By MATTHIAS KOLB
Saturday, October 13, 2018
Editor for Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, and an Arthur F. Burns fellow
In a society as obsessed with soccer as Germany, the performance of its national team is often seen as a barometer for the state of the whole country. In 2006, one year after she narrowly won her first federal election, chancellor Angela Merkel enjoyed four spectacular weeks as "fan-in-chief," during which time Germany hosted the World Cup and almost made it to the final - a successful showing that lifted the nation's spirit and coincided with an economic boom.
In June, the Nationalmannschaft arrived at this year's World Cup in Russia as defending champion. The team, however, played poorly and didn't survive the group phase. This unexpected humiliation was a big surprise to Germany's soccer fans (a.k.a. the entire country) and has, in subsequent months, fuelled an emotional, often irrational debate about German identity, its role in the world and the political future of Ms. Merkel. Two years ago, after Donald Trump's election to the White House, she was described as both "the leader of the free world" and "the most powerful woman in the world." Since then, her power has slowly faded away and, very soon, it will be even harder for her to govern Europe's most-important economy.
This Sunday, nine million voters in Bavaria will disrupt German politics. The region has long been controlled by the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU). The party, on the federal level, aligns with Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which doesn't compete in Bavarian elections. This time, polls predict the CSU will lose a significant amount of support - the latest numbers show the party hovering around 33 per cent, down from the 48 per cent share of the popular vote it received in 2013. At the same time, the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) is neck-and-neck with the Green Party. If the polls are accurate, this will be the CSU's worst showing since 1950.
The horrible numbers are surprising considering the state of the region, where unemployment is under 3 per cent. (Bavaria is home not only to Oktoberfest but to BMW, Audi and Siemens.) But many Germans are still angry that, three years ago, Ms. Merkel allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the country. The rise of the AfD is directly connected to the fear of many voters that this influx (of mostly Muslims) from Syria and Iraq will change the fabric of German society and Ms. Merkel, who is not the most skilled public speaker, has not been able to efficiently counter this sentiment. Even more damaging is that one of her biggest critics has been Horst Seehofer, the leader of CSU and who also happens to be Minister of the Interior - which oversees refugee and migration policy - in Ms. Merkel's cabinet.
No politician has contributed more to the growing disgust Germans feel toward the political system than the 69-year-old Mr. Seehofer. With the Bavarian regional elections looming, the CSU leader and his underlings often seemed to parrot the exaggerated slogans of the AfD about refugees being a security risk for the country. In June, he almost caused the split of the government over an irrelevant but symbolic issue: asylum seekers crossing the border from Austria to Bavaria. But the only party to profit from this circus was the AfD, whose leaders and followers talk about refugees nonstop. How did Angela Merkel react? She shrugged off all the personal insults and went back to work.
This first government crisis took place before the World Cup, and millions of Germans no doubt hoped the tournament would provide a much-needed break from this divisive political debate. But the dismal performance of the national team started a heated discussion about what it means to be German. For weeks, the country discussed a picture on Instagram that showed national player Mesut Ozil with Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr. Ozil was born in Germany to Turkish parents and took the picture with the president out of "respect." Former soccer stars, AfD and the country's biggest tabloid, Bild, went crazy - questioning Mr.
Ozil's solidarity with Germany and blaming him for the national team's humiliating defeat.
The reasonable criticism - should a star player be seen palling around with an autocratic politician? - was overshadowed by a nasty rhetoric that laid bare ugly stereotypes. On social media, Germans with foreign parents told stories of everyday racism and the feeling that they were only accepted so long as they behaved properly, i.e. like a "German." As Mr.
Ozil put it in his letter of resignation from the team: "I'm German when we win and an immigrant when we lose."
The emotional Ozil debate had other, unfortunate side effects, such as preventing Germans from discussing more-pressing and important challenges facing the country, as well as making everyone forget just how blessed the country really was. Cheer Up, Deutschland was the headline of a recent article in The Economist that identified a very different threat to Germany: its out-of-size pessimism. Life is also pretty good outside of Bavaria too: The economy is doing well, the quality of life is high (Germany ranks number 5 in the United Nation's latest Human Development Index, while Canada is at 12) and the crime rate is at its lowest levels in 30 years.
At the same time, moans The Economist, many Germans ignore the good news about immigrants: "By April this year 26% of refugees admitted to Germany since 2015 were in employment, more than expected" and "the proportion of non-ethnic German residents is rising fast, with ever more reaching prominent roles in public life. The share of MPs with a migrant background rose from 3% to 9% over the two elections to 2017." This week, Mr. Seehofer had to acknowledge that the number of refugees arriving in Germany will be approximately 160,000 in 2018 - significantly lower than he had predicted to support his strict policies.
Has the time to calm down finally arrived? Not really, because the prevailing mood in Germany these days is anger. Conservative voters are mad at Ms. Merkel for modernizing their party, progressives in the cities are afraid of both the AfD and Mr. Seehofer, and many racialized Germans are scared to travel to eastern German cities such as Chemnitz, where a far-right mob chased migrants through the streets in August.
This made headlines around the world and led to another, bizarre episode: Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence, told a tabloid that the videos showing the incident were fake despite the fact he had no evidence to back up his claim.
He was accused of playing down far-right violence. When calls for his resignation grew louder, the spymaster was instead inexplicably given a promotion (and higher salary) in Mr. Seehofer's ministry. The public outcry was so huge that one week later Mr. Maassen was given a different job and Ms.
Merkel offered a rare apology.
The Maassen episode illuminated another problem for both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer: They have become out-of-touch with the electorate, and the CSU, especially, will pay the price on Sunday. In political circles in Berlin and Munich rumours swirl that Mr. Seehofer will be made the scapegoat for Sunday's (expected) disastrous results and be forced out of politics. Ms. Merkel would rid herself of an annoying antagonist, but leave her coalition government weakened. If that happens, some in the CDU worry their Bavarian sister party might begin acting like a "wounded boar." Such a situation could prove unpredictable, fears one CDU official: "Nobody knows how a boar will react when you shoot it but don't kill it. The hunter knows only that it's a dangerous situation."
Ms. Merkel won't get a break anytime soon: Another regional election (in Hesse) takes place in late October, while in December Ms. Merkel will be challenged for the first time in 18 years in her reelection bid for the CDU leadership.
Although she is still admired around the world for her leadership and feared in Brussels and other European capitals for her negotiating skills, Merkel fatigue is everywhere in Germany. Everyone can see her diminished authority. Many voters long for passion and bold ideas - which are exactly the things that the ultrapragmatist Ms. Merkel avoids. Political predictions are a mug's game, but the rest of the world should slowly get used to the idea of someone else governing Europe's biggest country in the notso-distant future.
Destroyed posters for Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soder of the Christian Social Union are seen in Munich on Oct. 10. The CSU aligns with Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union; the CDU doesn't compete in Bavaria. Polls predict the CSU will lose much support in the region.
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Tuesday, October 16, 2018