Pragmatism is the real frontrunner in Germany’s election


After a year or two of tumultuous elections around the world, Germany’s September 24th election has observers cautiously optimistic that the polling is reliable and the result predictable.

While initial rumblings surrounding Martin Schulz, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate, pointed to him having a real chance to be a strong competitor earlier this year, the optimism was short-lived and Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) have successfully pulled into a comfortable lead. Although Schulz and the SPD embody many values shared by the German people, when the time comes to step into the voting booth Merkel’s pragmatic track record of global leadership will be what wins her the election.

{mosads}Merkel’s party has done an excellent job over the past decade positioning itself in the middle of the German political spectrum, leaving Schultz and the SPD searching for fringe issues where they can attempt to translate their slight difference of approach into winning votes.

This has not been unintentional — while understated at times and sometimes almost boringly reliable, Merkel has made shrewd political calculations over the years, from her momentous 180 degree turn on nuclear power to fully support the Energiewende, Germany’s transition from traditional energy to clean fuel sources, to her deft toeing of the line between condemnation at home and stoic professionalism during visits to the United States when it comes to President Trump. This ability to shift approach on issues without electoral repercussions has allowed Merkel to respond dynamically to changes in the political climate.

The CDU’s strong and entrenched political posture has led the SPD to take some desperate measures. Particularly interesting is Schultz’s new campaign promise that aims at removing American nuclear weapons from Germany, a suggestion that any German with reservations about Russia’s underlying motives on the global stage should view as a terrible idea. When faced with a choice between a tumultuous partner in the United States or a tumultuous partner in Russia, the obvious choice is still the United States.

Despite this reality, the suggestion resonates strongly with German voters — in a 2016 poll 83 percent of Germans wanted U.S. nuclear weapons out of the country. In theory this could have been a point of real difference between Schulz and Merkel, but in reality voters have not responded with changing their support.

The SPD has also traditionally held a softer view on Russia than the CDU and the United States, but promoting better relations with Russia isn’t the most strategic campaign choice either given that 74 percent of Germans have no confidence in Vladimir Putin according to recent polls.

Putin’s continued antagonization of the West, including his decision to stay back East and watch war games instead of attending the UN general assembly this week- probably won’t go over well in a country where collaboration and taking a global approach to problem solving is a favorite diplomatic tactic. In this area as well Merkel’s history benefits her — she has proven throughout her tenure that she is capable, if not always successful, of playing hardball with Putin.

This is not to say that idealistic pacifism doesn’t occasionally win out in German politics, even during Merkel’s chancellorship. In 2011 her government abstained from the UN security council vote to intervene in Libya, citing “considerable dangers and risks” in participating. When the time is right, Germany’s vision for a more secure and peaceful world positively contributes to global policymaking.

Germany may embrace pacifism as a cultural norm, but when faced with the realpolitik of Trump’s America, an increasingly nuclearized North Korea, and escalating tensions with Vladimir Putin, the most sensible choice for voters will be continuity and strong leadership from the candidate that they know, Angela Merkel.

Heidi Obermeyer is a fellow and program coordinator at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS in Washington, DC. Beginning in October 2017 she will be a German Chancellor Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.


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