unchallenged chanchellor

Merkel's Squelching Act

Germany Election
Chancellor Merkel is looking ahead to an election many think she has already won. Source: AP

Angela Merkel met Emmanuel Macron, Ivanka Tump and Barack Obama, one after the other. She was here, there and everywhere. She reaped criticism for opening the doors to refugees from members of her own party who now view her handling of the crisis as a strength. A large majority of German citizens, according to a survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute for Handelsblatt, tends to vote for someone with experience rather than a new face, especially in times of unsettled global politics.

Martin Schulz is the best proof of this theory. After a flying start, the Social Democratic party leader and chancellor candidate began to see his star fade even before his party was hammered in the North Rhine-Westphalia regional election on Sunday. The issues he raises are noticed, but they don’t catch on.  His political stage is the pedestrian precinct or a fish smoke house on the Baltic coast. You could call that being close to the people. But he doesn’t want to become a local mayor; he wants to become chancellor.

Mr. Schulz’s appearances at the party’s headquarters in Berlin don’t compare with those of a chancellor stopping at the capital on the way back from Saudi Arabia or from Russia after a meeting President Vladimir Putin. The competition between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz is reminiscent of the tale of the tortoise and the hare. Ms. Merkel has long crossed the finishing line, while Mr. Schulz is struggling to get there.

Angela Merkel is demolishing not only her direct opponent; she is also pounding away at the Greens and the Left Party.

Ms. Merkel, in her role as chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union, didn’t listen to those in her party who frantically called for measures to counter her opponent’s hype back in January. She relied instead on her trusted inner circle, and she was proven right. The CDU won elections in Saarland with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and in North Rhine-Westphalia with Armin Laschet, with a helping hand from the chancellor. The newcomer Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein spoke outright of a “Merkel effect” in his election campaign.

Ms. Merkel doesn’t fuel hype, unlike her opponent Mr. Schulz. Even after her party beat the SPD in its North Rhine-Westphalia stonghold, she went about her sober campaign of managing expectations. Almost stoically, she tells supporters that state elections are one thing, the federal election is another and it is far from a done deal. That said, Ms. Merkel knows that the three defeats in succession for her contender mean a fourth term in office is hers for the taking.

Mr. Schulz once boldly predicted that if Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democratic state premier, won the NRW election, he would become chancellor. She lost. So now what? That question will pursue him until the federal elections in September.

SPD Vice-chairman Ralf Stegner tweeted that Martin Schulz had not been knocked out but had taken a heavy blow. But as every boxing fan knows, a brutal blow can quickly mean the end of the fight and even a medium punch can send the opponent to the canvas for good.

Ms. Merkel’s fighting style might be compared with that of Muhammad Ali, who coined the unforgotten words: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes don’t see.” Mr. Schulz must have similar thoughts as he struggles to land a blow.

But Ms. Merkel is demolishing not only her direct opponent; she is also pounding away at the Greens and the Left Party, although both have contributed substantially to their own downfall. The leading figures of the Green Party – Cem Özdemir and Kathrin Göring-Eckhardt – appear colorless and tired. And their hanging onto Ms. Merkel’s coattails in the hope of forming a coalition won’t endear them to their voters.

Then there’s the Left Party effect. A coalition with the far-left party, Greens and Social Democrats under the leadership of Martin Schulz would be a nightmare for the middle class. The CDU wouldn’t even have to scare the middle class with such a possibility as it did in the 1990s. In his first big speech on economic policy, Mr. Schulz promised there would only be a coalition under his leadership that was pro-European and economically prudent. But he was not (yet?) willing to exclude a coalition with Left Party and the Greens.

A surprising exception to this development is the liberal Free Democratic Party. It used to be said that if the CDU does well in elections, the FDP suffers and vice versa. FDP Chairman Christian Lindner has shown he can win new groups of voters for the pro-business party, especially young, digital elites.

Meanwhile, Ms. Merkel carries on with her busy schedule. She is in the process of strengthening the German-French axis together with newly elected President Macron. At the G-7 summit in Sicily, she will try to “fence in” US President Trump. She already has a strategic partnership with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. These are exciting political times.

 

To contact the author: sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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