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Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

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Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.

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Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.

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Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

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In an overwhelming endorsement of Germany’s new grand coalition, party members of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) have approved the governing agreement between the SPD and chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right union.Germany Flag Icon

Nearly 370,000 German party members approved the agreement by the lopsided margin of 75.96% in a vote that was held over the past two weeks, the results of which were announced earlier today.  The vote followed the November 27 agreement struck among SPD leaders and leaders of Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) and Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the  Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU, the Christian Social Union).

So what next?

Expect Merkel to name a new cabinet within the next 24 hours, and expect her formal reelection as chancellor to come early next week.

You can read more background about the coalition deal here and here, but here’s a short list of points to keep in mind: Continue reading SPD party membership approves German grand coalition

Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

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We’re less than two weeks from December.  That means that the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, has been sitting for about a month, and we’re weeks away from the self-imposed deadline that chancellor Angela Merkel placed on securing a new coalition government.Germany Flag Icon

In case you forgot, Merkel won a handsome victory in the September 22 federal election, when her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) — together with the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria) — won 311 seats in the Bundestag, just five seats short of an absolute majority.  It was the biggest victory for Merkel’s Christian Democrats in nearly two decades, harkening back to the wide margins that former CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl won in 1990 and in 1994 in the afterglow of the relatively successful reunification of West and East Germany.

But while the CDU-CSU savored a sweet victory, their coalition partners between 2009 and 2013, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) failed to win any seats in the Bundestag for the first time since 1945, leaving Merkel with two options — a minority government or a coalition government with more leftist partners.

Though Merkel flirted throughout early October with Die Grünen (the Greens), a tantalizingly novel coalition that would have remade the German political spectrum, the Greens pulled out of talks on October 16.  So for over a month, coalition negotiations have been exclusively among the CDU, the CSU and the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  Earlier in November, the coalition talks were going so well that CSU leader and Bavarian minister-president Hoorst Seehofer worried that the harmony would subsume the real policy differences between the German right and the German left.

As Merkel quipped earlier this year, Christmas comes sooner than you think, and Merkel, Seehofer and the SPD’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel (pictured above), are under increasing pressure to agree on a coalition agenda — and given that the CDU-CSU’s 311 seats and the SPD’s 192 seats constitute 79.8% of the entire Bundestag, expectations are high that such a wide-ranging coalition will tackle long-term reform both in Germany and in the European Union.  Moreover, any coalition deal agreed among the three parties must also win subsequent confirmation from a vote of 470,000 SPD members in December.

So what’s holding up the deal?  Continue reading Merkel’s CDU-CSU, Gabriel’s SPD stumbling toward a not-so-grand coalition in Germany

FDP shut out of Bavarian parliament, CSU wins absolute majority

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The result of today’s state elections in Bavaria has both good news and bad news in terms of Angela Merkel’s hopes to win a third term as chancellor in exactly one week.bavarian_flag_iconGermany Flag Icon

With results still coming in, the center-right Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union) will improve vastly upon its historically poor result in the prior September 2008 election, giving Bavaria’s minister president Horst Seehofer (pictured above) an absolute majority in the 187-member Landtag, Bavaria’s unicameral state parliament.

The current projection gives the CSU 101 seats, with just 43 seats for the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) and 18 seats each for Die Grünen (the Greens) and the center-right group of independents, the Freie Wähler (FW, Free Voters).

Here’s the latest snapshot of the result:

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That’s great news for the CSU, which has controlled Bavaria’s state government consecutively since 1947.  The Bavarian-based CSU is the sister party of Merkel’s Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party), which competes everywhere else in Germany, and the two parties work together as a union for federal political purposes.  So the fact that the CSU increased its support by over 5% in what was already a center-right heartland is a sign that Merkel will be able to drive up the number of seats that the CDU/CSU will win in next week’s federal elections.

