Update: As expected, Merkel’s Party took first place, with about thirty-three per cent of the vote. At the same time, Alternative for Germany, with thirteen per cent, will become the first extreme-right party to enter the Bundestag in the postwar era.
Angela Merkel didn’t make it to New York to hear President Donald Trump tell other world leaders, at the United Nations General Assembly, that he would destroy North Korea if “Rocket Man” didn’t coöperate. She was busy campaigning for what could—and almost certainly will—be her fourth term as Chancellor of Germany, keeping her post as the most powerful woman in a world filled with unstable men. The German election is on Sunday, and although, under the country’s complex, quasi-proportional-representation parliamentary system, her party, the Christian Democratic Union (and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union), is only expected to get a plurality of the seats in the Bundestag, no one else is likely to be able to form a coalition. No one else—no party, no individual politician—is as strong as she is.
That doesn’t mean that the German elections are without tension and last-minute suspense. In the latest polls, the C.D.U./C.S.U., which is technically the center-right party but has a program that would be thought shockingly moderate by members of today’s G.O.P., has been holding steady, at about thirty-six per cent. But the traditional center-left mainstay, the Social Democratic Party, has been withering—it is now at twenty-two per cent. At the same time, the far-right nationalist, xenophobic, and explicitly anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (A.f.D.) is rising in the polls, some of which show it with as much as twelve per cent of the vote, with a large number of Germans still undecided. This puts the A.f.D. well over the five-per-cent threshold guaranteeing representation in the Bundestag—a dangerous landmark. No such far-right party in Germany has reached that threshold in the postwar era. Merkel would never form a coalition with the A.f.D. She could have C.D.U./C.S.U. form a coalition with the S.P.D.—a scenario known as a “Black-Red” coalition because of the parties’ respective colors. (One issue there, though, is that if the A.f.D. wins third place, it would be the official opposition party, which would give it certain prerogatives in the Bundestag.) Another option could be Merkel’s party plus the Free Democrats (a pro-business party, polling just under ten per cent) and the Greens (at under eight per cent). Because of thoseparties’ colors—black, yellow, green—this configuration is known, in Germany, as a Jamaika-Koalition.
But the troubling question is, why is the A.f.D., with its ugly, racialized rhetoric, an alternative for anybody? This is not a question confined to Germany—Marine Le Pen raised it in France, and Trump brought it to the White House. Anyone in power for twelve years, as Merkel has been, will face restlessness, and her decision to let almost a million refugees into Germany was not a simple one. But it’s also too simplistic to say that it has unambiguously weakened her, in part because her rationale—“Wir schaffen das,” or “We can handle it”—was an expression of the potential for action, rather than simple, open-armed humanitarianism. Part of the problem is to her left, as well as her right. The S.P.D.’s leader, Martin Schulz, enjoyed about ten minutes this spring when he seemed charming and new, and moved higher in the polls. The longer that Germans looked at him, though, the less able they seemed to be to actually imagine him as Chancellor. Schulz and his S.P.D. allies share a problem with traditional center-left parties across Europe and in this country: an inability to forcefully articulate what they stand for, even when they do stand for something, in a way that is credible to voters. One of Schulz’s big moments this spring was when he stepped up and expressed outrage after Trump disparaged Merkel, whom he has said is ruining Germany. But the incident only demonstrated how little Merkel needed Schulz, or anyone, to defend her. She responded to Trump with a speech saying that it was time for Germany to fully take “its fate into its own hands”—which made the point more clearly. She has increasingly stood, in Europe, as the alternative to Trump. In August, struggling, Schulz took to calling her “abgehoben,” or aloof, and suggested that he would be a tougher opponent for Trump. But when he got his chance to debate Merkel, in early September, he wasn’t tough enough for her—more of a Martin O’Malley than a Bernie Sanders on fire. Merkel was, as usual, controlled and directed; Schulz’s response was, mostly, to defer.
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