2016 has been a bumpy road so far for politics, most notably with an unexpected Brexit vote and (according to the polls) an equally unexpected victory for Donald Trump over his opponent Hillary Clinton in the race for the presidency in the US. Many Europeans feel slightly insecure in light of this new political order and the year 2017 promises to bring other decisive political events in the form of elections in France, Hungary, Norway and the Netherlands. The far-right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, is ranked high in the polls and hopes to secure victory riding on the high anxiety resulting from the recent terror attacks. The political landscape in Europe will once again change, as it does every so often- but this time it is not unreasonable to assume a certain shift to the right.
In 2017, Germany will also make two important political decisions with a presidential election and a parliamentary election lined up later in the year. Germany, both praised and criticized for its role in the refugee crisis, might find itself without the well-known partners of the past after Brexit, the US elections and possibly after the French elections. Germany will inevitably be influenced by these outside factors given its role in many international structures and its strong European commitment. Germany’s responsibilities in the EU and internationally will mean that the outcome of elections will have implications far beyond its own borders.
Whoever takes the presidency will do so in a mostly symbolic sense: the German President actually has very limited power. At this point in time, the most likely candidate is the current Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (of the Social Democratic Party, hereafter SDP). Steinmeier’s nomination is noteworthy because he is the candidate for more than one party: in an effort to display unity in a time of crisis, both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats have chosen to nominate the Foreign Minister for the role. Domestically, this is a very logical move, since Steinmeier is one of the most well-liked politicians in the country. However, a successful campaign would leave an empty seat in the cabinet and his successor would certainly have big shoes to fill given that the man has been recognized as a successful Foreign Minister especially in improving Germany’s relationship with Russia.
A favorite option for the Foreign Minister’s job if Martin Schulz (SDP), who is currently the President of the European parliament and is due to hand this position to an opposition candidate, from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in 2017. However, Schulz is widely known to be a hearty defender of the European Union and has vocalized problems with Putin, Trump and most pointedly, Britain’s Brexit. The implications of Steinmeier victory could therefore have far-reaching implications for Germany’s international relationships.
While the President is something of a symbolic figure in German politics, the result of next autumn’s parliamentary elections will signify the real decision about Germany’s future. Given that the German system does not restrict the number of terms for chancellors, the current Chancellor Merkel (CDU) is expected to run for a fourth term in office. If things develop as expected (which in the light of Brexit may well not be the case) Merkel would stay in office and the CDU would retain a majority in parliament, although are predicted to face significant losses of up to 10% compared to the 2013 result.
The real question is with whom she would then build a coalition, and how successful the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be in the vote. The most recent polls suggest that the traditional opposition (SPD) would win around 22% of the vote while AfD and Germany’s Green party around 12% each. If fringe parties such as the left-wing Die Linke retain or increase their votes, that would mean that the new German parliament could contain up to six parties. This poses two potential problems.
Firstly, Merkel has governed a ‘big coalition’ between the CDU and the SPD, whose differing positions make consensus difficult. Voters have repeatedly voiced concerns over this perennial middle-ground, instead of being able to legitimate one party over the other. The second problem is the trouble that recent polls have had in accurately predicting results. Even if the polls place the AfD’s share of the vote at only at 12%, Trump’s election as POTUS has reminded political scientists that voters may not always disclose their honest opinions until they reach the polling stations. An AfD backed by 20-25% of the votes could put considerable pressure on Merkel to move the CDU towards the right and could advocate for a change not only in refugee policies but also in European political matters.
In France an election of Le Pen and a resulting shift to the right are within the bounds of possibility, In Germany, at present, it is expected that Merkel will continue to serve as the Chancellor. If we assume that continuity will prevail in Germany, how do the changes in the international political environment impact Germany’s position in the world? The Chicago Tribune’s headline: ‘Europe’s reluctant leader inherits the world in age of Trump‘, summarizes what has been suggested by many. That is, in times of uncertainty, Germany could become the anchor point of the ‘old’ world order.
With this, Germany is likely to be forced to take more responsibility than it has in the past and emerge from a decades-long reluctance to actively participate in world affairs. More than ever, Germany could become the face of the European Union in dialogues with both the US and Russia. If the EU-skeptic Le Pen is elected in France, Germany may furthermore find itself fighting to hold the Union together as a lone warrior. The refugee crisis, financial issues and a general popular disagreement with EU policies have put the EU in an insecure position. Elections of right-wing leaders and possibly countries seeking to follow Great Britain may shake the Union to its core.
As one of the EU’s strongest countries, Germany could find itself responsible for the future of the future of the Union. Even worse from the perspectives of many Germans is the possibility that Trump’s plan to reduce the US’ NATO involvement is more than a lip service. This would mean that Germany, the reluctant military power, may have to increase military spending and military involvement- a prospect that is unlikely to be welcomed generally pacifist German public. So, what is next for Germany? Nothing seems to be certain after this year’s events. The only prediction one can safely make is that Germany’s role will change with changing international circumstances and this might require a redefinition of the country’s reluctant leadership.
Linda Schlegel is an student of MA Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.
PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.