It’s an amazing turnaround for the CSU, which won less than 44% five years ago and was polling just 40% as recently as 2010.  It’s a huge win for Seehofer personally as well, given that his personality dominated the CSU’s presidential-style campaign, the same tactic that Merkel and the CDU have deployed for next week’s federal elections.  It puts Seehofer alongside recent CSU leaders who have dominated Bavaria’s recent past, such as Franz Josef Strauß in the 1970s and 1980s and Edmund Stoiber in the 1990s and 2000s.  Given the relative strength of the Bavarian economy vis-à-vis Germany and, especially vis-à-vis Europe, the CSU’s win is not surprising — Bavaria’s reputation long ago solidified its image as the land of laptops und Lederhose.

But it’s horrible news for the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), which won just 3.2% today, falling far short of the 5% threshold required to win seats in the Landtag.

Seehofer and the CSU depended on a governing coalition with the Free Democrats for the fast five years, and Merkel and the CDU/CSU govern in coalition with the Free Democrats at the federal level as well.  Since riding a wave of popularity in the late 2000s (the Free Democrats won nearly 15% of the vote in the 2009 federal elections), its public support collapsed shortly thereafter.  After a series of poor performances in state elections, foreign minister Guido Westerwelle stepped down as the party’s leader.  But its new leader Philipp Rösler, Germany’s first Vietnamese-born party leader, has hardly done much better.  Under his leadership, though, the Free Democrats actually gained support in two key state-level votes — in the May 2012 North Rhine-Westphalia election and the January 2013 Lower Saxony state elections.

The FDP’s loss in Bavaria comes at a devastating time, however.  Seehofer and the CSU in Bavaria will no longer need a coalition partner, but that’s not likely to be the case for Merkel next week, so Merkel needs the Free Democrats to perform much better nationwide in seven days.  While Merkel’s CDU/CSU widely leads in the polls in advance of next week’s federal election, Merkel is unlikely to win the kind of outright majority that Seehofer won today (because the rest of Germany tilts further to the center and to the left than the Catholic, socially conservative Bavaria).  Just as for Bavaria’s state elections, there’s a 5% threshold for winning seats on the basis of proportional representation in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s national parliament, and polls show the Free Democrats treading at about 5% support nationally.

So if the Free Democrats win less than 5% next week, Merkel will be forced to look to other alternatives: an unstable minority government, return to a ‘grand coalition’ with the rival Social Democrats or a more creative solution, such as a ‘black-green’ coalition with the Greens.  Even if the Free Democrats win more than 5%, their ranks are likely to be so decimated that Merkel may be forced into an alternative anyway.  Continue reading FDP shut out of Bavarian parliament, CSU wins absolute majority

Bavarian elections provides Merkel, CSU a dress rehearsal for federal German vote

seehofer Exactly one week before Germans go to the polls to choose between center-right chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-left challenger Peer Steinbrück, Bavarian voters will elect its local state government in a key test for Merkel’s regional allies.Germany Flag Iconbavarian_flag_icon

The outcome isn’t incredibly doubtful because since 1947, Bavaria’s staunchly Catholic, business-friendly, socially conservative Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union) has controlled the 187-seat Landtag, the state legislature of Germany’s second-most populous state.

Given that the state has one of Germany’s — and Europe’s — best economies, the CSU looks set to strengthen its hold on Bavarian government in what amounts to a test run of many of the arguments that Merkel hopes will power her Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) to victory on September 22 alongside the CSU, which has been united with the CDU in federal politics for decades.  Merkel, who currently governs in an alliance with the liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), hopes that voters will give her credit for steering Germany — and the entire eurozone — through the worst of a sovereign debt crisis that began in 2010 and an economic recession from which Europe may already be recovering.

But the CSU and Bavaria’s minister president Horst Seehofer (pictured above) can make an even more sanguine case on the basis of the Bavarian economy, which showcases several star multinational corporations, such as BMW, Siemens, and adidas.  Whereas the European Union had an average unemployment rate of 10.4% in 2012 and Germany had an unemployment rate of 5.5%, Bavaria’s was just 3.2%.  To consider just how staggering that is, consider that United States last had an unemployment rate that low in October 1953. It’s an economy that, at around  €465 billion ($610 billion), is about as large as the economy of the US state of Pennsylvania and even larger than the entire economy of Saudi Arabia, and nearly 1.5 times the size of the economy of neighboring Austria.

