By Tunç Akkoç
Germany is going to elections next Sunday. The general elections of September 26 promise to be one of the most suspense, head-to-head in the history of Germany. Polls show all three major candidates for chancellor very close to each other, and if that wasn’t enough, the recent weeks have seen great changes in the numbers. It is possible to state that the electorate is in majority unhappy and undecided as far as the main candidates are concerned. According to a survey published last week, only 60% of the citizens that will vote already know whom they are going to elect. This rate is as low as never in German history, such a short time before the elections. Even more striking is the statement of the undecided: 63% say they find the candidates for chancellor not convincing, while 56% state that none of the political parties presents a convincing picture.
The era of Merkel is coming to an end
Chancellor Merkel’s era, which has characterized the recent history, is coning to an end on September 26. Angela Merkel, who has during her 16-years-government increasingly become a symbol of stability and continuity, is passing over the seat of the chancellor. And this must be the main reason for the atmosphere of uncertainty that is prevailing over Germany these days. At the end, governing with her own and peculiar style, Merkel had succeeded in gaining the society’s confidence.
During her time as Chancellor, Merkel had to face various huge crises. We can say that she has become and expert in crisis management and survival. Two years after she arrived at power, the global financial crisis erupted (2007 – 2008). In 2010, the European debt crisis, labeled as the ‘Euro Crisis’ followed. A refugee crisis shook whole Germany and the whole continent in 2015, when within a year more than 1 million immigrants entered the European Union within one year. But in spite of all these crises, the German economy has grown during Merkel’s governance more than in the previous period. While growth was 0.5% in annual average between 2001 and 2005, the economy grew in average 1.6% during Merkel’s time, from 2005 to 2019.
The unemployment rate, which was around 11% in 2005, decreased to around 5% in the recent years.
In foreign policy, Merkel continued with great endurance her multilateralism-centered course. During her time in government, she always fought in favor of a strong European Union. She always attributed great importance to German-Russian relations. Grown up in the German Democratic Republic in the east, and speaking Russian fluently, Merkel is considered one of main architects of the Nord Stream 2, which was completed this month. As head of government, Merkel visited the People’s Republic of China 12 times and became the German who most visited China. Merkel is said be one of the politicians who have paved the way for the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement, agreed upon on December 30, 2020. During her 16 years as Chancellor, Merkel has not supported actively and with military means the US’ overseas interventions, and she has maintained this stance especially during Washington’s attacks on Syria and Libya. In 2013, it became public that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had tapped Merkel’s mobile phone and was recording her calls, evaluated as the ‘biggest scandal in the bilateral relations’.
The above mentioned is not a ‘eulogy on Merkel’, but the perception of Germany from the outside. There are of course unsolved and growing problems. Although the economy is growing, an important part of the population is still fighting with poverty. While the quality of education is diminishing, numbers of those who have abandoned schools and universities without completion are rising in the recent years. Social polarization and political populism have reached levels never seen before. As a result, racism has appeared as a great danger and politically motivated crimes have seen a historic rise.
But it is not on this article to enter in details of these phenomena.
Merkel’s male version
In the last meters of the election race, Olaf Scholz appears to be the person closest to the finish line. The candidate of the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), Olaf Scholz was the finance minister of the last government, a coalition of Merkel’s CDU (Christian Democratic Union – CDU) and SPD. Between 2007 and 2009, Scholz was Federal Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, and between 2011 and 2018, he was the Mayor of the City state of Hamburg. While being his party’s Secretary General 2002 – 2004, Scholz supported then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s neoliberal economic policies. Back then, the governing coalition of SPD and Greens under Schröder had introduced the so-called Agenda 2010, a reform package that cut social and labor rights deeply. Scholz had commented the package as “conform with the social democracy’s principles, logical and applicable” in 2003. During his time as Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, the retirement age was lifted to 67, and it is widely known that Scholz was the responsible for the reform. Due to these approaches, Scholz was until recently not very popular even within the SPD, whose voters have a higher sensibility towards social issues and justice. Accordingly, when he was a candidate for the position of the party’s leadership in 2019, he lost.
In spite of that, he was chosen as the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor, and, surprisingly, his numbers went up sharply in the polls of the recent weeks. While he received 15% in the polls of July, taking a third place in the competition, currently, he is leading the race in almost every poll with around 25%.
Let us take a look at the reasons for that.
Reason number one are economic concerns. The circumstances of the pandemic have caused problems for the German economy too. The government has responded with huge financial support and credit, which created sympathy for the Minister of Finance – Olaf Scholz – among the population. At the same time, the SPD seems to give a higher priority on social policy in comparison with the other, centrist parties. The parties’ communication during the electoral campaign confirms this impression. Olaf Scholz speaks of higher tax rates for high-incomes and proposes a higher number – 12 Euro – as hourly minimal wage then his two competitors.
Secondly, the two other competitors, Armin Laschet from the CDU and Annalena Baerbock have committed huge mistakes that resulted in gains for Scholz. For instance, Baerbock’s new book was published this summer – surrounded by accusations of plagiarism. Within the book, she presented a biography full of mistakes and make-up, causing a scandal. Thus, her star, which shone bright in the spring, lost its shine pretty much.
