After last year’s victories for Brexit and Donald Trump, liberals looked to Angela Merkel in Germany for hope. The conservative chancellor was suddenly—and unwillingly—promoted to “leader of the free world.”
She is unlikely to live up to expectations. Merkel has no grand vision. She only phased out nuclear energy and allowed a free vote on gay marriage when public opinion demanded it. Her decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to more than a million refugees stands out because it was so uncharacteristic of her.
Merkel’s pragmatism is both her strength and her weakness: it is the reason she has been able to stay in power for twelve years as well as the reason divisive issues remain unresolved.
Two of Merkel’s three governments have been so-called grand coalitions of the center-left and the center-right. Germany’s multiparty democracy and five-percent threshold to win seats in parliament discourage wild swings to the left or the right. German labor relations are exceptionally harmonious. Employers and trade unions are often reasonable. Strikes are rare. As a result, Germany has largely escaped the populist revolts that swept the Anglo-Saxon world. The Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist and Eurosceptic party, struggles to get more than 10 percent support.
But stability can turn into sclerosis. All the major parties in Germany agree the country has underinvested in its infrastructure, both digital and physical. Economists have long argued that excessive certification and licensing requirements that protect working-class jobs also make it harder for immigrants to find work. Strategists have warned for years that Germany isn’t spending enough money on defense. Yet nothing changes.
Foreign policy plays only a small role in the current election campaign, but here, too, a status quo bias prevails. Merkel has told Germans they cannot fully rely on the United States for their security anymore. Trump has made clear he expects NATO allies to step up. Yet, German attitudes aren’t changing. Increasing defense spending remains unpopular. Germany has sent 400 soldiers to Lithuania, where they lead a NATO battalion to deter Russian aggression, but opinions on this deployment are divided. Many voters still hope that Europe might reach an understanding with Russia. And Vladimir Putin is trusted more than Trump.
Looking at the Possible Coalition Outcomes
Another grand coalition would have a comfortable majority, but it would mean four more years of muddling through. The center-left Social Democrats want to keep defense spending where it is (1.2 percent of GDP). They argue for a European army, something the United States has historically sought to avoid. And they counsel patience and diplomacy with Russia.
A better outcome for Atlanticists would be a center-right government of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats. Both favor meeting NATO’s two percent spending target. Both see Trump as an aberration and hope transatlantic relations will return to normal in 2020. Neither is particularly Russia-friendly.
The center-right is projected to fall just short of a majority, however, as a result of the Alternative stealing its most reactionary voters. If anything, polls have shown a tendency to underestimate support for the Alternative.
A center-left coalition with the Greens is also likely to fall short. Once considered far left, the Greens have become mainstream in the last two decades. But they aren’t sure if they should ever rule with the Christian Democrats. The pragmatic half of the party thinks so. This part of the party has led the Greens into power-sharing agreements in four of Germany’s sixteen states. Fundamentalists are still wary. The leadership has so far refused to commit either way.
Another possibility is a three-party coalition of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens. Such a coalition was formed in Schleswig-Holstein this summer, but it is still more of a cosmopolitan fantasy than a tried-and-tested formula. To lure the Greens into a national government with the right, the Christian Democrats would probably need to promise them significant concessions. For example, a freeze in military spending. Or a shift from counter-Russian operations in Eastern Europe to peacekeeping and reconstruction in the developing world.
All of these options have one thing in common: Merkel. It will be impossible to ignore her (unless the Social Democrats surprise everyone and break their promise and form a government with the formerly-communist Left party). Yet, she is not the decisive factor. The way Germany will conduct itself on the world stage rather hinges on which party, or parties, choose to support her.
The thing to watch on September 24 will not be the scale of Merkel’s victory, but the performance of her juniors. That will determine if liberal internationalists sleep well that night or go to bed worrying.
Nick Ottens is a Dutch political analyst living in Barcelona, Spain. He specializes in political trends in Europe and North America and edits the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel.