Germany’s Trust Test
Three months from now, Germans will go to the polls to elect a new government. While German voters are not as subjected to a permanent election campaign mode as are American voters, the weeks leading up to the September 24 elections will be increasingly marked by the stand-off between Angela Merkel and her SPD rival Martin Schulz. The smaller parties vying for a role as potential coalition partners—the FDP, the Greens, the Left Party—will be making their case along with the right-wing Alternative for Germany, with whom no one wishes to partner (but who will likely make it into the parliament as an opposition voice).
As of now Merkel stands a very good chance of being elected for a fourth term. While the experiences of the past year have tempered those engaged in predicting election results, the public opinion polls seem to lean in her favor. And the SPD has again not yet figured out how to stop her.
The main question posed is whether the Social Democrats can deliver a message strong enough to secure a basis for a viable coalition with one or even two of the smaller parties. Since the SPD has lost three consecutive state elections in the recent months, they have a steep climb ahead. The results of those elections also suggest that the most likely partners for the SPD—the Greens or the FDP—are also ready to partner with Merkel in a coalition in Berlin.
The race to September 24 is going to come down to whether Merkel can make the case for a reelection that would put her on the path to match Helmut Kohl’s unsurpassed sixteen-year record as chancellor. It will also come down to the ability of the SPD to deliver an answer to the question: why is it time for a Social Democratic chancellor?
Four years ago, Merkel faced another SPD rival in the person of former finance minister Peer Steinbrück. She won that race decisively although she still wound up in a second coalition government with the SPD.
Since that defeat, the Social Democrats have spent the past four years trying to figure out who would be the best candidate to finally unseat the chancellor this year. It is a tough task given the fact that the SPD was not doing well in public opinion polls—even though they are part of the government. For a while it looked like party chairman Sigmar Gabriel would take on the candidate role. But with his lagging popularity, the switch was made a few months ago to draft Martin Schulz, the former President of the EU Parliament, to be the leader.
Although Schulz made his career in the European Union arena in Brussels, he seemed to have infused the political atmosphere in Germany with an initial breath of fresh air when he was proclaimed the SPD’s candidate. But the freshness of his candidacy was not easily matched with a persuasive message to go along with it. It was not going to be enough simply to say “it’s time for a change.”
The recent SPD party convention in Dortmund seemed to illustrate that dilemma. There was the expected Merkel bashing along with a focus on the traditional SPD arguments around social equality and economic reforms. There was also quite a bit of focus on foreign policy sprinkled with references to the widely-disliked U.S. president, Donald Trump. Schulz did his best to rally the crowd but he might have made two errors in Dortmund.
First, he accused the CDU of undermining Germany’s democracy with an allegation that Merkel’s party is trying to silence controversy with something called “asymmetric demobilization,” meaning Merkel is trying to make SPD voters believe it is not worth showing up on polling day as the race is all but over. In the coverage that followed, his efforts to draw attention to the SPD’s core platform issues were overshadowed by that one attack.
The second error was in accusing Merkel’s government of not standing up to Trump’s demands that Germany increase its defense spending. Attacking Trump is easy in Germany where the vast majority of Germans don’t think much of the president. Attacking the U.S. in general is more difficult to measure as a campaign slogan. Merkel had already been out in front of Schulz in expressing her dismay with Trump after the G7 meetings in Italy. The allegation that Merkel is intimidated by Trump may in fact rebound to her benefit if she can argue that she has the better experience, having dealt with three presidents in defending German interests.
Three months can be a very long time in politics, with ample opportunity to make missteps. Merkel has made her share in her time. In today’s volatile political atmosphere, they can always become magnified in the media.
Merkel’s message will be focused on three things: trust, stability, and reliability. One of her predecessors, Konrad Adenauer, used a similar approach to win an absolute majority in 1957 with the slogan “no experiments.” But in fact, today Germany and its partners are going to have to experiment in multiple ways in order to deal with the challenges confronting the entire European Union. In dealing with Brexit, immigration, defense policies, or the future of Europe, business as usual will not be enough. What will a fourth term for Merkel mean for all these challenges?
Schulz will argue that it is time for new leadership to try new approaches. That also involves trust.
But how will he differ from Merkel’s record? When the last SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder defeated Helmut Kohl, he proclaimed that his government would not do a lot of things differently but would do a lot of things better. Is that argument going to work again this time for Martin Schulz?
Elections are about hopes for the future and perceptions of the past. They are also about trust—a fragile value in today’s political arenas. The next twelve weeks will reveal how much trust Germany’s political leaders have earned, deserve, and will be given on September 24.