Angela Merkel may be on course for victory but her campaign for the German chancellorship is not the stately procession it might seem from afar. TONY PATERSON joins her on a decidedly bumpy election trail
Earlier this year the twin political earthquakes of Brexit and Donald Trump prompted shaken Europeans to dub her the last ‘leader of the free world’. Yet as she toured her eastern homeland ahead of the German elections last week Angela Merkel was screamed at, called a ‘traitor’, and shown the middle finger by crowds that came to see her.
In the eastern town of Torgau, her campaign appearance was greeted with chants of ‘Merkel must go’ from several hundred rowdy onlookers. In the next eastern town en route, she was met by a deafening cacophony put up by a mob armed with soccer referee whistles while two were arrested for giving illegal Nazi salutes. In the nearby port of Wolgast in the Uckermark region, where she grew up, her car was pelted with tomatoes.
The ardent Merkel supporters who had come to see the Chancellor they so admire were disgusted. ‘It’s not fair to treat her in this way,’ one onlooker told me. But the members of the anti-Merkel camp were equally adamant. ‘She’s opened the door to all these Islamic scroungers and terrorists – nobody asked us. She has to go,’ complained one woman.
The woman dubbed ‘leader of the free world’ was not cutting much ice. In her former eastern home, there was also little evidence of forecasts which predict that after 12 mostly successful years in office that once earned her the title of most popular Chancellor since Bismarck, Angela Merkel is now coasting effortlessly towards another resounding victory on September 24.
It was no secret that Germany’s answer to UKIP – the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) was behind the anti-Merkel protests. Launched in 2013 as a mere anti-euro party, the AfD has since transformed itself into a virulently xenophobic movement with clear right-wing nationalist appeal. Most of the party’s supporters live in the former communist and increasingly de-populated east. And as in the case of Brexit, many of its supporters feel left behind by globalisation and threatened by immigration.
Opinion polls suggest that the AfD will win up to 11% of the vote on September 24 and become the country’s third –strongest party behind Merkel’s Conservatives and her current Social Democrat coalition partners. With 37% of the electorate still undecided, the percentage could be higher, possibly much higher.
The AfD is almost certain to become the first radical right-wing party to enter a German parliament since the disbanding of the nationalist, partly Nazi-inspired Deutsche Partei in the early 1960s. The party has already forged close links with UKIP. Last week it received the personal blessing of Nigel Farage, who appeared at one of the AfD’s campaign rallies in Spandau just outside Berlin.
Many Germans admire Merkel for what they see as the principled and humanitarian step she took in the late summer of 2015 which allowed an estimated one million refugees to enter the country. But her decision was also what the AfD unashamedly calls a ‘gift’ to their cause. In that sense Merkel will be to blame for putting far-right MPs in a German national parliament for the first time in half a century. Yet many would argue that such is the price of her success.
With just days to go before the election, opinion polls suggest that, despite the AfD, Merkel and her conservative Christian Democrats are on course to win some 37% of the vote. That gives her what, by any standards, amounts to a substantial lead over the party of her Social Democrat coalition partner and challenger of the chancellorship, the former European parliament leader, Martin Schulz.
After an initial surge, early this year, support for Schulz and his party has slumped to below the 25% mark suggesting that it may be heading for one of its worst ever poll performances. Schulz was initially described as ‘Saint Martin’ by his fans and there were hopes that he might beat Merkel. But his attempts to portray himself as a future ‘people’s chancellor’ have failed to convince.
Germany’s other parties: the Greens, the former communist Die Linke and the resurgent liberal Free Democrats are all polling between eight and nine percent, which would leave Merkel little option but to form yet another grand coalition with the Social Democrats. There is an outside chance that she may manage an alliance with the Free Democrats if they perform well
Der Spiegel magazine’s front cover summed up the overall pre-election mood with a cartoon depicting Merkel as a giant overweight boxer lying half asleep on the ropes with an imp-sized boxer Martin Schulz dancing around her feet. ‘Wake Up!’ urged the magazine’s headline.
Merkel was able to cement her lead earlier this month when television viewers were treated to what elsewhere would be considered an extraordinary spectacle: two candidates – herself and Schulz – campaigning to lead the next government yet enjoying a friendly so-called ‘debate’ in which both appeared to agree more than disagree on key issues. The fact that both candidates are also likely to be the leaders of the next government also failed to escape notice. Pundits described the contest as one of the most boring electoral debates on record. But Merkel was judged the winner, not least and perhaps simply because, after 12 years in office, she carries far more authority than her challenger. Germany’s system of proportional representation and the nightmare experience of Nazi power are two reasons for the Merkel success story. Another is her remarkably unfazed – some would say bland – approach to politics, which reassures voters.
None of the established parties will contemplate forming a coalition either with the far-right AfD or the former communist Die Linke. As a result the parties of the centre-left and centre-right have been able to take a firm hold of the centre ground from where they have ruled Germany for the past 12 years. Merkel has both created and exploited the political standstill. She has shifted her own nominally conservative party firmly towards the left and Green politics. She has championed immigration, the rejection of nuclear power and the minimum wage and shifted her position to enable parliament to break the taboo surrounding gay marriage – the once great German conservative no-no. The pundits are unanimous in their view that Merkel has pushed her party far to the left and thereby stripped her closest rival, the Social Democrats of much of their identity.
Yet they also agree that it was inevitable that a far right organisation like the AfD would eventually move in to fill the yawning gap on the right. Merkel has clawed back much of the popularity she lost on the refugee issue in 2015 by brokering a deal with Turkey to limit the influx of refugees and by tougher immigration controls. ‘We must never allow a repeat of 2015,’ is the mantra she repeated to crowds in east Germany last week. The polls suggest that after Brexit and Trump, that slogan will be enough to secure another victory for Mutti Merkel – even if the price means being pelted with tomatoes and being branded a traitor. As for being the last ‘leader of the free world’, Merkel – true to self-effacing style – says she deeply dislikes the description.
Tony Paterson is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in Berlin. He has written for the i newspaper, the Independent, the Guardian, Sunday Telegraph and New Statesman