The German Election Season Is Quiet. Too Quiet

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany at an election rally earlier this month. Credit Ralph Orlowski/Reuters
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany at an election rally earlier this month. Credit Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

If you haven’t heard anything about the election campaign in Germany, that’s because there isn’t much of one, despite the fact that nationwide elections that will determine, among other things, whether Chancellor Angela Merkel stays or goes are set for Sept. 24.

Yes, we are talking about the same Germany that has taken in roughly one million refugees and migrants in the last two years. The same Germany that bailed out bankrupt European states with billions of euros. The same Germany that has taken a tough stance toward Russia after its annexation of Crimea. The same Germany that is switching off all its nuclear power plants and turning to green energy.

All of this has happened under Ms. Merkel’s watch, and all of it is controversial here. And yet there is little doubt that she will win her fourth run at the chancellorship, which she has held since 2005. According to polls, if the elections were to take place now, she would beat her opponent, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz, by 20 points. As of now, the only question appears to be whether Ms. Merkel will seek a coalition of her Christian Democrats with the Liberals or the Green Party.

And while both candidates have held rallies and made speeches, the public, and even much of the news media, seems either uninterested or resigned to the results. It’s not that Germans are uninterested in politics or the issues; it’s that they’ve accepted the fact that the country’s national politics are locked in place by a centrist consensus that gives them little choice at the ballot box.

This mass resignation highlights two paradoxes about German politics right now.

The first paradox is that German voters are so temperamentally conservative — i.e., afraid of change — that they are about to re-elect a chancellor who has brought about the most drastic changes the country has seen since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “You know me” was Ms. Merkel’s central message in the run-up to the previous elections, in 2013. But it was only after she had retaken office that the Germans really got to know her. Nobody would have believed that this rather reserved, calculating physicist would, based on a gut decision in September 2015, allow several months of largely uncontrolled immigration into Germany. After the influx, Ms. Merkel’s message was “we’ll manage this,” without explaining what exactly “we,” “manage” and “this” mean.

How can this paradox be explained? I’d argue that Germans see it in relative terms — the sheer number of upheavals that have occurred elsewhere give Ms. Merkel the illusion of stability. In 2013, Crimea was an uncontested part of Ukraine, Britain was an uncontested member of the European Union and the American president was an uncontested member of the league of democratic leaders.

Germans know at least two things: The world has become more prone to crises, and Ms. Merkel has both governed through and lived up to these crises. And they’re not wrong. Within the sea of change — although she has been contributing to it — Ms. Merkel is a rock. The idea of putting Mr. Schulz, a man who has never held a government office, in front of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan is simply too adventurous a thought.

The second paradox is that the most important political topic is not being discussed by the most important political parties in public. Only in private do members of the two main parties talk about what it actually is that “we” have to “manage.”

For instance: How do you make sure that Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq or Northern Africa unambiguously accept values like religious tolerance, equal rights for women and the priority of earthly law over divine commandments? Can those who have a right to stay be integrated into the highly demanding German labor market? And can German authorities develop the thick skin it needs to deport hundreds of thousands of rejected asylum claimants?

Publicly, neither Christian Democrats nor Social Democrats address these issues, because they fear that opening the debate would create an immediate backlash against them, with voters asking why they let in all these people in the first place. Thus, important questions that actually needed to be debated within the political center are left to the fringes. The result will most probably be that an anti-refugee, anti-establishment party, the Alternative für Deutschland, will be elected to Parliament, possibly as the third-largest party. (Polls see it at 8 to 10 percent; it needs just 5 percent to get into the Bundestag.)

The members of Parliament from the Alternative will at times be embarrassing, often a nuisance, but also refreshing. Because no matter whether Ms. Merkel chooses to rule with the Greens or the Liberals, her party will certainly be intent on winning back the voters lost to her right, and the obvious way to do that is to become more open to the anti-immigration, national-minded voter spectrum, pulling her party away from the center just a bit. As the main opposition party, the Social Democrats will likewise be tempted to sharpen their left-wing profile, and highlighting their differences with Ms. Merkel.

In other words, Germany is likely to experience a revival of political difference. This is nothing to deplore. On the contrary, strengthening Germany’s flaccid democracy comes at the right time for a country whose task will increasingly be to safeguard and enhance lively democracy elsewhere in the world.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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