German elections

The Change Candidate Who Needs to Change

Hands off my voters, Merkel. Source: AP

Martin Schulz is Germany’s candidate for change in September’s election. Angela Merkel’s main rival is promising to digitize the economy, prioritize investment and close the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor.

The good news for the Social Democrat challenger is that a study of different social, political and demographic groups commissioned by Handelsblatt shows that Germans are eager for change. The bad news is they don’t want Mr. Schulz.

So could Germans be about to maintain the status quo?

Here’s a snapshot of Germany this summer: The economy is not exactly booming but growing steadily. Government debt has fallen for the third year in a row. The labor market is moving slowly but surely toward full employment. German businesses are having a field day and are supplying global markets with more goods than ever.

Overall, Europe’s largest economy is doing well, especially considering that only a few years before Ms. Merkel took office in 2005, the country was regarded as the “sick man” of Europe.

“Voters clearly prefer Ms. Merkel as chancellor”

Renate Köcher, head of Allensbach Institute

Despite this, there is a mild sense of unease among German voters. They don’t entirely trust the stream of favorable economic data, making them feel precarious about their situation. After all, Germany’s automakers are in crisis mode over multiple scandals and the shift to electric cars. Plus, there are over a million recently arrived refugees who still need to be integrated into society and the workforce.

Whether it was Ms. Merkel’s policies alone that helped Germany achieve its extraordinary economic rebound is open to debate. But what’s even more contentious is whether a policy of “more of the same” will suffice – and if it is what Germans will vote for.

To find out, Handelsblatt commissioned the Allensbach Institute, a conservative polling organization, to perform a study contrasting the opinions of people from 14 different age groups, family situations, income levels, political views and work statuses on the major campaign issues. These include immigration, social justice, free trade and who should be chancellor.

Currently, Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat Union and its Bavarian sister party rule in a so-called Grand Coalition with the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD). In the latest poll, the conservatives are polling at 40 percent and the SDP at 23 percent.

But the study results show that a clear majority of respondents want a different coalition. Nearly 45 percent of people under 30 said they would welcome a change of government. Among people over 60, the figure was almost 40 percent. The strongest advocates for change were supporters of the far-left Left Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Mr. Schulz fared especially badly. Only voters on welfare said they preferred him to Ms. Merkel. Other groups stuck with the incumbent. Her competency levels were rated as especially high among pensioners (55 percent) and among voters of the two big parties, the CDU and SDP (60 percent).

Eleven of the 14 groups said they would prefer to see the CDU govern in a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, known for its largely libertarian values. Those opposed were the extreme party voters, welfare recipients and isolationists.

Among people who traditionally vote for one of the big two parties, 37 percent spoke out in favor of a CDU-FDP alliance. Even 24 percent of voters on low incomes would like to see a CDU-FDP tie-up, a figure that will disappoint the SDP.

With another grand coalition looking unlikely, one of the smaller parties is likely to emerge as a kingmaker. The FDP, Greens, AfD and the Left Party are all currently polling at around 8 percent. But with all the major parties having ruled out a coalition with the AfD, and with a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left unlikely to secure a majority in parliament, all eyes are on the FDP.

The party failed to overcome the 5 percent threshold for representation in parliament at the 2013 elections but should reach that mark comfortably this year. “The race for first place is already won,” said leader Christian Lindner, implying that a victory for Ms. Merkel and her party was all but guaranteed.

The slump that has befallen the SPD is profound. When, at the beginning of the year, Mr. Schulz was selected as the party’s chancellor candidate, its poll results soared. For a moment, it looked like he could actually pose a serious threat to Ms. Merkel.

But his ideas have failed to take off. They began with a reform proposal for unemployment benefits, followed by calls for tax reform and increased public investments, but after a few days, people lost interest.

11 p43 German Federal Elections-01

The reason is that Mr. Schulz’s efforts to kickstart a debate about social justice have fallen flat. In a country brimming with economic might, most people are simply not dissatisfied enough to care.

“Voters clearly prefer Ms. Merkel as chancellor,” said Allensbach’s chief Renate Köcher.

While there is little doubt that Ms. Merkel will be re-elected leader this fall, many voters still have considerable reservations about some of her policies. Top of the list is her decision to let over a million Middle Eastern refugees into the country unchecked in 2015, a move that overwhelmed bureaucrats and panicked politicians.

It also unnerved many voters. The survey revealed that a majority of Germans feel there are too many foreigners living in the country. The view was particularly prevalent among pensioners (58 percent) and voters of the two extreme parties, but was even shared by 47 percent of under 30s.

Ms. Merkel was slow to admit she made mistakes in the implementation of her decision to let in so many refugees, but quick to change course in 2016 once it became clear that a majority of Germans did not share her view. “Nobody wants a repeat of that situation – including me,” she said at the time.

According to Ms. Köcher, there have been growing concerns about migration to Germany over the past few years. “The population wants more direction and control,” she said.

The government’s trade policies are less controversial, especially when it comes to free trade. Some 47 percent of affluent and self-employed people consider themselves proponents of free trade, with even 30 percent of AfD and Left Party voters supporting the free flow of goods and services. Could Donald Trump’s tirades against free trade be boosting support for pro-trade Ms. Merkel?

But one area where the conservative chancellor is weak is on credibility. Ms. Merkel has long been accused of bending to popular opinion, for example over the legalization of gay marriage, and the Allensbach study bears this out. Nearly a quarter of voters under 30 don’t take the chancellor at her word, and almost a third of low earners and those opposed to immigration doubt her credibility.

“Many people are fed up with Angela Merkel and her politics,” said Katarina Barley, Germany’s family minister and a former general secretary for the SPD. “I don’t think her campaign strategy of simply saying ‘You know me’ will pay off. It’s not enough.” But from the CDU’s perspective, it seems it may well be, especially as the SPD has yet to present itself as a viable alternative.

However, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions as the Allensbach survey contained a sting in its tale. It found that half of under 30s are still unsure about which way to vote in September – as are nearly 16 percent of supporters of the conservatives and SPD.

That’s more than enough votes to swing the election.


Daniel Delhaes, Jens Münchrath, Christian Rickens, Torsten Riecke, Klaus Stratmann and Christian Wermke are editors at handelsblatt. To contact the authors:

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