Friday 24 September 2021 6:30 am

The long shadow of Merkel: Germany has a future of delay and gridlock

Dr John C. Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises. He can be reached for corporate speaking and private briefings at www.chartwellspeakers.com.

The German public have a deep-seated, if misplaced, love for Angela Merkel. It centers around the notion that mutti (or “mommy”, as the Germans somewhat creepily call her) managed, through the skillful use of tactics, to keep many of the perils of her age away from placid Germany.

Merkellism’s reliance on managing crises rather than solving them has taken a lasting toll on Germany, and by extension Europe.

Merkel may well come to be seen as the Louis XV of Europe, a leader who sowed the seeds for greater cataclysms to come in, rather than solving the problems of her time. The upcoming German election will do nothing to change this doleful historical verdict of her.

In political risk terms, we already know the outcome of the pivotal German election this weekend: Germany will have an unwieldy three-party coalition and nothing will get done. The math is the most important factor in assessing the outcome, not the horse race.

The incredible acts of self-sabotage of the erstwhile front-running center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chancellor candidate Armin Laschet and the center-left Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock, have directly led to the cratering of both their parties in the polls.

Laschet, the colorless premier of the industrial powerhouse North Rhine-Westphalia province, was fatally caught on camera laughing at a memorial service for the victims of Germany’s recent flash floods in Erfstadt, in his home province.

This utterly inappropriate behavior became a staple of national television news for days on end, showing Laschet to be callous and utterly self-involved; it seemed to reveal the very unattractive core of the man, with the political mask off. Accordingly, both Laschet’s and the CDU’s poll numbers went into a free fall.

But Baerbock’s Greens have fared little better. She really went off the rails when it was discovered that Baerbock had plagiarized her recent shoddily-sourced book, with 54  fragments lifted without attribution to the 27 different authors who actually wrote them. Baerbock went from being seen as the face of the future to just one more untrustworthy German politician. Unsurprisingly, her numbers, and those of her party, also tumbled.

The unlikely beneficiary of Baerbock and Laschet’s bungles was Olaf Scholz, the competent, unassuming chancellor candidate of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Currently serving as Finance Minister in Merkel’s CDU-SPD governing coalition, Scholtz is seen as a moderate. Much like Biden in the US, he is an acceptable face to middle-of-the-road voters who would otherwise be fearful of his leftist party.

All of these factors have led to a political earthquake. As of September 15th, Politico’s poll of polls found the SPD ahead of the CDU for the first time in 15 years: the SPD are at 25 percent, the CDU-CSU 21 percent, with the fading Greens at 16 percent.

It is the collapse of the poll numbers of both favorites that creates the need for Germany’s first three-way governing coalition in more than 60 years. It is the only way any sort of governing majority can be formed, given that no single party has support that rises above the level of a quarter of the electorate.

The problem is the math: I couldn’t get three of my friends to agree on a favourite ice cream flavor, let alone important matters of state. The first three-party coalition in Germany in 60 years makes decisive leadership an impossibility in Europe’s most important state, dooming it to policy outputs that are either watered down or non-existent.

In the wake of Chancellor Merkel’s long reign, hardly a showcase for decisiveness, Germany will become a policy-free zone.

Without Germany moving in a coherent policy direction, Europe could lose its economic and political rudder. Germany’s electoral math does nothing less than consign Europe to a medium-term of further drift and decline.

More of John’s work appears on his substack.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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