There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing over national elections in the past year. In the last ten months alone, we’ve seen high-stakes electoral contests between populist candidates in the United States, Austria, the Netherlands, and France, as well as a tight race in Ghana, a controversial one in Kenya, and an election that followed an impeachment scandal in South Korea. And with another round of elections coming up in Austria after the coalition government collapsed, the near-term election drama is far from over.

One of the most important elections of 2017, however, has attracted comparatively little attention. On September 24, Germans will head to the polls to elect a new parliament, whose members will, in turn, form a governing coalition and select Germany’s next chancellor. Although this vote will determine who will chart the course of Europe’s largest economy and serve as the key negotiator in the looming Brexit negotiations, the German campaign season hasn’t garnered much interest.

On the one hand, the lack of buzz around Germany’s federal elections makes a good bit of sense. To avoid a repetition of the humanitarian, physical, and political devastation of World War II, Germany has intentionally built a system that contains the structures and institutions needed to instill resilience and reliability into the political process. Or, to put it differently, German politics is known for being, well, predictable, and thus boring. Nothing has brought this sense of calm to the electoral arena quite like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose steady, measured leadership will most likely guide Germany again over the next four years. 

On the other hand, this lack of interest is concerning, given what is at stake in the German election. Whoever leads Germany in the coming years and how this person responds to some of the most important challenges hanging over today’s tenuous political landscape will deeply shape Europe—and the rest of world. That’s why the next few weeks of German politics—which will involve the close of the German campaign, the casting of ballots, and the formation of a new government—require greater attention to how they’ll affect the international scene. 


Since the June 2016 Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency in November of that same year, there’s been the open question of which country might have to take up the mantle of global leadership at a time when power dynamics are in flux. One potential (and obvious) answer to this question: Germany.

At the 12th G-20 summit in July, it became clear that many of the world’s leaders—including those from countries outside of the European Union—have begun to look to Berlin for guidance. Although the gathering didn’t produce any particularly historic conclusions, there was a noteworthy unity formed in response to a shared source of frustration: the Trump administration, which has consistently demonstrated a deep-seated penchant for “America First” isolationism. (Take Trump’s much-decried decision in June to make moves toward withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement.) Nevertheless, and thanks largely (though, of course, not solely) to Merkel, a degree of consensus was found on some issues even though the United States didn’t fulfill its normal role as active hegemon. Merkel, more specifically, wrangled G-20 leaders to land on compromise agreements on climate change and trade, as well as to double down on their resolve to confront human trafficking. She also negotiated an exception for Trump, who was the only leader not to declare the Paris climate deal as “irreversible.”

Calling Merkel the “leader of the free world,” however, is too simple, given that Germany has little military power and depends, fundamentally, on the backing of strong allies. Still, Merkel has been a perennial protector of democratic norms and institutions—and has an instinct for marshaling others around broader shared values. This skill has proven to be particularly important when it comes to engaging forcefully with Russian President Vladimir Putin, hardly a friend to liberal leadership, without being knocked off-kilter. Merkel has led the charge on imposing EU sanctions on Russia since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and, earlier this year, the chancellor challenged Putin on a range of human rights concerns, including the purge of gay men from Chechnya and the arrests of anti-Kremlin protesters. Although Merkel’s actions have yet to spur any discernible changes in Putin, her persistent toughness on him is no small thing, particularly given Germany’s dependence on Russian gas.

Looking ahead, Germany will need a leader who can maintain European cohesion and navigate antidemocratic trends rising within the European Union, a rapidly changing international political calculus, and the Atlantic alliance’s uncertain future. This will be particularly critical on two fronts: Brexit and Trump. In the year-plus since Britain voted to leave the European Union, Merkel has been noticeably steadfast in her position that no favors will be offered to the departing country, saying in April that the United Kingdom “cannot and will not” have the same sorts of privileges as EU members. The task of Germany, as well as its pro-Europe partners, will be to shrink, as much as possible, the costs of Brexit to EU citizens. This already sizable endeavor takes on additional gravity in light of the fact that, even though there’s a need to reform the Eurozone, there’s as yet little appetite, at least on Merkel’s end, for any sort of sweeping change to the currency union. French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested a possible blueprint for reform—specifically, a budget for the Eurozone and an independent finance minister—but it remains to be seen whether Germany and France will be able to find common ground in their quest to stabilize the political bloc’s monetary union.

And then there’s Trump. The German-U.S. relationship has atrophied over the last several years, owing partly to the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations that the United States had tapped Merkel’s cell phone. (This undoubtedly contributed to the results of a 2013 poll that revealed that only 35 percent of Germans viewed the U.S. government as trustworthy, compared to 75 percent in 2012.) Trump is primed to degrade this relationship even further. In June, he was highly reluctant to endorse NATO’s Article 5, which guarantees mutual defense among NATO allies. And just the month before, Merkel commented that “the era in which [Europeans] could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” nodding to the real possibility of a fundamental change of roles, at least temporarily, on the international stage. Although the trans-Atlantic relationship’s death knell has hardly tolled—again, Europe will continue to need the United States for its military muscle—the transcontinental ties are strained. Germany will require deft leadership in the years ahead in order to deal with Trump’s mercurial approach to politics and to maintain a semblance of trans-Atlantic cordiality.


