At first glance, Germany’s upcoming national election in late September looks much like those of past years. So far, the issues that will shape the contest appear to be standard fare, and thus overwhelmingly domestic: the German economy, security, migration, and jobs. The leading mainstream parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), aren’t that far apart from each other on any of those topics, nor are they on foreign policy. All signs point to a resumption of the ruling CDU–SPD grand coalition, led by Angela Merkel as fourth-term chancellor.

Yet much more is at stake in the German vote—and in the campaign—than initially meets the eye. The politicking will transpire against the background of a European Union sinking further into its deepest crisis since its founding. The wounds of the eurocrisis remain raw. Unpredictable, autocratic leaders in Russia and Turkey are stoking conflicts on Europe’s periphery and, in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, attempting to sabotage the EU. Exacerbating it all, Donald Trump, the new U.S. president, is shaking the foundations of the Atlantic alliance and has poured fuel on the fire of European right-wing populism.

Germany isn’t prepared to take over the leadership of the Atlantic alliance from the United States, much less that of the broader international order that Washington has historically underwritten. But Europe’s biggest economy is nevertheless holding the continent together: Berlin, not Brussels, has become the EU’s true capital and the guarantor of its stability. Germany’s policies reverberate far beyond its borders, and Germany, where the lessons of Nazi rule and World War II are inscribed in the public imagination, remains a bulwark against the illiberal forces tearing Europe apart. With Euroskeptics gaining ground in France and the United Kingdom tied up with Brexit, Germany now stands alone as the guardian of European values—a role it did not seek nor, in many ways, that it is suited for. Every country in Europe has a stake in Germany’s election campaign.


Europe’s extraordinary circumstances are probably one reason why Merkel opted to run for another term, despite having already served as chancellor for nearly 12 years. She remains highly popular, although her principled stance on migration has taken a toll on her support and that of her party. She has no obvious successor as the head of Europe’s premier Christian democratic party—and if she were replaced, her CDU successor might well not toe her liberal line on battleground issues, such as migration and Islam's place in Germany, which strays from CDU orthodoxy.

The CDU’s arch-conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has already waded into populist waters, blasting Merkel’s refugee policies in terms that echo and legitimize the stance of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD. For the election campaign, though, Merkel has the CSU on board and largely mum on the issue.

Frauke Petry (second from left), the leader of the Alternative for Germany, arrives for a meting in Koblenz, Germany, with the leaders of other European right-wing parties, January 2017.
Frauke Petry, the leader of the Alternative for Germany, arrives for a meting in Koblenz, Germany, with the leaders of other European right-wing parties, January 2017.
Wolfgang Rattay / REUTERS

Merkel wants to be certain that the CDU and CSU don’t make the same mistake that Austrian conservatives did decades ago by opening the door to the Freedom Party, the far-right populist party that served as the conservatives’ junior coalition partner in Vienna from 2000 to 2004 and nearly captured Austria’s presidency late last year. (Elsewhere in Europe, in countries such as Denmark, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia, far-right groups have also shared in power as formal or informal coalition partners.) Unlike in those countries, none of Germany’s parties entertain the possibility of teaming up with the AfD in coalitions, either in the Bundestag or on any other level. But the AfD’s almost certain entry into the federal assembly will itself be a seminal event in German politics: the first time since 1949 that a party to the right of the CDU and CSU—one using explicitly racist and nationalistic rhetoric—will win seats in that body. “Nationalist parties may be popping up everywhere now,” Norbert Frei, a historian at the University of Jena, wrote in an email. “But in Germany, they’re striving to nullify an important element of the Federal Republic’s political culture, namely its self-critical engagement with the Nazi past.”

The AfD, originally a party of “polite populists” formed to protest the euro and Germany’s bailout of indebted southern European states, has in the last few years drifted rightward into volkish nationalism, its ranks filled with lower-middle-class Germans (mostly men) alongside a core of far-right ideologues. It has capitalized on the influx of refugees to survive internal divisions–many of the libertarian-minded academics who opposed the euro in the party's early days have since abandoned it—entering state legislatures across the country and receiving up to 20 percent of the vote in Germany’s eastern states. Its leaders endorse Putin and Trump’s nationalist, anti-EU positions. The size of the vote the AfD receives in the federal elections will be an important measure of the health of Germany’s democracy—and thus of Berlin’s ability to hold Europe together.

For now, there’s probably a ceiling to the AfD’s support. The party “is more radical than Austria’s Freedom Party,” said Hajo Funke, a German scholar of right-wing extremism. “In its present form, there’s no way the AfD is going to tap support from centrist burghers in Germany the way the Freedom Party or the National Front in France do.” Funke reckons that the party will garner between 8 and 12 percent of the vote, gaining more only in the event of a successful terrorist attack. Critical to keeping the far right confined, Funke says, is Christian democratic voters’ allegiance to Merkel. The CDU remains the country’s dominant political party, currently polling at about 33 percent (the Social Democrats are a few points behind). Yet the CDU is considerably weaker than four years ago, when it collected 41.5 percent of the national vote. In state-level votes since then, the party has suffered a string of defeats, as a slice of its voters have peeled off to back the AfD.