If the CSU is successful on September 15, it will mark a rebound from the previous September 2008 election, the CSU’s worst performance since 1954.  Five years ago, Bavarian voters went to the polls in the middle of an uncertain future, with the collapse of US financial firm Lehman Brothers and a global financial panic topping world headlines.  It was also a period of uncertain leadership within the CSU, Bavarian minister-president Edmund Stoiber resigned after 14 years in office following the resignation of his chief of staff, Michael Höhenberger, which itself followed accusations that Höhenberger snooped on the private life of one of Stoiber’s critics.  Günther Beckstein, Stoiber’s longtime interior minister, succeeded Stoiber and led the CSU through the 2008 election, but stepped down following the CSU’s historic loss.

Even though the CSU won just 43.4% of the vote (a drop of over 17% from its prior performance) and lost its absolute majority in the Landtag, it remained the largest party in Bavaria by far, outpacing the second-place Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) by nearly 25% of the vote and Seehofer, a former health and food minister, easily won election as Bavaria’s minister-president in October 2008.

As the CSU and the SPD both suffered historic losses, two additional groups on the Bavarian right made extraordinary gains.  The first is the Freie Wähler (FW, Free Voters), a bloc of independent, unaffiliated center-right deputies, which won 10% of the vote, largely from disappointed CSU supporters, and entered the Bavarian Landtag for the first time.  The second is the FDP, which won 8% and 16 seats, returning to the Bavarian legislature for the first time in 14 years and providing the CSU with a stable coalition partner in Munich.  Even the socialist Die Linke (The Left) competed for the first time and won 4.3%, impressive in a state as conservative as Bavariabavaria Five years later, although polling data isn’t as ubiquitous for Bavaria’s state election as for the wider federal German elections, the CSU is polling higher than in 2008, and it may win over 50% of the vote, restoring the absolute majority that it enjoyed in the Landtag without interruption from 1962 to 2008. That’s good news for Seehofer, because the FDP is faring as poorly in Bavaria as it is in federal polling — the Free Democrats are in danger of missing the 5% threshold required to win seats in the Bavarian Landtag (and in the federal Bundestag as well).  Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are in danger of setting a new postwar low in Bavaria on September 15 and in federal elections a week later — it’s polling at around 18% in Bavaria, which is even worse than its 2008 result (18.6%).  Continue reading Bavarian elections provides Merkel, CSU a dress rehearsal for federal German vote

Assessing the potential coalitions that might emerge after Germany’s federal elections

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With now less than 40 days to go until Germany’s federal elections, polls show that chancellor Angela Merkel is by far the most popular candidate to return as chancellor and her party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), will clearly be the largest bloc in Germany’s Bundestag after the election. Germany Flag Icon

Polls have been remarkably consistent throughout much of the year leading up to the September 22 vote.  The center-right CDU, together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union), overwhelmingly leads Germany’s largest center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party), and voters overwhelmingly prefer Merkel to the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück — by a nearly two-to-one margin.  Here’s the trendline from Infratest dimap, which released its latest poll this week:

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This week’s news that Germany leads GDP growth in the eurozone, which itself pulled out of recession in the second quarter of 2013, will only buoy Merkel’s chances.  Barring a huge shift in public opinion that has only calcified over the past year, Steinbrück, a bland technocrat who comes from the right wing of the SPD and who served as finance minister in the ‘grand coalition’ government of 2005 to 2009, will lead the SPD to a loss of nearly historic proportions.  But while that means Merkel is very likely to return as chancellor, the composition of Merkel’s third government is less certain.

