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The German election campaign 2017
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By Ursula Münch
Plenty of boredom, not much dispute – yet an extreme right-wing party could enter parliament
Allegedly, the German election campaign is boring. At least, that's what most journalists say, but also many voters. But how can a campaign possibly be boring that will culminate in an election that will presumably drastically change the composition of the German Bundestag? For the first time, namely, the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) will probably enter the German Bundestag and possibly even become the largest of the small parliamentary groups - a political party with some representatives who spread extremist right-wing thoughts. That the campaign is nonetheless dull has to do with the fact that it will not change much about the foreseeable outcome.
Surveys suggest that the future Bundestag will be composed of seven instead of the five parties that have until now been represented: along with the CDU/CSU, SPD, The Greens and The Left, the Liberals (FDP) will return to parliament and the AfD will be a new addition. So far, so predictable. Similarly predictable is that the current Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) will be re-elected. By now, nobody is contesting the joint success of the two conservative "sister parties" CDU and CSU anymore. Apparently, the "only" interesting question that remains is which of the other parties the CDU/CSU will form a coalition with.
Humanitarian necessity or lack of a plan?
Opinion polls clearly show that one topic is of major importance to German voters: refugee policy. Since September 2015, the beginning of the so-called "refugee crisis", no other topic has caused such furious debate in Germany as the question of how generous or restrictive the country should be towards refugees coming from countries such as war-torn Syria. Whether the acceptance of around 900,000 refugees in 2015 was a "humanitarian necessity" or the result of a dangerous "lack of a plan" has divided the German public, and continues to preoccupy Germans to this day. In 2015/2016, the poll results for Angela Merkel pointed in one direction only - downwards.
Although this conflict has been riling up the country, it has not been the subject of fundamental debate or decision-making in parliament. This speechlessness has much to do with the fact that there is little dissent among the political parties currently represented in the Bundestag about their fundamental stance in refugee policy: CDU, SPD, The Greens and The Left all agree that the Federal Republic has to accept refugees and politically persecuted persons and that the basic right to asylum should not be further restricted. The only parliamentary party to step out of line was and continues to be the CSU, the conservative "sister party" of the CDU, which runs for election exclusively in the federal state of Bavaria. CDU and CSU form a joint parliamentary group in the Bundestag, and had a blow-out fight about a possible upper limit on refugees and asylum seekers coming to Germany.
By now, the borders are closed
There is one major reason why this conflict has not taken up much space during the election campaign: the number of refugees entering Germany has significantly decreased since the spring of 2017. Not because there is peace in Syria now. And also not because living conditions in other countries of origin have improved, but instead because other European states did what Chancellor Merkel refused to do: they closed the borders for refugees, thereby stopping migration into Germany as well.
In addition, the chancellor came to a highly controversial agreement with Turkey, which has made it more difficult for Syrian refugees to reach Europe. Surprisingly enough, as the number of new refugees went down, Chancellor Merkel's popularity went back up to previous heights. The main reason being the numerous international crises: Germans have confidence that Angela Merkel has what it takes to guide the country through this turmoil. Even though foreign policy has rarely been explicitly discussed during the election campaign, the trust that voters place in the chancellor's international experience is a decisive factor.
The only German political party trying (quite successfully even) to win votes by exploiting the refugee issue is the AfD. This right-wing party was only founded in 2013, and has accused Chancellor Merkel of having "betrayed" German interests with her refugee policy. The AfD deliberately makes partly racist remarks in order to stand out from other political parties and their refugee policies. In addition, the AfD links the refugee issue with a second, important campaign topic: domestic security. This strategy has been greatly facilitated by the fact that Germany has already fallen victim to several terror attacks committed by Islamists posing as refugees.
Social justice and pensions
SPD's chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, sought to make another topic a campaign issue: justice. This attempt seems to be linked to refugee policy as well, at least a little. According to the dissatisfied part of the German electorate, politicians are perceived as caring for the refugees only, providing language courses, housing and work. In view of global capitalism and digitalisation, many Germans are vaguely afraid for their jobs. Or they are afraid that as employees with normal wages, they will soon be unable to afford housing in German cities.
The future of pension schemes in an ageing society is another important campaign issue. What can politicians do to prevent contributions to the statutory pension scheme from constantly rising on the one hand, while ensuring adequate pension payments on the other? The Liberals and the Conservatives more or less frankly admit that employees will have to work until the age of 68 or possibly even longer, while the pension amount will decrease further. Two parties of the centre-left (SPD and The Left) are calling for the state, i.e. the taxpayer, to step in. So although the SPD has actually wisely chosen the justice issue, it is still not attaining the desired effect on the better part of voters. The German economy is booming, unemployment is low, and most of these fears are more perceived than real. Merkel's challenger from the SPD is annoyed that his topics do not fully resonate with the voters. He has accused the chancellor of not arguing enough with him.
And that's why the German election campaign is less about contentious topics and more about the reason why there is so little dispute. No wonder that some voters are bored.
Author: Prof Dr Ursula Münch is a political scientist and director of the non-partisan and independent Academy for Political Education in Tutzing.
- German election 2017: Guide to the political parties by Lothar Probst
- Facts and Figures: German Federal Election 2017