German elections and the statecraft of Angela Merkel | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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German elections and the statecraft of Angela Merkel

As Germany elects its leader this Sunday, Angela Merkel is hoping for a fourth term as a Chancellor of the biggest political and economic power in Europe and the fourth largest economy in the world.

opinion Updated: Sep 23, 2017 17:57 IST
Now, two years after the refugee crisis, Merkel’s migrant policies will face the biggest electoral test on Sunday, a poll that is being considered a referendum on her and her refugee policy
Now, two years after the refugee crisis, Merkel’s migrant policies will face the biggest electoral test on Sunday, a poll that is being considered a referendum on her and her refugee policy(AFP)

49 year old Malika, a proud Syrian and a mother of four, was living a happy and comfortable life till her husband was killed by the Bashar al-Assad regime . Her husband was accused of helping the rebels fighting Assad’s government, a charge she vehemently denies. She was also blamed for being his accomplice by providing food and shelter to the rebels. Fearing the same fate as her husband, she had to flee the country with her four sons aged between 8 and 16. Starting from Syria, then Lebanon to Belgium, Malika had to cross seven countries before she finally reached Germany in 2013.

This is just one story out of 18 families and 134 people that live in this refugee centre based in Märkisch-Oderland County in the eastern part of the Brandenburg state in Germany. The centre, situated away from the main residential areas, houses refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

As Germany elects its leader this Sunday, Angela Merkel is hoping for a fourth term as a Chancellor of the biggest political and economic power in Europe and the fourth largest economy in the world.

Two years ago, at the peak of the immigrant crisis, when Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to nearly one million refugees – a gamble many political scientists thought could end her political career – she did not have much support for her policies even within her own party. The world at large was going through extreme political and moral stress — walls were being built and trust was running low. The high liberal ideals of universal human rights and principles of open borders were being challenged.

This is exactly when Merkel said “Wir schaffen das,” (we can do this) and changed the way the world looked at these unfortunate people who were fleeing war and terrorism in the countries they called home. Chancellor Merkel, by treating immigrants as victims of Islamic terrorism and not carriers of it, single handedly changed the narrative surrounding the refugee issue. Amidst the atmosphere of hate, fear and mistrust, Angela Merkel introduced a new set of values — humanity, compassion, kindness and acceptance. For a moment she made the world look like a civilised place. In the middle of an extreme humanitarian crisis, she exhibited extraordinary leadership qualities and emerged as an indispensible crisis manager at home and an effective peace maker on the global stage.

Now, two years after the refugee crisis, Merkel’s migrant policies will face the biggest electoral test on Sunday, a poll that is being considered a referendum on her and her refugee policy. After demonstrating exemplary political courage at the height of the crisis, she has defended her policy decision during the election campaign with equal confidence and conviction. But given the manner in which this one foreign policy decision has changed the political landscape of the Germany, nothing about the election outcome remains predictable.

Several polls are putting Angela Merkel’s conservatives well ahead of their Social Democratic opponents and on pathway to remain the largest party in the Bundestag. Interestingly, more people are showing support for ‘Mother Merkel’ than her party CDU. While Merkel’s centre-right conservative party CDU has a 14-point lead ahead of her closest rival SPD, the estimated support base for the far- right party is between 9% and 12%. AFD was polling about 16% last year which has dropped to 9 -12% just before the elections. How did Merkel contain right-wing populism?

The large influx of refugees, followed by terrorist attacks, and then a mass molestation of women at Cologne railway station could have caused a diminishing in her mass support and made her extremely vulnerable before the fear mongering of AFD. This is where ‘Merkel statecraft’ came into play. Merkel made sure that a deal was struck between Turkey and the European Union. Turkey was assured to get a push forward its long-delayed desire to join the European Union in return for cooperation in dealing with the worst refugee crisis the international community has seen since the end of the second World War. In addition to the much criticised EU-Turkey deal that stopped refugees in Turkey itself and limited the number of refugees entering Germany this year, a very efficient and well-managed integration of the existing refugees has certainly lowered the anxiety of German voters.

The blatant anti-Islamic ideological position and hateful anti-immigrant stand taken by AFD doesn’t seem to have rung a bell amongst the ever ‘moderate’ Germans. While the majority of Germans were anxious by the rapid influx of migrants, they were equally turned off by the extreme rhetoric of the AFD.

While Angela Merkel appears invincible at the moment, and seems to be heading towards her fourth term as German Chancellor, it is also almost certain that in German history, this would be for the first time after World War-2 that a far right party would enter the Bundestag, and in all possibilities become the principle opposition in parliament. And this certainly has huge implications for German society and politics.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a recipient of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassador Fellowship ( 2017) for Germany

The views expressed are personal