06/2018 | Reading time: 12 minutes
If we approach the event sentimentally, 6 June can be seen as a celebration of German democracy. In the history of the country, it was the first time that the incumbent chancellor had to answer any question from the members of the Bundestag in public and without having the option of excusing herself or appointing one of her ministers to appear in her stead. However, evaluating the event more soberly, we can rather conclude that even the presence of the AfD in the country’s legislature—which was considered by many to be extremely dangerous––was not enough to effectuate a change in the landscape that has characterized German politics for the last twelve years: as on all the previous occasions, a calm and considerate Merkel, who apparently found pleasure in her new role, succeeded in neutralizing even the most embarrassing questions. (Pt. 2)
Crossfire in earnest
Not surprisingly, the representatives of the strongest member of the governmental coalition did not try hard to put the chancellor in a difficult situation by posing unpleasant questions. Their goal was, on the one hand, to help Merkel fulfil her task successfully and on the other hand, to steer the focus of the discussion toward issues where the values they advocate can appear more pronounced. In this regard, the CSU proved to be more successful by putting deportation on the table. Merkel said that Afghanistan—based on an internal study—has to be considered a safe country hereafter, so sending back refugees who arrived from there do not face further obstacles. In addition, the CSU could also express its concerns over the realisability of global climate goals, which the Bavarian voters, who are traditionally sensitive to environmental issues, certainly welcomed.
SPD—unsuccessful profile building
The smaller party of the big coalition was not in such a simple position. For two decades, the SPD has been struggling with a basic problem: anytime it took part in the government along with the CDU/CSU, the achieved reforms were almost always credited to the two other parties, meanwhile the SPD was often brought to account by the voters over the socially insensitive nature of many enacted legal measures. Parallelly, the party’s base has been constantly eroding, and it may well be that in the long run the formation can only function as a second-rate political force, especially if it does not find the way of re-designing social democracy for the 21th century. The changes that took place in the upper echelons of the party after Martin Schulz took his leave did not help much, not least because what happened was merely a kind of “recycling”: already well-known faces took on new positions. However, the severity of the situation the SPD is dwelling in is well illustrated by the fact that the party, which achieved the worst result of its post-WWII history in previous September, has lost at least 3% from its prevailing 20.5% support, and recently has even been “overtaken” by the ascending AfD. Thus, there would be enough reason for building a new profile, but if there is any work going on within the party in this regard, 6 June did not deliver any information on it. Nevertheless, as things stand, the cause of the help- and defenceless will be embraced not by the SPD, but by the otherwise not quite influential Die Linke and the extremist AfD, that promotes exclusionary ideology by channelling in accumulated tensions and strives to become a strong middle-class political player. Meanwhile, the CDU, under the leadership of Merkel, has been emptying out the less consistent program of the social democrats by moving some of its elements into its own. It also does not seem clear whether the SPD is intent on embracing the interests of second- and third-generation immigrants, who in most cases, are not able to climb up the social ladder and consequently, would warmly welcome the “mainstream” representation of their interests. The geographic weakness of the SPD continues to be East Germany, where last September, both the extreme right and the extreme left achieved quite good results. It is characteristic, however, of the party’s ability to understand the situation that it only put great emphasis on appointing East German politicians to important positions during the formation of the current government.
The members of the faction did not even know how to use the actual opportunity. They raised issues which either do not have a direct impact on the lives of citizens, such as Trump’s departure from Western values or the diplomatically controversial statements of the new American ambassador delegated to Berlin, or despite being important, require serious consideration, such as the adoption of Macron’s proposal for the Eurozone. There was only one occasion when a problem directly affecting some of the citizens was put forward, namely the future of diesel cars—although Merkel could easily avoid giving a concrete response to that by remaining as vague as possible.
AfD—lots of smoke, few hits
In contrast to the outrageous remark by its party leader during the federal election, the AfD, the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, has so far failed to “hunt Merkel down.” This is somewhat surprising as the scandal around the Bamf (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, the German immigration office) shed light on certain problems which certainly displease a large part of the German society and which the AfD has shown itself so willing to deal with. One member of the faction, in line with expectations, referred to Merkel’s responsibility in sharp words and accused both the Chancellery and the Bamf’s staff of having violated their oath of office. All of this, including their urging Merkel to resign, however, seemed to be rather an indispensable part of the show the party strived for. An example for the confused ideology of the extreme right was the intense rhetorical struggle for improving Germany’s relation with Russia, since in general, the AfD supports international isolation.
For the average German citizen, it may seem mysterious why does the party, which styles itself as an avid defender of the nation, represents overtly the interest of a country which pursues an aggressive foreign policy towards the West. Protecting Trump seemed another logical blunder, as he is about to hurt Europe’s economic interests. Furthermore, the fact that AfD accused the Chancellor of bringing discredit on the American president born witness to a serious misunderstanding of the current situation, or at least an extraordinary ignorance of the world of social media. We would be unjust, however, if we did not mention that the party had also raised substantive issues. They asked Merkel, for example, how much money she would be willing to spend on crisis-ridden EU Member States. In light of the current events taking place in Italy, this could undoubtedly become a major problem as far as the German taxpayers are concerned.
No matter what rhetorical tricks it applied and how it played on emotions, the AfD could not move Merkel out of her static calm, and she—being a well-known master of vague answers, unfinished opportunities, and being consequent only when it is appropriate—could easily parried the party’s attacks.
Die Grünen/Bündnis ’90—a party empty of content
The Greens have recently undergone a serious renewal, whereupon also their two-headed leadership—traditionally a man and a woman—has been replaced. The new chairmen are not in an easy position, as the party’s programme about a steady increase in the share of renewable energy sources was elevated to a governmental goal years ago; consequently, a part of the “green agenda” needs to be filled with new content. Fortunately, the quest for new ways does not bother the party’s voters. According to recent surveys, the Greens have even been able to increase their support by 2% since last September.
