The furies of nationalism have once again unleashed themselves worldwide in which Europe, after Brexit, and the US, after the presidential election, seem to be staggering. Amidst the panic that the victory of Trumpian values has set off – – one of the most powerful leaders in the world, Angela Merkel, has ended a long speculation by announcing her decision to run for the office again in the 2017 elections. Known for her toughness and dogged pursuance of tricky political situations, Merkel’s bid for re-election is being perceived to be a vote towards reliability and predictability. Indeed a significant part of the German electorate could be looking for stability in uncertain times of Brexit, Donald Trump and the near Presidential win of the Populist Freedom Party next door in Austria.
“Angela Merkel is the answer to the populism of this time. She is, as it were, the anti-Trump,” party ally Stanislaw Tillich, premier of the state of Saxony, told the RND newspaper group. Barack Obama too has recently endorsed and praised Merkel as his heiress as the defender of the free West, the Enlightenment and its fundamental values.
But the 11-year reigning Merkel, who comfortably won her third term, knows that this time she is not unassailable.
One underscored fact of recent times is that there are considerable – generally older, white — voters in the liberal, western nations who have been feeling consistently ignored by their governments, who perceive their interests and safety threatened by immigrants and who increasingly ‘fear’ Islamification. Germany is hardly untouched by this sentiment, especially in its less prosperous Eastern states. Merkel, who had been riding high on a crest of popularity in the wake of her adept handling of the Ukraine crisis in late 2014, took a battering to her ratings last year when she ratified asylum to almost one million middle-eastern war refugees. The recent rise in domestic terrorism, including the Munich shootings, has further aggravated the situation. Politically, the rightward moving, populist party, Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), has been campaigning furiously against this decision and remarkably won representation in 10 out of the 16 German states in September. Conversely, Merkel’s party suffered heavy defeats in the states. There is also reason to worry as the Social Democrat Party (SPD), a current partner in the grand CDU/CSU coalition backing Merkel is planning to announce its own candidate.
Even though it appears that not a single candidate comes close to Ms. Merkel’s standing within CDU and its sister party, it is fair to say that she and her party would need to do some serious soul searching to prevail against the anti-incumbency sentiments in the right-leaning wave currently underway. There are quite a few segments of population that fear domestic stagnation in a fourth Merkel term. Der Spiegel, a prominent German Newspaper, commented that Merkel would have to strike to mobilize and reinvent her party. “Even if Germany does not have a Trump in sight, the USA has shown that the unimaginable can be real,” it said.
Sometimes in a contested battle between a politically center party and a politically right-leaning party creates a situation in which center parties move towards the right to capture its competitor’s voters. That can be unfortunate. It remains to be seen what strategy Merkel is going to adopt. So far she denies such a move. In a recent televised interview with Merkel, Journalist Anne Will wanted to know if she would become more conservative and critical of Islam in future. “I am looking for the solution where the CDU will be anchored, which is the social market economy and the liberal democratic principle. There will not be a return to the time before digitization and globalization.” Merkel replied.
Austrian Presidential elections this year have demonstrated a neck and neck fight with one of the candidates being a member of the Right leaning Freedom Party of Austria. Besides Germany, Netherlands and France would be holding pivotal national elections next year which would be watched as a bellwether to the rising strength of populism in Europe.
If Merkel wins, she will still face an increasingly polarized nation in which integration of refugees would be the biggest challenge, followed by keeping Germany’s powerhouse economy on track. One has to wait and see if Germany’s Christian Democrats and Merkel can learn some lessons from the US Democrat party’s follies in failing to communicate to its disenfranchised segments.