Will there, or will there not, be a surprise? That is the question. A few days before Germany’s 2017 election, Angela Merkel looks certain to be returned as Chancellor for a fourth term. The lead for her party, the centre-right CDU, has been in double figures for weeks. Martin Schulz, the chancellor-candidate for the centre-right SPD, has run a solid campaign, but never disturbed the status quo in the way that those who swept him to the party leadership hoped.
The only real contest, it is being said, is for third - because which of the smaller parties takes that place will determine the possibilities for Merkel’s new Coalition. This, and the very clear spread of views represented by (from left to right, as they were ranged in the small parties’ lively television debate) the Linke, the Greens, the FDP and the Alternative fuer Deutschland, leaves the precise direction of the new government to an extent open.
A word of caution may still be in order. Although the Dutch and French elections largely reversed what seemed to be a populist tide in Europe, the United States and the UK (in both the EU referendum and in the June election) produced surprise results that revealed a hitherto largely silent constituency bent on change. The electoral effect on the vote of Angela Merkel’s decision two years ago to admit more than 1 million refugees and migrants is hard to gauge.
While migration is a sensitive issue in every destination country, Germans, for obvious reasons, are less likely to voice xenophobic views than almost anyone else. So who knows how critics of Merkel’s “big invitation” will choose when they actually come to cast their vote. Who knows either, how many of these critics there really are. If former CDU loyalists set out primarily to punish Angela Merkel, and vote, say, for the Alternative fuer Deutschland, then it is just possible that the arithmetic might - perversely - favour an SPD-led coalition.
A more plausible result of a bigger than expected vote for the right-wing AfD, however, would be more of the same. In the event of coming third, the AfD would certainly not be asked by Merkel to join a coalition. This would leave her CDU and its Bavarian CSU partners likely to turn once again to the SPD. The conspicuously affable tone of the Merkel-Schulz television debate - ridiculed as a “duet” rather than a “debate” - more than hinted at the acceptability of a new deal. In which case, Germany, Europe and the world would be contemplating more of the same - in domestic policy at least.
Merkel herself is believed to favour a return to the configuration of her second term, a coalition with the free-market FDP. Last time around, the FDP was punished for entering that coalition and failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold for representation in the Bundestag. Under its new, young leader, Christian Lindner, however, the FDP is enjoying something of a revival.
Whether it can snatch third place is another matter, or indeed whether it would make for an effective coalition. My own view is that Merkel, for all her hankering after leading a government somewhat more to the right, was less successful when she formed a coalition with the FDP (2009 -13) than she has been with her two “grand” - centrist - coalitions with the centre left, even though in theory forming policy should have been easier.
Past experience is one of the criteria Merkel will surely consider when making her choice - if the choice is hers to make - between an undiluted centre-right coalition with the FDP and another “grand coalition” with the SPD. But the difference between the two could be bigger than the dominating presence of her own CDU-CSU alliance in any coalition might suggest. Indeed, the implications for policy could be greater than at any time since she has been Chancellor, because they will affect some of the most pressing decisions that Germany faces - they will not stop at ideological principle. Nor can continuity, at least in foreign policy, be counted on, because the Schulz-led SPD has differences with the party that formed the “grand coalition” four years ago.
At home - as in so much of Europe and the US after the financial crisis - inequality has become a major concern, and could bring the SPD more votes than the polls currently suggest. Merkel has capitalised on Germany’s flourishing economy, but in a new grand coalition with a Schultz-led SPD, she will have to consider how the fruits of economic success are distributed - far more than if her coalition is with the free-market FDP, where Lindner has presented new technology and digitisation as the keys to continued economic prosperity. Interestingly, it would appear that if the FDP joins the government, Lindner has his eyes on an economic post, not the foreign ministry job that has traditionally gone to the FDP leader in coalition.
It is in foreign and defence policy, however, where the distinctions between the two potential coalitions could be greatest. Three areas can be singled out. The first is defence and security, where a CDU-CSU-FDP coalition would be likely to support Merkel’s pledge to raise Germany’s Nato contribution to the 2 per cent agreed at the Cardiff summit. It would also support the continuation, or even an increase, in Germany’s manpower contribution to international military operations. If Schulz takes the SPD into a “grand” coalition, none of this is certain. Germany would be likely to take a stance that is less hawkish even by its own modest standards.
Which leads on to Russia. Merkel has trodden a delicate line between harsh criticism mostly in private and sustaining dialogue. With France, it initiated the “Normandy format” which brokered the Minsk agreement (now stalled) to try to solve the conflict in Ukraine. Merkel’s Germany has also been a strong supporter of the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline, which faces strong opposition from mostly Central European members of the EU.
There is a belief - a fear - in some quarters that a Schulz-led SPD would call for a softening of EU sanctions, and a return to something like business as usual. A centre-right coalition with the FDP, in contrast, would keep, and maybe toughen, the ideological line, while keeping commercial ties open.
The third is the European Union. Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French election earlier this year seemed to breathe new life not just into the EU, but also into the Franco-German “engine” at a time when its impetus had weakened. Martin Schulz, as a long-time Brussels player, favours even closer integration within the EU, including acquiescence in Macron’s plans for economic and financial reforms, which could eventually lead to a two-speed Europe.
This could force Merkel to choose between her long-standing and loyal finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble (who has misgivings about Macron’s ideas), and a coalition with the SPD. It could thus favour a coalition with the FDP - if the FDP wins sufficient seats to qualify as a coalition partner - which is keener on economic and security cooperation, than political integration. Given Germany’s commanding position in the EU, especially after the UK’s departure, the make-up of Germany’s next coalition could also determine the future direction of the EU.
The paradox is that none of these issues has featured in this election campaign in any great depth. The focus has instead been on domestic policy and migration, where the differences between a “grand” coalition and a centre-right coalition with the FDP are less clear-cut than they are on foreign policy and Europe. So while Germans may think that they are voting for more of the same in returning Merkel as Chancellor - if they do - this weekend, her choice of coalition partner could mean that important aspects of their foreign policy are set to change.