A great deal about Germany’s elections this weekend can be discerned from the hand gestures that define the two leading candidates.
On one side, two hands are gently counterpoised against each other, thumbs and index fingers pressed together at the tips. This is the “Merkel rhombus,” the resting position in which the hands of Chancellor Angela Merkel can usually be found. Whether standing alongside world leaders at a Group of 20 meeting or talking to ordinary Germans outside a supermarket, this gesture has become so famous that it appears on posters for her party, the Christian Democratic Union, without any accompanying text.
The next image is of a beefy hand delivering an obscene gesture. The fist belongs to the Social Democratic Party’s Peer Steinbrueck, who is Merkel’s lead challenger. Suddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s leading newspaper, had asked Steinbrueck to respond nonverbally to some of the nicknames journalists have bestowed upon him over his many years in politics. Steinbrueck, who already has a reputation as an impulsive gaffe machine, decided to cement that reputation further — not to mention crush all hopes of an electoral victory for the left — by holding up his middle finger on the cover of the newspaper’s magazine supplement.
Although Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are polling at around 40 percent, the chancellor has long enjoyed personal approval ratings of 60 percent. Due to Germany’s complicated electoral system, in which each citizen casts two votes (the first a “direct mandate” for a local Bundestag candidate, the second for the party’s proportional list), Merkel’s overwhelming popularity among the populace doesn’t automatically translate into an assured victory.
Most, however, are betting on a win for her party. The CSU’s 48 percent victory in last weekend’s Bavarian election — which will give it a majority of seats in the provincial parliament and allow it to ditch the Free Democratic Party and govern the province on its own — has warmed the hearts of conservatives in Berlin. The main question now is whether the current governing coalition of the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democrats will remain or be supplanted by a “grand coalition” of the CDU and the SDP, an arrangement that existed from 2005 to 2009.
Either way, Germans want to continue being cradled in the hands of “Mutti,” or “Mom,” as the chancellor is sometimes called. Germany has been a relative island of stability, moderation and prosperity on a continent beset by debt crisis, youth unemployment and resurgent nationalism. Merkel’s government has balanced the budget, and Germany enjoys its lowest level of unemployment since reunification two decades ago.
Domestically, the chancellor is an ardent seeker of the middle ground, a trait that is highly valued in Germany’s “consensus society.” Her critics say this indicates a lack of vision and opportunism. In some cases, they have a point. Her government’s decision to abandon nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan — although it was highly popular at the time — was a short-sighted overreaction that will make Germany ever more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
The biggest issue in this election has been the unsettling lack of big issues. To listen to the candidates debate or to read the news coverage, one would think that the Germans’ biggest problems are whether there is a burning need for a meat-free day in public canteens (a widely ridiculed idea floated by the Green Party) or the U.S. National Security Agency’s snooping programs. The latter topic — which the press has covered in a sensationalistic, anti-American manner — has been portrayed in such an uncompromising light that Germans could hardly be faulted for thinking that President Barack Obama himself is privy to their every phone call and text message.
To a large extent, a country that experiences boring politics should consider itself lucky. But as much as Germans might wish to be a giant Switzerland, being citizens of the world’s fourth-largest economy demands something more. The German desire to ignore pressing world problems reflects an unwillingness to confront reality.
Given the country’s history, the hesitance to take a more assertive role in the world is understandable, yet it may be time to retire the phrase “given the country’s history” and adapt to the present. In any case, Germans seem to have misunderstood some important lessons from their past. One would think, for instance, that a country that purports to live by the maxim “Never again Auschwitz” would respond more energetically to news that a dictator has used poison gas on his own people. But the vast majority of Germans want nothing to do with Syria. And hiding, rather than leading, seems to suit the German political class just fine.
James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.