Germans are heading to the polls today (Sunday) to elect their new leaders.
Although, Germany operates a plural multi-party system with about 30 parties, the election will mainly be between the country’s two major parties, – the Christian Democratic Union, CDU, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) SPD.
The CDU is presenting the incumbent, Angela Merkel, as its candidate for the Chancellor while SDP is fielding Michael Schulz, a former European Parliament president.
Some of the major parties, which are contesting the election are the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), Free Democratic Party (FDP), The Left (Die Linke), Alliance ’90/The Greens Green politics and Alternative for Germany (Alternative for Deutschland, AfD).
Other minor parties including Family Party of Germany, Ecological Democratic Party, Die Partei, Free Voters, and Pirate Party Germany and Liberal Conservative Reformers and National Democratic Party.
Germans do not vote directly to elect their Chancellor. As in the United Kingdom where the Prime Minister is first elected into the Parliament, whoever wants to become the Chancellor of Germany will have to be equally elected into the federal parliament called Bundestag, which currently has 631 seats.
Thus neither Mrs. Merkel nor Mr. Shculz, the candidates of the two leading political parties would be elected directly by the about 60 million voters. They have to win elections into the 19th Bundestag on Sunday.
Germany operates a complicated political system of proportional representation. The composition of the legislature is determined by the Mixed Member Proportional system. A party has to have up to five per cent of the votes cast to be able to have representation in the legislature whose membership is elected every four years. However, this requirement could be set aside for a party that won three or more constituency seats.
In German politics, the minor parties combined do not usually garner more than 10 percent of the votes, especially going by the result of the 2013 polls.
In that year’s election into the 18th Bundestag, the CDU and its sister party, CSU (which contests elections only in Bavaria) won 41.5 per cent of the vote thus giving them a total of 311 seats (CDU 255 and CSU 56).
The SPD garnered 193 votes leaving The Left with 64 and Green 63.
The votes of the centre-right conservative CDU and its partner fell short of an absolute majority in parliament. The FDP with which it formed the “Jamaica Coalition” government between 2009 and 2013, could not muster the five per cent cut-off of votes to obtain seats in the Bundestag in the 2013 election. Hence in 2015, Mrs. Merkel had to look for a fresh partner, which she saw in SPD, a left-of-the-centre party.
The coalition, a feature in German politics, with a new partner paved the way for the re-election of Ms. Merkel as chancellor and Sigmar Gabriel of SPD as vice chancellor cum foreign minister.
Analysts say as in the past, none of the parties would muster enough majority votes to emerge a clear winner in Sunday’s election and therefore Germany appears set to be ruled again by a coalition government.
Oskar Niedermayer, a professor at Freie Universitat (Free University) in Berlin, while addressing foreign visitors, including this PREMIUM TIMES reporter, on Wednesday said it had become obvious that the two big parties would not get outright victory to form government alone.
“This would be more interesting than the election itself. Coalition will be more interesting than the election itself,” the professor of political science added.
ISSUES IN THE ELECTION
Regional elections have a way of projecting electoral victories at the centre.
Prior to Sunday’s election, the CDU had recorded a significant victory in the May 7 regional election.
In that election, the party created a major upset, especially in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein where it trounced the SDP, thus brightening its chances of sweeping the Sunday’s election.
Schleswig-Holstein had since 2012 polls been a stronghold of the SPD. But the party could only muster 26 per cent of the votes in the May election, while the CDU increased its votes by securing 33 per cent and AfD 5.6 per cent.
But a major deciding issue in the September 24 election is Mrs. Merkel’s refugee policy.
Two years ago, the CDU administration she leads, suspended the 2003 Dublin Protocol, admitted more than a million refugees from the war-torn and ISIS-infested Middle East.
The decision put the chancellor’s popularity to a huge test. In fact, CDU’s outing in previous regional elections before those of May this year had been negatively affected by that singular decision.
In the build up to Sunday’s election, the anti-immigration parties have enjoyed rocketing support, pushed by concerns about a few terrorist attacks in Germany and mass sexual assault at Cologne railway station on New Year eve. Close to 1,000 men of Arab or North African descent, according to the police, coordinated the sexual assault.
Mrs. Merkel’s critics feel they have become foreigners in their own country owing to the policy which they also claim had left the country divided like the U.S. under President Donald Trump.
The AfD, a far right populist party, which claims to have alternative programmes to better the lives of Germans, has not only criticised the policy, but has repeatedly demanded the resignation of the interior minister.
Frauke Petry, the chairperson of AfD, had declared Mrs. Merkel “finished” over the crisis.
Another leader of the party, Alexander Gauland, insists that Mrs. Merkel should be held responsible for what happened to Germany and Europe, arguing that without her invitation for “all” to come into Europe, the continent would not have had the massacres and the rapes it has had.
“She caused the deaths of innocent people throughout Europe and she must be held to account for allowing this,” he said.
Interestingly, Mrs. Merkel, though admitted some difficulties in the period the refugee crisis raged, never admitted wrongdoing. In fact, the Chancellor had repeatedly said she would make the same decision if the situation arises.
