By Heather Conley and Amb. John Kornblum, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (CSIS) in Washington and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. John Kornblum is a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and CSIS Senior Advisor. The views expressed are their own.
As she enters her third and final election on September 22, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be losing her political mojo in the campaigns’ final days, just as she did in 2005 and in 2009. Is it her refusal to emote? Has the absence of a European and foreign policy finally begun to worry even the most pacifist of Germans? Whatever the reason, Merkel is again stumbling a few days before the polls.
In 2005, Merkel’s pre-election musing about tax increases went down badly with voters A 21 percent lead in the polls melted to a small plurality. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party was forced to build a grand coalition with her political nemesis, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
In 2009, German forces in Afghanistan called in a questionable yet lethal NATO air strike in the northern Afghanistan province of Kunduz just days before the vote. Merkel and her government were forced to admit publicly for the first time that German forces were in actual combat in Afghanistan and not peacekeeping operations. Again, the German people were not amused with this revelation and the election was much closer than analysts predicted.
Now, as we enter the final stretch of the 2013 race, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU has consistently polled between 40 percent and 42 percent – a ten year high for CDU – while the SPD, her closest competitor, dipped at one point to a historic low of 23 percent. But supporters are again pulling back like they did in 2005 and 2009. This time the cause may be Barack Obama.
Revelations about NSA snooping and the total confusion surrounding U.S. Syrian policy have abruptly awoken the German voter from its Merkel-induced slumber. And they have clearly awoken on the wrong side of the bed. Although foreign policy is far down the list of election priorities for most countries, for Germans, human rights and peace do not lose their importance. Both the NSA and Syrian issues have hit a sensitive German nerve. While German public opinion strongly opposes military intervention, Germans are most dismayed by the image of total political disarray over these critical issues.
Merkel is still in the lead, but it is looking increasingly questionable whether her current coalition with her liberal junior coalition partner will survive: a sentiment that was reinforced during last week’s Bavarian state elections when her coalition partner received less than 3 percent of the vote. Germany’s complex proportional voting system does not necessarily reward the winner. With seven parties contesting the race, it is now nearly impossible to calculate the final seat count in the parliament which determines which party will form the government. Every vote counts.
And with three days left until the election, Merkel and the CDU know they must run faster, harder but find it difficult to do so. Curiously, the three mainstream German parties – the CDU, SPD and the Greens – are seeing little increase (if anything slight decreases) in their popularity. But smaller, issue-focused parties are seeing some improvement, such as the new Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party which advocates for Germany to leave the Eurozone.
And here is where the election finishing line again becomes more challenging for the chancellor. Merkel desperately needs her current junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, to make the minimum 5 percent threshold to enter parliament to have just enough seats to continue to lead German with her current coalition. If the AfD receives 5 percent (it is currently polling at 4 percent), Merkel would likely not include them in a future coalition because to politically accommodate an anti-euro party would gravely undercut her political vision of “more Europe.” The SPD and the Greens, the likely left alliance, presently do not have enough votes to form a majority coalition.
No matter the outcome, this election will thoroughly reshuffle the German political deck. Either Merkel will be forced for the next four years to defend a weak majority with her current partner, the FDP, or she will again govern with the SPD in a Grand Coalition. This latter prospect would make dealing with Germany more difficult in general and could potentially split the SPD politically in half. SPD has never recovered from its last coalition adventure with Merkel and the party will not come easily to this decision, dragging out coalition negotiations and increasing European economic uncertainty. A Grand Coalition 2.0 will likely mean a more skeptical and contested relationship with the U.S. as well.
At the helm of this political configuration stands Angela Merkel. Undoubtedly, Merkel’s final term in office could be her most difficult yet, profoundly affecting her political legacy. And whatever happens at home, the next four years will certainly be difficult for Europe and the United States.