The Magazine

Germany Moves Left

Angela Merkel’s Pyrrhic victory

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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These bailouts of the European economy’s basket cases are more complex than they appear. There are two theories of the euro crisis, and no consensus among voters or economists on which is correct. On one hand, maybe Italy, Spain, and France are going broke—milder versions of Greece. If you think this, then backing their debt is throwing good German money down a rathole. But maybe they’re just out of cash, and there’s less shame in that. Germany, too, would be going bankrupt if it had to borrow at 10 percent, and defending neighbors to whom one is bound by treaty is the least one can do. Merkel must represent both these theories of the collapse, because Germans believe the first with their heads and the latter with their hearts. Germans are simply not willing to be the executioners of a European project that still presents itself as the continent’s best hope for peace and harmony. That is why frequent comparisons of Merkel to the late Margaret Thatcher are off-base. Merkel is always trying to harmonize, not (as Thatcher did) to polarize. In the early September debate, she made a remark that could have served as her campaign slogan: “Sie kennen mich.” You know me, she told voters. 

Except that they don’t. And this is the great paradox of the German election. The largest victory for Germany’s “party of the right” in more than half a century signals the outright extinction of conservatism. For the first time since World War II, there is no conservative force anywhere on the political horizon. 

Fukushima, Mon Amour

There are three reasons for this. The first is that Chancellor Merkel’s strategy has always been to deprive voters of any reason to vote for her opponents. Her preferred tactic is the one Bill Clinton used against Republicans: adopting her opponents’ positions. Her rivals find it frustrating. The only way to distinguish themselves from her is by radicalizing, and she may follow them even then.

For instance, Germany built a slew of nuclear power plants four decades ago, and these provide much of its energy. For years there has been a battle between Green environmentalists, who called for an “atom exit,” and others who feared the economic consequences. It was mostly fought to a draw. But days after the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the wake of a tsunami in 2011, Merkel announced that she was rallying her party to the Greens’ position. And she was not through. This spring, the Social Democrats, along with the post-Communist Left party, were calling for a national minimum wage. At any time in Germany’s postwar history, this would have received polite snickers from the CDU. But the party now supported it in principle, asking only that it be introduced piecemeal. The Left and the Social Democrats also decided to back nationwide rent controls. Germany’s relative prosperity is driving rents through the roof, and rent control is, for now, polling well. You don’t have to ask what Merkel did.

The result is a real confusion about what the respective parties stand for. A week before the election, Merkel’s CDU mentor Helmut Kohl appeared at the side of her Free Democratic party (FDP) rival Rainer Brüderle to give a semi-endorsement. Bored one afternoon before the election, I filled out a questionnaire that the Süddeutsche Zeitung was running on its website. It promised to match your political opinions to the votes of the various parties in the Bundestag. It turned out I should vote for Merkel’s CDU—they agreed with me 70 percent of the time. But then I took a second look. My overlap was 69 percent with the free market FDP, 65 with the socialists, 64 with the cyber-radical Pirate party, 63 with the environmentalists, and 62 with the Communists.

Indian Chief

German politics is moving left for a second reason: shifts in the size and strength of the parties. Taken together, the opposition SPD and Greens gained seats in last week’s election, despite a dismal showing by the latter. That is because the Christian Democrats’ favored coalition partners, the Free Democrats, were driven out of the Bundestag altogether for the first time since the 1940s. 

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