One problem that Merkel has been able to weather but not solve, however, is the flow of refugees seeking to relocate in the European Union and, more precisely, in Germany itself. Merkel’s optimistic “we can do it” response to the 2015 refugee crisis became an instant catchphrase, but she has yet to offer any clarity on what, precisely, “we” and “it” are, let alone how “it” is going to be done. Germany has had a mixed track record on immigration this year; although it expects to end 2017 with only 50,000 unprocessed asylum applications, in sharp contrast to the 434,000 that remained unfinished at the end of 2016, the average wait time for these applications to be approved or denied has risen from 10.4 months in the first quarter of 2017 to 11.7 months in the second quarter, even though in 2015 Merkel fired the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees and hired outside consultants to speed up the process. 

What’s more, mistakes in the application processing procedures led to the approval of an asylum application submitted by a German army soldier, identified by German media as Franco A., who, despite speaking no Arabic, successfully passed himself off as a Syrian refugee until he was detained in April, accused of planning a terror attack to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. Although the attack never happened, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has now implemented a new system to prevent these kinds of errors from happening in the future. But that it happened at all casts doubts on the German bureaucracy and raises questions about the presence of far-right sympathizers in the German military.

The issue of immigration hasn’t been the international hot-button topic it was two years ago. Even so, the fact that the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is poised to enter the Bundestag for the first time, with approximately 8-11 percent of the vote, means that the issue remains present in the minds of voters and could resurface as a flashpoint at any time. If the AfD is successful at putting delegates in the Bundestag—or, worse, if it heads the opposition—the party would be in a position to shuffle German politics. It’d have access to federal funds and, more worryingly, a national perch from which it can push its antidemocratic, explicitly racist views and temper the way other parties maneuver the political scene. Such a scenario hardly bodes well at a time when far-right populism already threatens liberal democracy.


Another significant challenge for the next German government will be meeting the emissions reduction goals the country set for itself in 2010. Germany is a world leader in the fight against climate change; its investment in renewable energy has been so successful that at one point in May energy prices fell into the negative numbers, meaning that there was a substantial mismatch between supply and demand—or a glut of energy production. Moreover, leading politicians are united in their support for phasing out nuclear power by 2022. And yet, a recent report from the think tank Agora Energiewende, which works to support Germany’s broader national objective of transitioning to renewable energy, estimates that by 2020 Germany will have reduced emissions by only 30 or 31 percent in comparison to 1990 levels, a prediction that’s a far cry from the country’s goal of a 40 percent reduction by that year. Patrick Graichen, the executive director of Agora Energiewende, responded to the report by saying that the “failure of the 2020 climate target won’t just damage the climate but also Germany’s international role.”

Germany’s failure to meet its self-imposed energy standards is due in part to Merkel’s close ties to German industry. She’s well aware of the fact that, as a center-right politician, her constituents expect her to defend the interests of German businesses. Unfortunately for environmentalists, this means that, in deference to industrial interests, Merkel hasn’t taken the steps to limit the use of lignite coal, a notoriously dirty energy source. She’s also been accused of being too close to the German auto industry, which has been rocked by revelations that carmakers have been secretly circumventing Germany’s diesel emissions standards for years. In a last-minute pre-election turnabout, Merkel has started to push for a transition from diesel to electric cars, but this doesn’t change the fact that, until September 2017, her position on diesel has been to privilege German industry over the German environment.

Of course, Germany’s emissions goal is far more ambitious—and therefore less achievable—than that of most countries. But its leadership on climate change means that its environmental failures will resonate more widely than other nations’. Missing the 2020 goal by such a wide margin would likely send a discouraging signal to other states considering action on climate change, and it could serve as an excuse for other countries to ignore their climate responsibilities altogether. The next governing coalition will have its hands full trying to balance the competing imperatives of reducing coal emissions and preserving jobs.

It’s almost completely certain that these problems will remain Merkel’s to solve, as the polls have her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), leading its closest rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), by 13 to 16 percentage points. There’s less certainty, however, about who the CDU’s coalition partner will be. The party makeup of Germany’s governing coalition has crucial implications for how Germany decides to handle its future domestic and international affairs; a union with the Greens, for instance, would necessitate a more environmentally friendly tack and a tougher stance on Russia than would a partnership with the SPD. So, even though Merkel’s reelection is essentially a foregone conclusion, there’s drama in the German elections—for those willing to see it.

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  • CLAIRE GREENSTEIN is a PhD candidate in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. BRANDON TENSLEY is Assistant Editor at New America and holds a master’s degree in politics from Oxford University.
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