On the other side was Laschet’s mistake. Laschet visited together with Federaş President Frank-Walter Steinmeier the city of Erftstadt, where 170 people had lost their lives in floods after heavy rains. While Steinmeier was making statements about his sorrow on the lost lives, cameras caught Laschet laughing in the background. Although Laschet apologized several after times afterwards, the recordings were not borrowed from the memories of the voters.
Olaf Scholz on the contrary has, with his nature and behavior, gained the appreciation of the people. Interestingly, he is considered Merkel’s heir, because he pretty much resembles her style. Just like Merkel, Scholz appears as someone who knows well the job, does not prefer show elements or pretensions, a politician so calm to be called almost impassionate. Scholz appears almost as the male version of Merkel. Mainstream media has widely discussed the notion of ‘Scholz as Merkel’s heir’. Olaf Scholz must have thought to win thanks to this perception: In an interview to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, he even presented himself in the “Merkel posture”.
Beyond all that, one needs to take a look at the positioning of the grand capital circles in order to understand German politics and elections. The economy newspaper Handelsblatt reflects best the judgment of big business. The newspaper published exactly two weeks ago an opinion article. Here, the chief economist of the newspaper, Prof. Bert Rürup, who is at the same time the President o the Handelsblatt Research Institute, wrote about the era after Merkel. In the article titled “Becoming Chancellor, Olaf Scholz might be recorded in history books as a reformist”, Rürup compared Olaf Scholz to Gerhard Schröder. Schröder also had won the elections after a 16-years-government of Helmut Kohl, riding on a wave of desire for change, and he had not been taken very seriously in the beginning of his legislature too. According to Rürup, “history may repeat itself today”. Rürup lists openly what the capital expects from the government in terms of economy policy, and he makes reference to the old neoliberal reform politics of the Schröder government introduced under the title of ‘Agenda 2010’, stating: “Even though the project will sure be named differently, a kind of Agenda 2030 has the potential to provide new dynamism to the German economy in spite of the aging population.”
Baerbock: a fast deflating balloon
Being a Member of Parliament since two legislatures, Annalena Baerbock has been elected to the Co-presidency of the Green Party in 2018. Baerbock calls attention with her international career and relations. The youngest candidate for Chancellor in German history, Baerbock has no governmental experience. Instead, she is a member of the US-centered and funded German Marshall Fund, a think tank founded for the purpose of “developing transatlantic relations” that operates in Germany. Annelena Baerbock is also member of the Young Global Leaders, a group that operated within the World Economic Forum, one of the centers of decision-making of the Atlantic capital. This organization incorporates leaders younger than the age of 40, which are considered the “leaders of the future”, and aims to establish a specific network among them. As Bearbock herself was educated in these institutions, she is very familiar with political vocabulary and literature of these Atlanticist centers concerning crisis regions. Baerbock frequently emphasizes the “sacred alliance” of the US and the EU and defends those paradigms that aim to establish the Western countries’ global hegemony. With this stance, Baerbock deserves the attribute of being a “hawk”.
The mainstream media has made Baerbock’s publicity in an unseen manner, once her candidacy was announced. In result of this PR campaign, the Greens’ votes in polls had reached 30%. But what happened that their votes decreased down to 17% in the last polls? First of all, Baerbock’s performance has not convinced the voter. Not just the fiascos mentioned above, Baerbock’s experience and capacity was found insufficient. This maybe be concluded from the answers of questioned voters in polls.
Secondly, the Greens are the true representative of the identity politics in Germany, but they have not succeeded in gaining support beyond this clientele and reached their natural limit. Maybe their goal was to become one of the centrist parties or replace the SPD, but this was not achieved. The Greens were not able to broaden their electoral base, because they have not sufficiently touched on topics beyond their traditional agenda of life style problems, consumption habits, use of language, symbolism, minority rights and sexual liberty. The environment and climate policy meanwhile, which was a time the Greens distinct feature, has in these elections become a topic of more or less all political parties. Hence, for the traditional voter who considered that the Greens were not capable to govern the state and the economy well, no reason was left to vote for Baerbock anymore.
The CDU might end up in opposition
The CDU’s campaign is not going well meanwhile, and the party gets only the second place in polls for a time now. The CDU appears tired of governing, and the party’s candidate Armin Laschet has not succeeded in changing that perception. It may also be added that in the recent months, several high-level party officials made it into the news with corruption scandals, leading to further attrition of the party. The CDU is so cornered that the party recently even started using a discourse that reminds of the times of Cold War. The leaders of the CDU claimed that SPD, Greens and the Left Party will construct a “Left Coalition”, and they invited Olaf Scholz to renounce any intentions of coalition with the Left publicly. Olaf Scholz had to face this question frequently in the recent media contacts, but refrained from an answer as the CDU had wished. At the same time, we can state that the public does not really give a great importance to the CDU’s argument.
Currently, it seems that political system in Germany points to Olaf Scholz and the SPD as winners. The big business, mainstream media and public opinion leaders all signal to this direction. They might be thinking that a socialdemocrat-led government can easier convince the German people to apply a liberal economy program. Concerning their programs, the centrist parties do not show great differences. Therefore, whoever wins will make not a great difference for the German people. What is sure on the hand is, that whoever wins, the course of Germany from past 16 years will continue.