Regardless, Mrs. Merkel, 63, is coming into the election with a huge popularity.
Many Germans believe she has repositioned the European country crucially, especially with record high-rate employment, rising real wages and ultra-low borrowing costs which are driving consumer-led upswing in the economy.
Statistics show unemployment stands at 3.7 percent. In August, the country posted a budget surplus of 18.3 billion euros (about $21.6 billion).
In her recent campaign, the chancellor promised full employment, recruitment of 15,000 more police officers in the 16 states, tax cut for families and to introduce construction subsidies to help families.
Besides, many regard the chancellor as a crisis manager. They are quick to point to her response to the refugee crisis. Mrs. Merkel tightened the asylum laws, which prevented refugees from bringing their families to join them for at least two years.
She followed this by securing a deal with Turkey to lower the flow of refugees. The move subsequently paid off as the number of refugees arriving in Germany reduced by about 80 per cent.
Mrs. Merkel also pushed for the refugees to be equally distributed across Europe.
Also, in her campaign, Mrs. Merkel has strategically chosen to profusely thank Germans for rendering help during the difficult months of 2015 and 2016 when the refugee crisis raged, a move perceived as “humility.”
For these reasons, Germans appear reluctant to change Mrs. Merkel, perceived as the most powerful woman in the world.
A local journalist, Christiane Habermalz, who reports for Deutschlandradio, told PREMIUM TIMES in Berlin on Wednesday that though the SPD in the coalition government pushed for some people-oriented programmes, it would not be enough to vote out Mrs. Merkel.
“SPD did a very good work in the coalition, especially in the area of social programme such as basic income but Merkel is going to win the election and the SPD leaders are losing votes,” she said.
She added, “We thought they (Germans) would be tired of her but I am not so sure. She stands for security and continuity and the people like that. There are a lot of people who do not conform to politics of allowing so many refugees into Germany and they are going to vote for other parties. That is what we are going to see on the day of election.
“But she has the capacity of keeping calm in crisis. She is not the one who decides quickly. She is moderator, trying to resolves the problems and communicating with others. Sometimes she does nothing but wait until a problem resolves itself.
“Many people like her because of her politics. She gave Germany another face and a lot of people like her. She is a very big player in the world for stability of Europe and European Community.
“Schulz started very well. He Preaches equality because the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider. This is a big point but Merkel has changed a lot of things, not only the economy.”
Despite the soaring popularity of his opponent, Mr. Schulz is not leaving anything to chance. The way he carries on indicates he has not foreclosed his chances of winning.
He has promised Germans that he would not only make their country great again but the entire Europe. He said he would reduce inequality and reform social welfare.
Hear him: “Everyone in our country deserves the same rights and equal opportunities with regard to good education, secure employment and fair-play, irrespective of their social or religious background or their parents’ income. This is only fair and just.
“For more than 500 million people, Europe offers the promise of peace and prosperity. I am deeply committed to a free Europe which focuses on its inhabitants and their everyday concern, a Europe that invest strongly in education, jobs and economic growth. It is time that we take a joint stand against nationalistic forces.
They are a threat to our freedom.”
On the economy, Mr. Shultz, 61, lamented during national debate with Mrs. Merkel, ““Of course, Germany is a wealthy country, but not all people in our country are wealthy.”
Although he seems close to the people’s problems, analysts believe Mr. Schulz’s promises appear not convincing because Germans are enjoying good economy. Besides, there seems not to a radical difference between CDU’s values and ideas and those of SPD since both are in coalition.
As Ralf Welt, a political consultant noted, “The topic of social justice lost traction because the population more or less believes that they are doing pretty well economically and that we don’t have a grave situation of social injustice in the country.”
Yet, a major setback for Mr. Schulz chances is the SPD’s poor outing in the regional polls.
Similarly, the disappointing outing of AfD, the third biggest party, in the regional elections last May, may be a pointer to its performance in the election. The outcome of the polls shows it might not pose a threat to CDU’s victory and subsequent re-election of Mrs. Merkel.
Until the May election, the populist AfD, founded by a group of economists and businessmen in 2013, had huge support of Germans.
It had seized on euro zone crisis, Greek bailout and the refugee crisis to boost its image and chances. Lamentably, it recently admitted that its image was in crisis.
The party, which polled around 16 per cent in 2016 in an opinion poll has now dropped between nine per cent and 11 per cent.
Barring any upset, Mrs. Merkel, 63, from the old Eastern Germany, may just be on her way to securing a fourth term in office. At least, several opinion polls have suggested her lead over Mr. Schulz.
If elected on Sunday, Mrs. Merkel will be spending unbroken 16 years as Chancellor. This will be historical.
But if Germans go the way of Mr. Schulz, they would have emulated the U.S. and France, whose citizens chose untested newcomers – Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron – as their leaders in the changing world.
***Festus Owete, Premium Times General Editor, is on ground in Germany, covering the election***