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Ms Merkel in trouble

Amit Das Gupta & Krishnan Srinivasan |

In many ways, Germany has enjoyed a successful summer. Unemployment rates are the lowest since unification, Germany has overtaken China as the world&’s leading exporter, and after decades of deficit spending there is a surplus of 18 billion Euros from taxes for the first half of 2016. Moreover, the flood of refugees from 2015 has gone back to a trickle. If it was only the economy that was the yardstick, Chancellor Angela Merkel should have reached an all-time high in popularity.

However, East Germany is benefiting less from economic development than the rest of Germany, and even less is Merkel&’s own home state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where elections took place on 4 September. The results must be seen as a slap in the face for the chancellor. Germany&’s Northeast is in a depressed state since Bismarck&’s times, leading in the German statistics for suicides and alcoholism. After unification, everyone young and aspirational looked for options elsewhere, leaving behind the old and unemployable. The state has no industries to speak of, and its main source of income is tourism, attracted by the Baltic Sea, beautiful lakes and natural resorts. Those employed in the hospitality sector, however, are to a large extent recruited from Poland and even further east, as low salaries and hard conditions do not attract the Germans themselves. Paradoxically, foreigners are even less welcome in that state than elsewhere in today&’s Germany.

Essentially, the election campaign was not about the situation in the state itself, but about the so-called refugee crisis, although Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is the most sparsely populated part of Germany with the lowest percentage of foreigners Rs only around 3 per cent. Nevertheless, the state is swept by xenophobia and in particular Islamophobia. After the initial welcoming culture in summer 2015 there has been a complete change of atmosphere all over Germany. Whereas there is still an amazing number of volunteers helping those who arrive, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, in the public debate and among the people, fears and anxieties prevail.

Should one of the richest countries in the world not be able to absorb one million newcomers, whereas India gave shelter to ten million refugees from East Pakistan in 1971, as did and does Pakistan for those thousands fleeing from Afghanistan? The point, however, is that those who felt neglected and disadvantaged even before Merkel announced her policy to open the door for refugees, now fear that their prospects are getting even worse. This is particularly true for the East Germans who feel like a deprived class within the country. Social housing schemes have almost come to an end in the past decades and accommodation in big cities is becoming unaffordable for those with lower incomes. German government spending on education, compared to other industrialised countries, has been in a lamentable state for long. With a million newcomers needing language and integration courses, and the children among them joining schools that lack teachers, a bad situation is turning worse. Finally, the year-old economy measures have resulted in a tangible reduction of the police force in times when citizens demand the enforcement of law and order. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the party profiting from the current prevailing anxieties, is a political newcomer, and won more than 21 per cent of the votes in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Its spokesmen have come up with demands to shoot refugees on sight at the border and even dared to attack some popular German personalities with an immigrant background. Germany&’s pride is its football team, having won the world championships in 2014 with players having roots in Ghana, Poland, Tunisia and Turkey, but some in the AfD have declared them as no longer welcome. The party also pursues a neoliberal economic programme which would worsen the situation of most of its own followers but logic is drowned by the animosity which so many people seem to have bottled up for too long. Extreme statements are now commonplace which had been considered taboo only a year ago.

That the AfD can dwell on xenophobia is the outcome of a German delusion, cultivated over decades by the two main conservative parties, the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists, that Germany is not an immigration country.

This does not make sense for a country in the centre of Europe with nine neighbours, in fact more than any other country in Europe. It does not also make sense for the world leader in exports, which needs open borders and open markets Rs open in both directions and not only for goods and services. Germany today is no longer all-white and all-Christian, and its football team reflects that new character.

Merkel&’s open-door policy is opposed to what her CDU party has stood for for so long. Today she is most popular with those she is actually not representing Rs the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Rs whereas she is hated in her own camp. This is particularly true with her ally the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU) and its Chief Minister Horst Seehofer, who loses no chance to discredit the Chancellor in public although he is part of the ruling coalition in Berlin. The CSU contends that Germany is for the Germans and everyone has to accept German Leitkultur Rs a vague term standing for something like the German way of life, whatever that might be. But Germany could never declare splendid isolation. A country that along with India claims a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and which exports goods all over the globe cannot stay away from regional and global politics.

In foreign policy matters such as North Africa, Syria and Ukraine the Germans have followed the Western position which has been amateurish and half-hearted, by financing some dubious ‘rebel’ groups but refraining from deeper involvement. Russia has shown how to change the facts on the ground by sending soldiers to annex Crimea, fighting in Eastern Ukraine or bombing Assad&’s opponents. In other words, if it has to be done, it must be done properly, otherwise it is better to keep out. The US and EU on the other hand have been loudly supporting the ‘moderates’ without enabling them to win. But being half involved and half out has been very much the German style, and there is strong support for foreign non-involvement, be it military, aid or otherwise.

Giving up old patterns, however, seems a step too far for the conservative parties. On top of it, Merkel stands for all that is unacceptable and not only among Bavarian conservatives. Women in power have been a common phenomenon in South Asia since the mid-1960s Rs Srimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto or Sheikh Hasina. In Germany, this glass ceiling was broken only in 2005. Furthermore, Merkel is an East German protestant scientist without charisma, and not a great communicator. She has the image of a custodian, not one of those orators steeled by giving speeches in Bavarian beer tents. Nevertheless, there is no politician of any national standing in Germany apart from Merkel, and her downfall might mean losing power in Berlin for the conservatives as a whole, which will include the CSU under Horst Seehofer.