bavaria. Usually both work together but the Bavarians, known abroad for lederhosen, dirndls and the October Fest, always lean further right. Currently losing ground in their own habitat, they are threatening to punish her “leftist leanings”. Such pressures take their toll, not only of her usually cheery countenance but also in the polls. Her personal popularity, now at about 55%, is reviving after a record low, but her party stands at only about 35%, which hardly guarantees victory in the September election.
But Merkel’s current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), face poll figures stagnating at under 25%. Their stout warrior Sigmar Gabriel, far less popular than Merkel, lost even more luster by forcing reluctant followers to support the Canadian equivalent (CETA) of the trans-Pacific trade deal TPP and the US-Europe deal TTIP. Luckily, both hang inches away from the final shredder, thanks to worldwide campaigns but also, believe it or not, to disapproval by Donald Trump, even if it may have been for the wrong reasons.
Trump’s very ambiguous yet welcome campaign words about meeting Putin and withdrawing NATO from Europe caused storms of confusion here. But while they struck at the underpinning of decades-long declamations about “our eternal bonds of trans-Atlantic friendship” they also supplied new footing for people like Defense Secretary Ursula von der Leyen, who yearn to build up a big “European defense force”, separate from the USA and led by a powerful Germany, with its century of valuable experience in “how to defend humane European values against invading hordes”. Now, without British meddling and with France facing calamity, German tanks, fighters (and soon “Made in Israel” drones) can take the lead, reinforcing right-wing rulers in Poland and the Baltic states and building up strength to within 85 miles of St. Petersburg, to the furthest reaches of the Black Sea and on to Africa and Asia as well.
With a smiling Angela speaking simply and reasonably as ever, we have a one “good cop” and two “bad cop” situation, for Finance Minister Schäuble is still busy pressuring weaker European leaders in the south not to reject austerity fetters but to keep buying big expensive weapons from Germany.
But there is also a second “good cop”. While Angela was giving her long-time ally Barack a goodbye hug, Germany was also preparing for a line of moving vans to and from its White House equivalent, Bellevue Palace. After February, President Joachim Gauck’s perpetual smile, a triumph of hypocrisy, can soon be forgotten. Who should replace him in this ceremonial job, where the president is supposed to avoid the political scene? Since they had no better offer, Merkel’s crowd OK’d a Social Democrat, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 60. Handsome, white-haired, with a deliberate way of speaking full of pauses, his one-time promotion of laws against the jobless fully forgotten, he is the most popular man in his party, perhaps because he sometimes seemed more sensible than others in trying to settle conflicts, as in Minsk and the Ukrainian conflict. He will now be kicked upstairs into the columned palace to welcome visiting kings and dignitaries and make nice speeches.
Without him, the SPD faces the difficult job of finding a candidate to oppose Angela Merkel in the main election. Will it be the unpopular Gabriel? Or perhaps Martin Schulz, now president of the European Parliament, also a smiler with a hidden poniard up his sleeve when Greek or other upstarts try to upset the apple-cart. Foreign minister or chancellor – which is he aiming at? We shall see.
Media speculation is rife about the vote and its aftermath, with stress on the math, since no party can win enough seats to rule by itself. The CDU may agree to join again with the SPD – only if the SPD will play junior partner again. What about the Greens? Once considered young militants, they have long since cooled down as their well-educated core of voters became successful in their professions or in government jobs. Their current strong man, Winfried Kretschmann, 68, minister-president in the state of Baden-Württemberg, has become ecologically paler green thanks to his friendship with the area’s powerful Daimler-Benz concern, now facing charges of emission fraud as serious as those hitting Volkswagen. Could the Greens and the CDU join hands? They have done so in some states, some rightist Greens leaders excel in belligerency in world conflicts. But this still seems unlikely.
A constant debate concerns any coalition between the SPD, Greens and the LINKE ((Left). The math might just work out. But the SPD and the Greens reject any alliance unless the LINKE agrees to support NATO and approve the deployment of Bundestag troops outside Germany. This goes against the LINKE program, and some insist that any softening on this issue would mean accepting the path of German military expansion which dominated the last century so tragically and sacrificing the distinguishing feature of the LINKE as the Peace Party. Others in the party, like Thuringian Minister-President Ramelow, call for compromises, in hopes that the LINKE an accomplish more within a government than outside it.
This question of such a three-way coalition is now front stage in Berlin, where just such a tripod will take charge next month if approved by all participants (in the LINKE with a referendum of all Berlin members). Already almost certain, it will consist of the present SPD mayor plus four cabinet posts (here called Senators) for the SPD and three each for the Greens and the LINKE.
But casting a menacing shadow over the whole political scene is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose voters gave it 24 seats (out of 149) in Berlin’s House of Deputies plus seats in all twelve borough councils, where some will even head departments. With a mix of far righters, pro-Nazis, former embezzlers and the like, they will follow the line worked out at their recent national congress; hit out at foreigners, above all Muslims, defend “German nationality and culture” and, by the way, stand for every rightwing tendency from homophobia and anti-abortion to low taxes for the wealthy and a strong military. This may sound familiar; with prospects for the extreme right in Austria, the Netherlands, perhaps France and already existing in Hungary and Poland, the prospect is frightening.
The main resistance to the alienation, fear and uncertainty feeding this trend should be coming from the LINKE. Sadly, its leaders have often been distracted by internal disagreement and by a neglect of battles for the needs and wishes of working people – not only in parliamentary meetings but in the streets, factories and other centers. There have been some – but far too few.
Happily, perhaps, the LINKE has decided on a candidate of its own for the job of president. Professor Christoph Butterwegge, 65, not a party member but a resolute expert on the question of poverty, the forces causing it and the fight against it, knows he has no chance to win against Steinmeier. But he wants to provoke discussion about the social gap between wealthy and poor in an otherwise toothless election debate. Although the Greens have stated they will not support him, but instead probably CDU and SPD candidate Steinmeier, he hopes to win over at least some votes from other parties among the many delegates who choose a president – as a good symbol.
However, this contest will pale when the slugging begins for the main election in September. Will the LINKE put up a tough fight against social cutbacks and military advances? If so, and only if it does, it could gain ground again and reduce to some degree the threat from the far right.