State Elections

Merkel Loses Her Midas Touch

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) wird am 28.08.2016 auf einer Empore des Elisabeth-Lüders-Hauses in Berlin von ARD-Moderatoren befragt. Foto: Rainer Jensen/dpa (Wiederholung mit verändertem Ausschnitt) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Merkel, no longer the CDU's trump card?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The election outcome this weekend in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and in Berlin on September 18 will be a barometer of sorts about what might happen in Germany’s general election in fall 2017.
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  • Facts

    Facts

    • Local issues in election campaigns in states such as Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are taking a back seat to the refugee crisis.
    • Ms. Merkel will be attending the G20 summit in China when the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania elections are held on September 4.
    • Various political parties including the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany group are jockeying for position in anticipation of the 2017 national election.
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Angela Merkel’s upcoming schedule is a boon of sorts.

On Saturday, Germany’s chancellor will board a plane bound for China where she’ll attend a G20 meeting of leaders representing the world’s top 20 economies.

A day later, back in Germany, Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will be headed for a resounding defeat in the northern eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, if opinion polls are correct.

Ms. Merkel’s spin doctors will declare the voters’ mistrust in her to be utterly insignificant at the federal level. But the party leaders should refrain from sticking their heads in the sand.

While Ms. Merkel poses for photos with U.S. President Barack Obama and others in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, back in Berlin the CDU general secretary might have to declare a fairly ugly result in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Especially if the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party outdoes the CDU in Ms. Merkel’s home state.

Celebrated abroad, battered by reality at home?

Ms. Merkel’s spin doctors will declare the voters’ mistrust in her to be utterly insignificant at the federal level. But the party leaders should refrain from sticking their heads in the sand.

The September 4 election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s impact will go far beyond that state. Just like in state parliamentary elections earlier this year in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, regional issues have played little role in the campaign. Rather, as the anniversary of Ms. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees approaches, the dominant issue in the campaign is her stance on refugees, a position encapsulated by her refrain: “We can do it.”

Since Germany’s borders were opened, much has changed in citizens’ relationship with their chancellor. Half of them are against her running for a fourth term. Earlier, Ms. Merkel could have decided at her pleasure when to announce her candidacy in the general election in autumn 2017.

There were times when the center-left Social Democratic Party didn’t want to run a candidate against her, so hopeless the prospects of an SPD win seemed. But these days even a brief report in the Spiegel news magazine saying Ms. Merkel appeared to be considering a postponement of her decision until spring 2017 created big waves.

The CDU camp is so on edge that three top party officials, Volker Bouffier, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Armin Laschet, had to be sent out to publicly back Ms. Merkel and try to ease the fears of the rank and file.

Again, the political calendar will dictate the rhythm of events ahead of the 2017 election. In December, the Christian Democrats will meet at their federal party conference, where Ms. Merkel will present herself as a candidate for re-election as party chairwoman. At that point, a decision will have been made on whether she will seek the chancellorship in 2017.

She recently was asked what she considered to be the biggest political mistake made by Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor. She said that Mr. Schröder, a member of the SPD, should never have given up the party chairmanship to Franz Münterfering in 2004 – a move that ultimately cost Mr. Schröder the chancellorship a year later.

She certainly won’t make that mistake herself. First, she will let herself be elected party chairwoman. Then the candidacy for the chancellorship will automatically fall upon her.

Ms. Merkel is under pressure. The CDU power machine is demanding that she enter the next legislative period as the head of government. The Christian Democrats don’t have much more to offer in the way of policies. But as long as Ms. Merkel guarantees the party staying in power, it will follow her.

Things aren’t just going badly for the CDU at the regional level. Nationally, the CDU’s numbers in opinion polls aren’t exactly skyrocketing. Only a third of German citizens would vote for the CDU or its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Ms. Merkel is also losing personal popularity. During the electoral campaign in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, she has appeared only at closed events in front of selected audiences.

What happened to the chancellor who last year said she wanted to demonstrate closeness to citizens at town hall meetings?

The head of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, holds to the view that an electoral campaign should be short and dirty. Not this time: The next 12 months will be defined by a number of state elections and their political campaigns.

Admittedly, Ms. Merkel did manage to keep the election of Germany’s president out of the summer slump. But as soon as the politicians returned to Berlin after the summer break, Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party immediately was standing in the spotlight as the first presidential candidate.

The flirtation between the CDU and the Green Party has had an impact on Ms. Merkel’s coalition partner. Since then, the SPD’s Mr. Gabriel has been committing his party to a resolute left-leaning orientation. Mr. Gabriel, the economics minister in the right-left coalition, sacrificed the proposed European-U.S. free trade treaty (TTIP) to his party’s leftist wing. Now he needs only a face-saving exit regarding the CETA free-trade agreement with Canada, and the SPD is working on that.

However, this is all just the current situation, and could all change. No one knows that better than Ms. Merkel.

But this doesn’t provide an answer as to how she can get the CSU leader Horst Seehofer back on board. Ms. Merkel must get the refugee issue out of the headlines. German citizens want to see that politicians are again looking after their needs too. And along with all that, Ms. Merkel is supposed to hold Europe together after Britain’s decision to exit the European Union.

The trip to China for the G20 summit will offer her a few days’ respite. According to protocol, questions about domestic policy are forbidden.

 

To contact the author: sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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