Is there a Merkel alternative?

January 8, 2013

Germany is the economic hegemon of Europe ‑ not a position it has sought, but a greatness thrust upon it by its own industrial efficiency and cautious financial policies. The weakness of (especially) the southern European states also helped, as did those states’ years’ long binge fueled by cheap credit that Germany, among other states, provided. Now, as with all binges, there is regret, huge headaches and New Year’s resolutions never to be much better in the future.

Angela Merkel, the careful, modest first-woman chancellor is the most obvious symbol of the new hegemon. In Europe, newspapers and some politicians of the left and right stoop so low as to lard their journalism and allusions to her with increasingly overt reference to “Panzers” and “Third Reich.” In her own country, presently, the reverse: She rides high in the polls, far above any other figure, so much so that it seems as if there is no alternative – a phrase once used by that other first-woman leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Merkel’s stature has grown in a way that is rare for leaders other than U.S. presidents. She’s powerful because of what she does beyond her country’s borders. She has ridden the waves and storms of the past two years and has struck a middle course – pressing radical change on the debtor countries, largely in Europe’s south, but supporting them (crucially, the ailing Greece) when required. She has reminded the electorate at home that Europe must be saved if Germany is to prosper but has appeared hard enough in her demands for restructuring of the economies of debtor states to deserve the soubriquet of the Iron Chancellor. Her Christian Democratic Union party is also far ahead of the Social Democratic Party, at some 41 percent.

There is an alternative in Germany, and it may win out in elections set for the fall of this year. But unlike the instability that next month’s election in Italy promises, Merkel’s opposition underscores two large facts about Europe’s superpower, about which Henry Kissinger once quipped, “too big for Europe and too small for the world.”

First, in the midst of the doleful turmoil that is Europe’s economy, Germany is moderate and stable, the very model of a shy hegemon. Second, the main opposition, which may overturn her government, is the best proof of that stability and moderation.

The challenge to Merkel is a strong one: the Social Democratic Party of Germany is smaller than it once was, and its former class struggle rhetoric exists only in ghostly forms. But it’s still a major, serious fit-for-government force. It has a straight-talking, clever and experienced candidate for the chancellorship in Peer Steinbrück; and no other party comes close to the 30 percent-plus it registers in the polls.

There is no far right menace, beyond the assorted neo-Nazi groupuscules that are regarded with disgust by the vast majority. The far left party – Die Linke – is split and faltering, displaced in state elections by the jolly Pirates Party. The Greens, once a byword for protest and an inspiration to the political-ecological movement globally, now has, it’s reported, a larger base in the upper middle class than in any other part of the spectrum – and polls around 13 percent, though it often receives fewer votes than its polling shows, and is in any case disposed to enter a coalition with the Social Democrats.

The SDP has thus no large competitor on its left, and under Steinbrück it isn’t going much further than a little to the left of the center. A former finance minister (in the grand right-left coalition, led by Merkel from 2005 to 2009), he would be tougher on the banks, capping bonuses and forcing a split between investment and high street banking; he would try to do more to reduce inequalities by higher taxes on the rich (slightly: no following of France to the 75 percent stratosphere); and he has signaled doubts about the policies of austerity. But he knows the goose that lays the golden eggs in Germany’s strong, export-oriented manufacturing sector can’t be hobbled, let alone killed. He would tend it as lovingly as the center-right.

The most important election in Europe early in this new year will not be at the national, but at the regional, level: the German state of Lower Saxony polls on Jan. 20, where campaigning started this past weekend. It’s run, as is the country, by a coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the economically liberal Free Democratic Party, and has in David McAllister, a German-Scot, a popular prime minister spoken of as a future chancellor. His vote may hold up – but the Free Democrats look terribly shaky. They have sunk to around 3 percent to 4 percent in the polls, not enough to give them parliamentary representation (which has a 5 percent floor) at the next federal election, in the autumn.

Their embattled leader, Philipp Rösler, assured his party at its conference over the weekend that Germany needed a party that believed in freedom: “Just where the zeitgeist continues to migrate to the left,” he said, “we as the FDP are indispensable.” He hopes.

The Social Democrats and the Greens, who scored a big breakthrough last year in North Rhine-Westphalia, would, if the FDP didn’t qualify for the state parliament, take the state. If that were to happen, Steinbrück would gain a following and an excess of confidence, and would hold up his red-green, SDP-Green coalitions in two important states as pointers to the future.

But the hegemon will change course only a little. It has set an example of centrism and moderation that, so far, the rest of Europe has tended – if with greater thrills and spills – to follow. The Netherlands, said to be in the grip of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-European Union Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders, returned a centrist grand coalition of center-left and center-right parties last year, as Wilders’ party lost a third of its seats in parliament. Spain’s right-of-center government led by the uncharismatic Mariano Rajoy struggles with 25 percent unemployment and isn’t popular – but the Socialist Party is sinking faster, and the only challenges comes from Catalan and Basque nationalists.

There are perhaps serious diversions to come: Greece’s socialist Syriza party might break through to be the largest party in a future election, but it didn’t in elections last year, when Greece was in greater turmoil. Sweden’s anti-immigration Democrats are climbing in the polls, as the Social Democrats flounder, but the center-right governing coalition, dominated by the moderates, remains … moderate, and in charge. In Italy, the motor-mouthed comic Beppe Grillo’s Five Stars Movement is a card as wild as its leader’s white hair, with polls as high as 20 percent, second only to the leftist coalition. But it shows signs of falling back as internal dissent mounts. There’s no Europe-wide rejection of the union: all member states’ governments, in or out of the euro, are led by men and women committed – if with varying degrees of enthusiasm – to the EU (the U.K. is the only – and partial – exception).

If this is the year when the Social Democrats, after an eight-year gap, again lead Germany, it will be a notable event. But don’t expect much change. The hegemon is a cautious beast, left or right.

PHOTO: REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer | REUTERS/Dominic Lipinski/Pool

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