That’s because support for Merkel’s current coalition partners, the free-market liberal Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), has collapsed since the previous September 2009 election, when it won 14.6% of the vote and 93 seats in the Bundestag, a record-high electoral performance for the party.  But since 2009, the FDP has struggled to maintain a presence in local Germany elections, losing support in state after state.  Its decade-long leader Guido Westerwelle, the first openly gay party leader in German history, stepped down in April 2011 as party leader and vice chancellor (though he remains foreign minister) after the FDP won barely 5% in the state elections of Baden-Württemberg.  His successor as FDP leader is the Vietnamese-born Phillip Rösler (pictured above), who began his career in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) and who had served previously as health minister in the CDU/FDP coalition government from 2009 to 2011.

Although Rösler has not lifted the FDP back up to its 2009-level heights, he has managed to staunch the party’s decline.  In the May 2012 elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, the FDP managed to win 8.6% of the vote, an increase of nearly 2% from the previous election, though that’s largely due to the popularity of Christian Lindner, who led the FDP’s 2012 campaign.  More recently, though, in Lower Saxony’s state election in January 2013, the FDP won 9.9% of the vote, a gain of 1.7%.

It’s also because Germany’s electoral system is notoriously complex.  Germans will actually cast two votes in September — the first is for a candidate to represent one of 299 electoral districts in Germany, the second is for a German political party.  The second ‘party vote’ is meant to determine the party’s ultimate total share of seats in the Bundestag, and so a party will receive additional seats on the basis of the party vote sufficient to provide that its percentage of seats in the Bundestag is roughly equal to the percentage of votes it received pursuant to the party vote (so long as the party receives at least 5% of party vote support).  That means that the number of seats in the Bundestag changes from election to election — although it must have a minimum of 598 seats, it has had as few as 603 and as many as 672 since German reunification.

The FDP has struggled all year long to achieve merely 5% support in opinion polls and, while it’s doing better in polls than it was at the beginning of the year, there’s no guarantee that it will meet that threshold:

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That means that, more than anything else, the composition of Germany’s next government turns on the FDP’s performance.  If it wins less than 5%, Merkel will not have the option of continuing a coalition with the FDP.  Moreover, even if the FDP wins more than 5%, it may still not win enough seats to cobble together a CDU/FDP majority in the 598-member Bundestag.

Furthermore, polls show that while German voters overwhelmingly prefer Merkel as chancellor, they actually favor a return to the CDU/SPD grand coalition, more than the current CDU-led government or a potential SPD-led government:

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Two additional coalitions — a CDU/Green government and a united left coalition among the SPD, Green and Die Linke (the Left Party) — also win significant support.

But what are the chances that any of these five coalitions will actually emerge after September 22?  Here’s a look at each potential coalition and the chances that it could form Germany’s next government.

CDUpreferredcoalitionThe current government: CDU/FDP.

Merkel prefers to continue her current coalition over any alternative because her political agenda matches well with the FDP’s political agenda.  Any negotiations between Merkel and the SPD or the Greens would entail huge concessions from Merkel that she would not otherwise have to make in coalition with the FDP.  But, as noted above (and as represented in the graph to the right, on the basis of current polls), it’s unclear if that coalition can win a majority.

Under Rösler’s leadership, the FDP is running on a campaign of lower taxes and liberalizing Germany’s economy, which is standard Free Democratic fare, and both the FDP and Merkel’s CDU oppose new tax increases.  Their largest policy difference might be same-sex marriage — the FDP supports it and the CDU (and especially the Catholic-influenced CSU) oppose it, although the FDP has taken a much stronger stand on privacy rights than Merkel’s CDU.

Even if they win enough seats to form a majority, no one expects the margin to be larger than the government’s current 21-seat margin.  So even a single-digit majority could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory if Merkel finds herself forced to look outside her own government to enact her legislative agenda on an ad hoc basis, especially with respect to European Union matters, given the sometimes eurosceptic nature of many CSU deputies.  That’s hardly a recipe for stable government.

Polls in August show that together, the current government will win between 44% and 47% of the vote if the election were held today.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t give us much of an idea about whether they’ll have enough support in the Bundestag to form a majority.  Since reunification, Germany has held only six federal elections — they’ve resulted in three CDU-led governments, two SPD-led governments and a single CDU-SPD grand coalition. Continue reading Assessing the potential coalitions that might emerge after Germany’s federal elections