Angela Merkel’s CDU party has a won a surprise victory in the state election in North Rhine Westphalia setting the scene for what now looks like her inevitable re-election in four months time.
The CDU’s victory by a convincing margin in North Rhine Westphalia is a bitter blow to the SPD. North Rhine Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state and is the SPD’s traditional heartland state. It is also the state where Martin Schulz – the SPD’s Chancellor designate – was born. Moreover the leader of the local SPD Hannelore Kraft was a well regarded local politician who is widely admitted to have outshone during the state election her CDU rival Armin Laschet.
Just a few weeks ago the SPD was universally expected to win the North Rhine Westphalia election. Instead on an increased turnout of 65% the SPD’s share of the vote crashed by 7% from the previous election, down from 39% to 32%, whilst the CDU’s increased its share of the vote from 26% to 33%, leaving the CDU the biggest party in the state parliament. The new right wing party the AfD won 7.7%, enough to enter the local parliament but well below its own target of 10%.
What explains this remarkable turnaround?
There is no doubt that the CDU’s victory is a personal victory for Angela Merkel over her SPD rival Martin Schulz. Her victory shows that the “Schulz effect”, which briefly caused the SPD to surge in the polls when Schulz was nominated the SPD’s Chancellor designate, has entirely dissipated just 100 days after Schulz’s nomination. The result is that the SPD has slumped back to the disastrous level it was polling before Schulz was nominated
That is wholly unsurprising. The “Schulz effect” shows that many Germans are tired of Angela Merkel and would welcome a genuine alternative. However as I pointed out previously it is difficult to see in Schulz such an alternative. Here is what I wrote about him in January shortly after he obtained the SPD’s nomination
it has to be said that as President of the European Parliament Schulz has been a devoted follower of the EU’s current orthodoxies at the very time that they have been coming under the strongest challenge both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. From outside Germany that doesn’t make Schulz a very obvious candidate to lead the SPD to victory against the rising tide of the AfD.
If anything the choice of Schulz appears to show how narrow the choice has become within Germany’s two big established parties – the CDU and SPD – a fact which in part explains why the AfD and Germany alternative hard left Die Linke are continuing to make inroads.
And here is what I wrote about him in February, when the SPD briefly passed the CDU in the opinion polls
News that a recent opinion poll has put the SPD for the first time one point ahead of Angela’s Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc has inevitably triggered speculation about whether or not she is now in serious danger of losing the forthcoming German parliamentary elections.
Schulz however differs little from Merkel on foreign policy questions, and the extent of his differences with Merkel on domestic issues is for an outsider difficult to judge. The parliamentary elections are not due till November, and it is far obvious that Schulz will be able to sustain what for the moment looks very much like a bounce.
What could turn out to be an ephemeral lead by the SPD over Merkel does however show one thing: the extent to which Merkel’s hitherto impregnable position in German politics has weakened, and the extent to which many Germans have tired of her, and long for an alternative to her.
This is not because Merkel has been Chancellor for a long time. In Germany’s incumbency confers a huge advantage, with Helmut Kohl in 1998 being the first Chancellor to lose a parliamentary election in Germany after the Second World War. It is rather that with growing challenges in Europe and in Germany’s dealings with Donald Trump’s US, Merkel is looking increasingly short of answers.
Whether the German people will eventually decide that Martin Schulz is the person to find those answers is open to doubt, but his sudden rise in the polls shows how much desire for an alternative to Merkel there now is.
As is clear I have been dubious about Schulz from the moment the SPD nominated him its Chancellor designate, and I was never convinced that his poll lead over Merkel would last.
The simple fact is that Angela Merkel for all her many faults – about which I have written extensively – is within the context of German electoral politics an exceptionally successful politician. Her success stems from three factors (1) an overriding focus on remaining Chancellor to which all other considerations are sacrificed (2) her extraordinary success in disposing of potential rivals and (3) the strength of the German economy whose export oriented businesses are benefitting disproportionately from the low interest rates and weak euro caused by the loose monetary policies of the European Central Bank even as Merkel’s insistence on Germany maintaining fiscal surpluses increases German competitiveness by containing wage growth and reducing domestic demand.
Points (1) and (3) incidentally seal the fate of Emmanuel Macron. He has been elected President of France on an agenda of reforming the eurozone in order to adapt it to French needs. However as Tsipras and Varoufakis discovered after Syriza won the 2015 elections in Greece, so Macron before long will discover that behind the honeyed words Merkel always uses to defuse opposition she is implacably opposed to any reform of the eurozone, since that might negatively effect, if only in the short term, the performance of the German economy upon whose continued growth her position as Chancellor depends. Since Merkel’s overriding priority is to remain Chancellor at all costs that means that Macron’s hopes of reforming the eurozone are going to be stillborn. Only if France had elected a President who gave the impression of being willing to take France out of the eurozone might Merkel have been panicked into carrying out the reforms Macron says he wants. Since no one believes Macron will do that his fate and that of his reforms is sealed.
Which brings me to the larger point about Merkel. I have previously discussed how her conservatism differs profoundly from that of her great rival Vladimir Putin
Though Putin and Merkel are often referred to as conservatives, in reality that does neither of them justice.
Though in many of his professed attitudes Putin is a conservative, he is also the leader of a dynamic and purposeful government which in the years he has been in power has transformed Russia, changing it more completely than any other country during the same period apart from China.
Merkel is more truly conservative in the sense that she sees herself as essentially Germany’s caretaker, preserving the German political and economic system unchanged from the way she found it. Where Putin’s policies are marked by dynamism and change, her policies can be best described as immobilism bordering on stagnation.
Briefly, both in Germany and Europe Merkel is the great defender of the status quo, ensuring that nothing changes, and that things continue as they are. Her whole position as Germany’s Chancellor depends on it. It is a type of conservatism Europe has not seen since the age of Metternich.
Just as Metternich’s system was stifling for Europe, so Merkel’s is. Metternich’s system, since it could not be changed, ended in crisis and revolution. Perhaps in time the Europe of Angela Merkel – Europe’s present day Metternich – will go the same way. However if that happens, it will be a long time before it does. In the meantime those looking for a change of direction in Germany or Europe, whether in terms of economic or foreign policy, are about to have their hopes dashed.