The country’s domestic politics are becoming dysfunctional just when Berlin’s leadership on the world stage may be needed most, notes POLITICO.
Germans have long considered the blandness of their politics to be a virtue.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a man whose seeming automation earned him the sobriquet “Scholzomat,” was voted into office on an unspoken promise to keep German politics boring. He depicted himself as a guarantor of stability and as the natural heir to his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who reigned over Germany for 16 years while delivering equilibrium in increasingly volatile times.
But things haven’t worked out as planned for Scholz. German politics are now more fractious and charged than at any time in recent memory, with the country awash in protest and strikes, economic trouble brewing — and the German far right ascendant.
Germans tend to view America’s deeply polarized politics with horror. So many took note when, in response to recent angry farmer protests across the country, Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir of the Greens spoke of a “dangerous” urban-rural divide in German society that had the potential to produce “conditions like those” in the U.S.
“People no longer talk to each other,” he went on. “They no longer believe each other, and they accuse each other of all the evil in the world.” The goal, Özdemir concluded, must be to “keep the country together in the middle.”
Germany’s new political strife arrives at a time of increasing global instability and the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency in the U.S., which could radically alter the security architecture Europe depends on. With the war in Ukraine and fears of a conflict with China over Taiwan, the EU may need Germany’s leadership more than at any point since the Cold War.
In other words: It’s a bad time for German politics to become dysfunctional.
Under Merkel, with the U.S. guaranteeing Germany’s defense, the country managed to remain secure without being called upon to sacrifice. Cheap energy from Russia and unencumbered global trade helped keep German industry competitive; and despite the birth of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2013 — then as an anti-euro party — the notion it could grow so popular as to challenge for power seemed far-fetched.
Germans are now experiencing a rude awakening.
The country’s leaders fear a second Trump term could leave Europe without American protection and leave Germany as Ukraine’s biggest military backer. Germany’s export-oriented economy, battered by high energy prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and myriad global trade disruptions, was the world’s worst-performing major economy last year, and with no rebound in sight looks destined for its first two-year recession since the early 2000s.
Germany’s economic woes have been compounded by a by a series of strikes by train drivers demanding shorter work hours, including a longest-ever six-day strike that has halted passenger and freight trains, further disrupting supply chains. A spokesperson for Germany’s state-owned railway operator called the action “a strike against the German economy.”
At the same time, trust is eroding in the ability of mainstream parties to tackle the country’s formidable problems. Germany’s left-leaning tripartite coalition government, beset by infighting and a budget crisis of its own making, is one of the least popular in Germany’s postwar history — just as Scholz is one of the least popular chancellors. Surveys show that popular trust in political institutions is falling precipitously: Only 13 percent of Germans now say they trust political parties, according to a recent poll.
The key question now, however, is whether the belated uproar can halt the far right’s ascent. The AfD is polling at 21 percent nationally, down slightly since the protests began, but the party remains in second place behind the center-right alliance that includes the Christian Democratic Union.
In the regions of the former East Germany, where many of the AfD’s most extreme politicians are based and where three state elections will be held in September, the party continues to lead in the polls. Its core supporters, particularly in its eastern strongholds, are unlikely to defect despite the invocations of Germany’s appalling Nazi past.
Even Scholz, in an interview last week with German weekly Die Zeit, said he doesn’t believe the AfD’s support will melt away. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he said.
The AfD’s continued high support suggests a deep divide that is making governing the country increasingly challenging. The political fragmentation is being compounded by the arrival of upstart populist parties, such as the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, launched earlier this month by Wagenknecht, a former leftist icon, combining traditional left-wing stances with restrictive migration and asylum policies — and advocating closer ties to Moscow.
The party plans to compete in the June election to the European Parliament and in state elections in Germany’s east. Polls suggest it could be a formidable new political force in the country, further scrambling its political landscape.
On a cold January day, thousands of farmers drove their tractors into Berlin and parked the vehicles along roads leading to the city center’s iconic monuments — the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column.
The farmers were ostensibly in town to protest a government plan to phase out tax breaks on diesel fuel for the agricultural sector — a cost-saving measure by the coalition in response the budget crisis — but the protests then morphed into a much broader movement of outrage.
One tractor parked near the Victory Column had a portable toilet strapped to its rear, with a placard stating: “Foreign policy is shit. Asylum policy is shit. Environmental policy is shit. Health policy is shit.”
Truckers also joined that day’s protest to demonstrate against toll hikes and carbon taxes. One flatbed truck among the tractors was decorated with a German flag that read: “Germany must come first.”