One of the many myths about the future U.S. president Donald Trump is that he was carried into the White House by a wave of indignation felt by a wide section of the American people. That he gave a voice to all those who, amid their difficulties and anxieties, no longer felt themselves to be represented by the established U.S. political system.
In fact, Mr. Trump was elected with a comparatively low number of votes. Considering that he was supposedly a populist, he was amazingly unpopular among voters.
Only one factor saved Mr. Trump from defeat: His opponent Hillary Clinton couldn’t sufficiently mobilize her supporters, especially in crucial states and among typically Democrat groups of voters. In particular, African-American voters who had voted for Barack Obama four years earlier now stayed home in droves.
Things were similar with the Brexit: Too many supporters of British E.U. membership simply didn’t vote. E.U. opponents, mostly older ones, were actually a minority in structural terms but were able to decide the referendum in their favor.
What does this mean for Ms. Merkel’s upcoming candidacy? Up to now, the chancellor has done well with a concept that electoral strategists call asymmetric demobilization: The goal is for many of the voters in the opposing camp to stay home because they have the feeling there are no crucial issues being decided by the election.
Ms. Merkel could position herself as the the chancellor of cosmopolitanism and progress: pro-European, supportive of refugees, committed to free trade, decisive in the fight against terrorism but liberal in terms of social policy.
This beating around the bush, a habit Ms. Merkel is often criticized for by rivals and journalists, matches this strategy: to minimize conflicts with soporific rhetoric, postpone decisions, avoid explosive issues, not have a personally polarizing effect.
This doesn’t turn the sympathizers of the Social Democratic Party, Free Democratic Party and Green Parties into voters for the Christian Democrats but they tend to vote less often because they figure things aren’t so bad with Mother Merkel.
But 2017 could be the first federal election in which this asymmetrical mobilization works as a disadvantage for Ms. Merkel. What Mr. Trump is in the U.S. is what the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is here: a new, right-wing force directed against the political establishment.
Both Mr. Trump and the AfD appeal to a limited group of voters of which, however, they make the very best: angry citizens burning to take their ire into voting booths. They will include many former CDU supporters who want finally teach Ms. Merkel a lesson because of her refugee policy, euro rescue and zero-interest rates. It will be almost impossible to demobilize this group.
On the other hand, Angela Merkel must make sure she doesn’t wind up a German version of Hillary Clinton. For many Germans, the thought of four more years of a Merkel chancellorship isn’t scary but nor is it inspiring. Like Ms. Clinton, Ms. Merkel runs the danger of not utilizing the full potential of her voters – especially since her reelection is almost all but certain in the case of a remake of the same coalition as is currently in government.
All these are reasons for potential Merkel supporters to stay at home this time.
So for the 2017 election, Ms. Merkel must try to create as many coalition options as possible for the CDU to block them for her opponent: From her point of view, there can’t be a majority for a coalition between the Social Democrats, the hard left and the Green parties. But for her, if as well as a possible link-up with the Social Democrats, she could also form coalitions with the Green party or the pro-business Liberal party, Ms. Merkel’s negotiating position would be much stronger during coalition discussions.
But if the upstart right wing AfD is strongly represented in the next Bundestag, Ms. Merkel’s options will be limited. A strong result for the AfD would put the chancellor under pressure within her own party. She might be forced to abandon parts of her plans for reform and modernization. So instead of asymmetrical demobilization, the chancellor is well advised to aim this time at maximal mobilization. She should seek high voter turnout by polarizing people: “Us against them!”
To do this, she wouldn’t need to change much. Ms. Merkel could position herself as the the chancellor of cosmopolitanism and progress: pro-European, supportive of refugees, committed to free trade, decisive in the fight against terrorism but liberal in terms of social policy. A guarantor of financial stability, a pioneer in climate protection.
In 2011 this kind of platform would have sounded boring and mainstream. But the U.S. election and British referendum show a common sense approach is threatened by people who want to thrust the western world back to the pre-1968 era.
Ms. Merkel’s 2017 message could be that whoever wants to prevent that should definitely vote for her. After all, it isn’t the AfD voters who need to be convinced that something crucial is at stake in this election. Other voters do.
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