A long-forgotten Foreign Minister of Vietnam was fond of recalling how often he had to tell his American interlocutors that Vietnam was the name of a country, not a War. Something similar has been the case with the forthcoming German election with everyone treating it as though it was about saving the economy of the Eurozone rather than domestic issues of importance to Germans.
But what are the Germans exercised about? Some answers became available in the first and only televised debate on September 1, between the two main contenders – incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel at the head of a CDU-CSU coalition and Peer Steinbruck, her SPD challenger.
In general the Germans found the non-confrontational structure of the debate in which representatives of four major TV channels ask the two protagonists questions supposed to be restricted to domestic issues – though Syria did come up – not very interesting, especially as the two protagonists cannot question each other. Still, more than 17 million people watched it anyway. Subsequent polls differed in their assessment of who won or whether it was a dead heat. An important outcome of the debate was that despite Merkel’s personal popularity and her coalition’s long-standing and comfortable lead of about 40% against the SPD’s support at 25%, Steinbruck has established that he is a real contender and the outcome is not totally predictable although not more than 5% of voters are expected to be influenced by the content of the debate.
What can spring surprises is the mathematics of coalition politics. Merkel is not averse to a revival of the grand coalition of her first term from 2004, in which Steinbruck was a successful and respected Finance Minister. Unsurprisingly Steinbruck, not wanting to be the junior partner again, has ruled out a coalition with the CDU leaving himself open to the charge about caring more about his Party than about government stability. Leftist parties including the SPD, and the Greens could have a shot at government if the Eurosceptic, Alternative For Deutchland Party (AFD), wins over 5% of the vote and gains representation in Parliament, overturning present alliances.
Throughout the campaign and much of the debate, Angela Merkel defended the record of her government. Steinbruck on the other hand has argued that the government was being economical with the truth in regard to two important issues. One is the American spy programme, which the German government considers a closed issue because it is in the process of negotiating an agreement with the U.S. to ban spying on each others’ populations. Steinbruck demands that the content of the agreement be made public. Despite the historical sensitivities relating to widespread spying by the Nazis, this issue will not change the electoral outcome. But even this lack of transparency by the incumbent government compares favourably with our own government’s cavalier dismissal by External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, that all governments spy on each other.
The second issue is more important to the German public, a majority of which has been and remains supportive of Merkel’s policy of flexibility-with-stability which translates into austerity requirements from Eurozone governments receiving bailouts from the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The differences between Merkel’s policies towards the Euro and the SPD are of nuances and became public when the incumbent Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, let slip publicly that Greece would need another tranche of 10 billion Euros. That provided the opportunity for Steinbruck to charge the government with withholding the true cost of the bailout, especially as Greece sought the same amount within days while rejecting any more conditions of austerity. The SPD is more sympathetic to the troubled countries and opposes the degree of austerity that Merkel is accused of demanding from them. Unfortunately for the SPD, the German public continues to find austerity requirements reasonable as it resents the burden it may have to bear if the whole scheme falls apart.
In the fourth largest economy in the world, per capita income at over thirty two thousand Euros, and unemployment at just about 6.5%, popular satisfaction is quite high, even though the economy is growing at less than 1% (compared to the anticipated 3.5% for the US). Therefore the two candidates could differ only on the margins – for example on a mandatory minimum wage. While the SPD would like a statutory minimum, as most other European countries have, of 8.5 Euro per hour, Merkel wants to retain tariff autonomy whereby the representatives of trade unions and employers negotiate a medium term wage agreement, with job security. This was useful in strengthening German competitiveness, but the fact that people are willing to work for less than 5 Euro per hour is creating a widening culture of temporary or contract labour and a permanent underclass, much like in America – or for that matter, India.
Other differences of opinion consisted of the SPD wanting to raise taxes on the rich and accusing the government of never having enough money for education but always having enough to bail out banks. The middle class complains bitterly about the decline in the quality of education, but it is also concerned about the lack of state-provided child care facilities forcing a significant number of women in the EU to miss career opportunities. Similarly the SPD would like the retirement age to revert to 65 years from the present 67. These differences are important to affected groups. However they are unlikely to overturn the broad feeling that Merkel has managed German interests in a turbulent Europe prudently – and she should be given another term since the European crisis persists.
The one pure foreign policy issue that was discussed, the expected military action against Syria, was also the only issue on which the two contenders came out in broad agreement. Both were against German participation and wanted any military action undertaken only with a UN mandate. This prudence is of a part with the German tendency to be low profile on the international stage even though it is already the fourth largest contributor to UN finances and participates actively in UN and NATO missions, including in a significant way in Afghanistan. German policy, so far, can perhaps be described as anchored in the European and NATO alliance while being the economic anchor of Europe. However any new German government will be challenged by rapid developments in the Middle East and elsewhere in a politically and economically turbulent world.
Ambassador Neelam Deo is Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations and former Ambassador to Denmark and former Joint Secretary for Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh.
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