Is Angela Merkel set to become the next victim of Moscow’s dirty tricks? Here in Germany the warnings are everywhere. They’re coming from the Chancellor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice and the intelligence services. The German government has no doubt at all that Russia is planning to intervene in this September’s general election on a grand scale. The experts are fretting about cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and targeted leaks of information stolen by hackers. The emerging consensus is that this is going to be an election campaign of a kind we’ve never seen before.
The idea sounds credible enough, especially if you consider the latest American brush with Kremlin-orchestrated hacking. But Germany also has plenty of its own experience to go on. The most notorious example was the “Lisa” story. A year ago, Moscow-influenced media, including the state-sponsored RT television channel, disseminated an account of an ethnic German immigrant girl from Russia who had allegedly been raped by Middle Eastern migrants. The story prompted protests, and even the Russian foreign minister demanded an explanation. Not long after that, the story was exposed as a fabrication.
Then there was the unnervingly effective infiltration of the internal network of the German Parliament that was revealed in May 2015. The hackers stole huge amounts of data. A year later, the German intelligence services came to the conclusion that the culprits were based in Russia. And at the end of November, there was a cyberattack on Deutsche Telekom, Germany’s largest telecommunications provider, that cut 900,000 users off from the Internet and the telephone landline network for several hours. The experts saw the Russian hand at work here as well.
Angela Merkel is the leader of the strongest and most important country of the European Union. She has the greatest experience in government and has been a prime mover behind the sanctions the E.U. has imposed on Russia due to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, this makes her an ideal target of his propaganda campaign against the West in general, and NATO and the European Union in particular.
It all seems crystal-clear. But is it?
We would be naive to doubt Moscow’s desire to meddle in the West. Even so, we should be skeptical about the Kremlin’s capacity to influence the German election. There are three reasons Moscow faces an uphill battle here: the stability of the German party system, the deterrent example of the last U.S. presidential election and the increasingly negative image of Putin in Germany.
Three party groups are currently represented in the German Parliament: the conservative Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and a left opposition consisting of the Greens and the socialist Left Party. The country is governed by a grand coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. The next election will probably see both the far-right Alternative for Germany and the Liberals enter parliament as well. The result, in any case, will be yet another coalition government, since no party will end up with an absolute majority. All other parties have categorically ruled out a coalition with the Alternative.
For the past year, all of the polls have shown the same astonishingly consistent preference of German voters. No matter what happens in the world outside — Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, refugee crisis, the troubles of the E.U. — the voters show little desire for change. Merkel’s Christian Democrats poll between 30 percent and 35 percent; the Social Democrats between 20 percent and 25 percent; the Greens, the Left, and the Alternative for Germany each between 10 percent and 15 percent; and the Liberals just barely over 5 percent. If things stay this way, there is no likelihood of a transfer of power. Merkel still has multiple options for remaining as chancellor. German voters regard her as boring but also as dependable and predictable. Anything but the continuation of her term in office would be a sensation. The German party system seems immune to major shakeups.
The shock effect of Trump’s election as U.S. president has made Merkel’s predictability even more valuable for voters here. The election result has confirmed many German assumptions about American gullibility, corruption and political superficiality. The logical conclusion for many Germans: That can’t happen to us! We won’t be conned by fake news, Breitbart, tweeting candidates, WikiLeaks publications or slogans from Rush Limbaugh. Germans are firmly convinced: Americans are politically immature, and we are politically sophisticated.
America’s reputation in Germany had reached a new low even before the election. Only 50 percent of Germans have a positive image of Americans, 45 percent a negative one. That was the finding from a survey released by the Pew Research Center in June 2015, at a moment when Barack Obama was still in office. This unpopularity was the direct result of the scandal unleashed by Edward Snowden, who had revealed in one of his leaks that the National Security Agency was listening in on Merkel’s phone calls. Every other European country gave a more positive assessment of the Americans. Now the image of the United States is being additionally tarnished by Trump. The new president offers a living example of the potential dangers of right-wing populism.
The Brexit vote and Trump’s election have transformed right-wing populism. In its capacity as a pure opposition movement, the Alternative for Germany transfixed some voters with its aggressive speech and demonstrative political incorrectness. Yet now that it has suddenly turned into a viable political alternative, one that preaches walls, protectionism and xenophobia, many of its former admirers are growing cautious. Protest and defiance are no longer sufficient motives for voting for the right. Theresa May and Trump show where that can lead.
If Putin attempts to intervene in the German election, the reply of leading politicians to their voters will be clear: Do you want to follow the Americans into a political free-for-all, a place where all bets are off? Any hint of Putin’s direct involvement, perhaps linked with continued attacks on Merkel from Trump, will almost certainly boost the chancellor’s popularity.
And yes, as a matter of fact, the Germans do have many critical questions about refugee policy or the European Union. But they don’t want to hear Trump-style answers. And they certainly don’t want to expose themselves to the accusation that they’ve fallen for Russian propaganda, as the Americans did. If that’s the alternative, then they’d rather stick with Merkel — not least because the far-right party’s central slogan is “Get Rid of Merkel!” In this respect, anti-Trumpism, anti-Americanism and German nationalism actually stand in the way of Russian efforts to manipulate the election.
Putin’s changing image is another factor. Traditionally many Germans feel close to Russia. The German sense of guilt over the millions of Soviet dead during World War II gave the postwar generation a reason to seek reconciliation. Willy Brandt’s policy of reaching out to the East was correspondingly popular, while the Cold War rhetoric of the conservatives was not. Germany’s reunification has strengthened this tendency. Yet since the annexation of the Crimea, the continuing Russian war in eastern Ukraine, and above all Putin’s military support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, there is almost no one left in this country who continues to defend Putin’s policies. The pictures from Aleppo continue to have an impact. Germans no longer see Russia as an alternative to the transatlantic partnership — even despite Trump.
Is Merkel the next victim of Russian disinformation? Probably not. The circumstances that led to Trump’s election help to explain why. As Karl Marx once noted, history takes place first as tragedy, then as farce. Sometimes, however, being aware of the tragedy is enough to prevent the farce from happening. Thanks, Trump voters!
Malte Lehming is a commentator with the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.