During the parliamentary Q&A session, however, the lack of comprehensive concepts was noticeable. Questions by the party concerning the introduction of a tax on plastics was easily neutralized by Merkel, who declared that on the one hand, she was not convinced of the effectiveness of the solution, and that on the other hand, she found any measures implemented in a national level inadequate to prevent the pollution of the seas—her message was that the Greens, if they had great ideas, could think at least at European level. The emotional argument that the proportion of women in the Bundestag is currently lower than in the previous parliamentary period also played into Merkel’s hands. The chancellor regretted this unfortunate course of development, especially because the problem is also present within the CDU. She noted, however, that she does not see any way of introducing statutory requirements in this regard, but she is ready to negotiate about the practical handling of the issue.
FDP—neoliberal AfD light
As far as economic issues are concerned, one cannot accuse the FDP with inconsistency, but—as many other liberal parties in Western democracies—it is also often inclined to think along abstract values without evaluating the practical implications of the targeted solutions more accurately. The uncritical support of free trade agreements, for example, has become a trademark of the party. Another important element of the party’s programme is the substantial cut in aids to crisis-ridden Eurozone members and—in sharp contrast to basic liberal values—a stricter immigration and asylum policy. Furthermore, the FDP, which today puts national interests ahead of humanitarian considerations, fights for a strict treatment of refugees as well as the intensification of deportation processes, partly to woo potential AfD voters.
Due to the compulsion to conform—the party had been voted out of the Bundestag five years ago and had to rebuild both itself and its electoral base afterwards—and the rhetorical abilities of the FDP leader Christian Lindner, if there is a party that Merkel had reason to fear during her public “interrogation,” it is definitely the FDP. Especially considering that negotiations on the so-called Jamaica coalition foundered primarily on the obstinacy and the not too ethical manoeuvres of the free democrats just half a year ago. Thus, the background was given for the chancellor to get into an uneasy situation under the crossfire of the FDP, but that did not happen.
Merkel, responding to the questions posed to her about international economic co-operation promised that both the publication of the EU–Canada free trade agreement, CETA’s ratification agenda and the signing of the free trade agreement with Japan would happen soon. Concerning the Eurozone, she stressed that there was not any loan in prospect for Italy and that she continued to pursue a disciplined fiscal policy. Returning to the Bamf scandal, she said that the Chancellery had known about the abnormalities at the office and that even its previous leader had to be appointed on this account. Obviously, this did not make Merkel appear in a favourable light, but at least she could make the impression that the German government took the problem seriously even in the absence of pressure from the press and tried to act accordingly.
Die Linke—we live worse now than before
Die Linke, a highly democratized heir to the communist party of the GDR, typically has been calling to account the chancellors in office for lack of social sensitivity, growing income and wealth inequalities, labour market structures/institutions which enhance vulnerability among the socially disfavoured, and if we are to be sarcastic, the efforts taken in the interest of world peace. They can do this without risk, for since the unification of Germany, the far left’s involvement in any government has remained a taboo, while the party continues to have a 10%-strong, quite stable base. The party’s past influences both its current position and its program at least in two ways. On the one hand, Die Linke is traditionally strong in the eastern federal states and represents mostly the interests of those who live there, while in the west, because of the widespread prejudices it must face, it has not succeeded in gaining a firm foothold so far. On the other hand, and this is rather a question of choice than a result of a less favourable political environment, the party has not given up on its friendly disposition towards Russia, despite the fact that Putin has been so aggressive in Ukraine, a virtual buffer zone between East and West, that his actions conjured up the times of the Cold War.
Accordingly, the questions faction members bombarded Merkel with ranged from worsening living standards through labour leasing to the desperate housing situation. Furthermore, the “comrades”* brought up, of course, the bad relationship with Russia and decried the high defence spending which amounts to 2% of the state budget. Merkel replied that in contrast to the accusations, the standard of living has improved during her chancellery, the number of jobs has increased, and the social sensitivity of the government was clearly demonstrated by the introduction of minimum wage. She excluded, however, that the government would fund anyone who lived beyond their means. In terms of international politics, she stated that the policy of isolation promoted by Die Linke was fundamentally incorrect, and Germany had no alternative but to remain embedded in the global economy. She also noted that by increasing defence spending, the German state only fulfilled its commitments towards the NATO.
With hindsight, it is clear that the introduction of a new Bundestag control format proved to be beneficial for Merkel. During the coalition negotiations, which were fraught with serious tensions, the general opinion was that the Chancellor could only continue to govern from a weakened position. It seems now, however, that neither the long political struggle nor the aforementioned scandals could stain her image or shatter her self-confidence. Moreover, the current state of political mathematics practically prevents that she be held accountable for the Bamf scandal. Although, the FDP calls for the establishment of an inquiry committee to investigate the malfeasances, the party—if it continues to stick to the idea—should secure both the support of the AfD and Die Linke since the CDU/CSU and SPD, as well as Die Grünen rejected this option. It is very questionable whether the free democrats who now have the support of only 8% of the voters would be willing to undertake such a risky action. Caution is advisable, especially because the example of the previous parliamentary term clearly showed that German voters could reconcile even with the fact that the almost seventy-year-old party do not have representation in the Bundestag.
* Quotation marks are applied for practical reasons, namely because the word “Genosse,” which is generally to be translated as “comrade” in English, is used by the German press in connection with the members of the SPD—not in a degrading but rather in a humorous manner.
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