Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

The question the German elections won’t answer


If the polls are any indication, German voters are not likely to end Chancellor Merkel’s suzerainty in tomorrow’s federal elections. After eight years in power, Frau Merkel commands high voter-approval ratings and an insuperable lead over her challenger Peer Steinbrück, the hip-shooting Social Democrat whose abrasive style has earned him admirers but not votes. There is little appetite for change; no Wechselstimmung in the air. Germany’s affluence amid the gloom in Europe has ingratiated the public to Frau Merkel’s shrewd and methodical leadership.

It remains to be seen whether the CDU’s current coalition partner, the classically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), will muster enough support to clear the Bundestag’s five-percent hurdle. If the FDP gets the boot, as it did in the Bavarian state elections last weekend, prognosticators expect the CDU to revive a coalition it led with the SPD from 2005 to 2009. The odds of alternative coalitions are vanishingly small: The leader of the bourgeois-bohemian Green Party has been dogged by allegations that he once advocated the legalization of pedophilia; the popularity of the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will likely prove to be as ephemeral as that of the flagging Pirate Party; and the German Left is, per usual, locked in bitter internecine feuds (about what, it’s often hard to tell). So whatever color combo prevails, the world can expect four more years of the rhombus.

The overarching challenge for the incoming government will be to avoid inaction in the face of mounting risks. On the one hand, of course, Germany is hardly in danger. Its borders are secure, its people prosperous, and its political heft unrivaled in the euro zone. But the considerable mismatch between the parochial issues driving the election campaigns and Europe’s looming geopolitical challenges betrays a complacency that Germany might come to regret. Whether Germany likes it or not, its fate is tied to Europe. And Europe’s economy is limping, unrest simmers on its southern flank, and the rise of global competitors threatens to eclipse its relevance. So it’s odd that the country’s political class has sidestepped these important issues altogether, debating instead whether to tax foreigners who drive on German autobahns and whether to make Thursdays “veggie days” in public cafeterias.

As many commentators are keen to point out, this may be an election with greater consequences for Europe than for Germany. For Berlin to demonstrate its preference for a European Germany and not a German Europe, it must answer the question of Germany’s role. It’s a risky proposition, because such an answer would have to broach the dreaded F-word – Führer. But leaving the question unanswered may jeopardize the public goods that once facilitated Germany’s rise and now sustain its success.

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