As for the campaign’s content, “the biggest issues are going to be fought out on the right side of the political spectrum,” said Mariam Lau, a columnist for the weekly Die Zeit, referring to migration, but also to the euro, the eurocrisis, security, and relations with Russia. The question is how far Merkel’s CDU and the CSU will go to lure voters who might otherwise back the AfD. Will the chancellor make further concessions on migration and integration, as she’s done many times before by, for example, imposing a burka ban (she has already proposed one), or will she stand up confidently for her migration policies and a diverse society, as she’s done at other times? Will she defend the EU or tactfully distance herself from it? Will she cut Greece slack or keep it pinned to the floor with debt? Will she promote a narrow conception of Germany as a state for German nationals or open it up to non-German nationals, such as people with migration backgrounds? Will she back yet more intense surveillance and policing methods? Much depends on how she approaches these sensitive issues.

The politicking will transpire against the background of a European Union sinking further into its deepest crisis since its founding.

Together with security, migration will be the campaign’s most important and divisive issue. The chancellor’s position on the refugee influx into Germany has come a long way from the de facto open-door position she took in the summer of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and migrants where trekking toward Europe. Through a deal with Turkey, tougher legal requirements for refugees, and the refusal to accept asylum applicants from so-called safe states in the Balkans, Germany has cut the rate at which people are entering the country by nearly 75 percent since then. Last week, Merkel took yet another step to appease critics by setting out a wide-ranging plan to more quickly repatriate failed asylum seekers. Nevertheless, she began the year by reminding U.S. President Donald Trump of the Geneva Convention’s refugee provisions, a sign that she’s determined not to betray Germany's fundamental commitment to the right to asylum.

Merkel’s compromises, however, have not placated her critics. Indeed, against fierce pressure from within her own party and from populist challengers, she has resisted closing the border to refugees or capping the number of asylum applicants Germany will accept. She has held firm that all EU countries shoulder asylum seekers according to their size and wealth. And she has approached the right to asylum, in the context of human rights in general, as a pillar of Europe’s liberal order, one whose erasure would diminish the continent’s democratic credentials and perhaps push more of its states onto the slippery slope of authoritarianism, as has already happened in Hungary and Poland.

Sigmar Gabriel, then the German economy minister, and Martin Schulz, then the European Parliament president, at an SPD party congress in Berlin, December 2015.
Sigmar Gabriel, then the German economy minister, and Martin Schulz, then the European Parliament president, at an SPD party congress in Berlin, December 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS


Merkel’s primary opponent in the election is also an ally—and will probably be her deputy chancellor after the vote. A new arrival in German politics, Martin Schulz is a Social Democrat who, very unusually for a German politician, made his name in the European Parliament, rising to its presidency in 2012. Schulz took an unorthodox path to Brussels: he grew up in a working-class family in a coal-mining region of the Rhineland and, rather than finish high school, opted to play semi-professional soccer and later trained to be a book seller. After joining the SPD, Schulz served for a decade as mayor of a small town along the Dutch border, the most recent office in Germany he has held. Since the mid-1990s, he has moved in the rarified environs of the European Parliament as a face Germans know but not as a politician they’ve tested. Despite his EU credentials, many Germans consider Schulz a gritty, trade-union-minded advocate for the working class.

There has been a long line of Social Democrats who have tried and failed to stop their party’s electoral bleeding in recent decades. Now Schulz is on it, and initial polls show him close on Merkel’s heels. Upon Schulz’s unexpected nomination, the SPD jumped three points in polling and has continued to climb. Yet Germany’s left—the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party—will likely still fall short of a majority. The CDU has only the SPD with which it can form a government, unless it forms a coalition with two parties—say, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party.      

In addition to contesting each other and countering the far-right, Merkel and Schulz will have to convince Germans that the EU has a viable future. If the Germans give up on it, Europe’s destiny is up for grabs. Trump’s proclamations on NATO and Putin’s provocations in Eastern Europe have believers in the European project scrambling to beef up the EU’s defense and security capabilities, rethink its foreign policy, create a single military command, and, in general, prepare for a life without their strongest ally. Yet neither Schulz nor Merkel appear to have a big-frame vision for the EU’s future that he or she can sell to German voters. And ultimately, they have to sell the EU beyond Germany, to the rest of Europe. Germany’s dominance in the union has grown since the eurocrisis, and Berlin is often seen as promoting its own interests to the detriment of the union’s other members. Certainly, measures such as tempering Germany’s record trade surpluses or investing them to help buoy economies outside of Germany would be a step in the right direction. Germany can’t rally Europe while appearing to use the EU as a vehicle for its own interests—a criticism that Trump has made and many smaller EU countries have echoed.

A number of events between now and September could upend this fragile calculus. A National Front victory in France’s upcoming presidential elections, routs of the CDU in North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, or Schleswig-Holstein in state contests, a terrorist attack, renewed trails of refugees, a major escalation in Ukraine, or the CSU’s defection from the CDU could cause Merkel and her party to sink in the polls. A Merkel-and-Schulz-led administration isn’t a bad option for Germany. If they end up governing together, both must be aware that the fate of Europe rests on their shoulders.

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