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Merkel’s Next Challenge

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hamburg, Germany, July 2017.  

How She Will Fare Ahead of Germany’s Elections

by Sudha David-Wilp

After a G-20 with plenty of drama but little substance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must now face the ultimate test. She must exit the international stage and start speaking to German voters in a quest to be reelected for a fourth term. Although the G-20 was not the best showcase for the chancellor thanks to protests on the streets of Hamburg, her Christian Democrat party (CDU) has surged ahead in the polls over the last couple of months, giving Merkel a considerable lead of approximately 15 percentage points over Social Democrat party (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz. To maintain momentum, Merkel should address skepticism within her own party about domestic security and the creditworthiness of Germany’s EU partners while continuing to position herself to German voters as a bulwark vis-à-vis Trump.

During her 12 years in office, Merkel has deftly adopted issues from other parties to diminish their voter base. By speeding up the timeline for phasing out nuclear energy and clearing the way for gay marriage, for example, she has robbed the Greens of their main appeal to progressive voters. Meanwhile, when she gets rival parties to enter her coalition government, they do so at their own peril. The Liberal Free Democrats (FDP) joined with Merkel in 2009 to form a traditional center-right government. In the next parliamentary elections in 2013, the FDP couldn’t even muster the five percent vote threshold to enter the parliament, something that had never happened in post-war Germany. Likewise, after two stints as the CDU’s coalition partner, the SPD is beginning to hemorrhage support on both sides of the political spectrum.

All this bodes well for Merkel, whose CDU is leading after losing ground to the SPD at the beginning of the year, when the two parties were neck and neck with approximately a third of the vote each. As of the beginning of July, the German institute Infratest Dimap calculated 39 percent support for the CDU and 23 percent for the SPD. Indeed, with the wind in her sails, Merkel should coast to victory at the end of September if she addresses three issues that matter to her core voters and beyond.

To the chancellor’s chagrin, images of burning cars and enraged protests will be what many remember from the G-20 meeting in Hamburg. The drama came just after Merkel finally managed to shake off disapproval about the lack of law and order during the influx of migrants two years ago, which was soon followed by unruly mobs disrupting New Year’s revelry in Cologne. She will now have to assure voters that she is in control and can provide basic security to her citizenry, and her party’s campaign pledge to increase the police force by 15,000 might not be enough if there is another incident in the lead-up to the election.

For half of Merkel’s time in office, the specter of Greek debt has warranted a constant balance between providing credit as a responsible partner and admonishing the Greeks to carry out austerity measures to allay the concerns of German taxpayers who resent economic profligacy. Strict adherence to belt tightening seems futile in a country facing debts tallying approximately 300 billion euros, but Merkel cannot afford to offer any relief to Greece until after the fall election. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) got its start as an anti-euro party strongly opposed to bailing out EU member states. The party’s popularity has ebbed because of infighting, but any hints of leniency would open the door for the AfD to shave away conservative voters from the CDU. Conservative voters sleep well at night knowing that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who has maintained a hard line on austerity while deflecting criticism about Germany’s own economic policies, safeguards Germany’s treasury. The CDU will have to signal that it will not change course even with a cabinet reshuffling after the election.

The final challenge is U.S. President Donald Trump. Even before the inauguration, Trump pointed out Germany’s significant trade surplus with the United States of $65 billion. Ever since, he has been harping on the country’s appetite for exporting and not spending. He is not the first to put Germany’s economic strategy in a negative light, but compounded with the new U.S. administration’s distaste for free trade and multilateral organizations, clear differences have emerged in the German-American partnership. Merkel has already expressed her doubts, albeit obliquely, about the current White House.

SPD candidate Schulz, by contrast, has not been shy about sharing his views about Trump. His comments raised few eyebrows in Germany. In fact, according to Pew Research, only 11 percent of Germans have confidence in the president to do the right thing regarding world affairs. It is therefore not surprising that Merkel has been preemptively defining the type of relationship her country would like to have with the United States. She sent Trump a congratulatory note after the election that urged cooperation based on shared values. After the NATO summit in May, she mused during a campaign rally in a beer tent that Europe should shape its own destiny and not rely on others. More recently, in an address to the German parliament, she criticized adherents of protectionism and isolationism. Certainly, Merkel’s uncharacteristic boldness is tied to the upcoming election. But regardless of the polls, as chancellor, she is expected to defend an international order of collective security and open trade that has been the bedrock for today’s prosperous and peaceful Germany.

Merkel, for now, is close to the 55 percent popularity rating that she had before the refugee crisis two years ago, which dropped her down to approximately 43 percent at the beginning of this year. This summer, she will crisscross Germany to attend town halls and party rallies to reinforce a sense of law and order as well as economic security for Germany and pledge to preserve a rules-based international order. She is a credible guarantor on all three fronts, but a late summer surprise can always change the calculus.

*This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.

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