Europe’s most prosperous country goes to the polls today and are expected to give Chancellor Angela Merkel her fourth term. Merkel was first elected in 2005 and has been leader of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, since 2000. Her popularity and longevity is a rarity in modern Western politics. She has had four British counterparts as Prime Minister and three American counterparts as President.
Merkel’s political success has been tied to a strong German economy that held up better during the financial crisis than most other developed countries, particularly among the working class of Germany – as the industrial heart of the country has not been hallowed out in the same way it has in the United States and the United Kingdom. When she was first elected, German unemployment was hovering near post-war highs at about 11%. It stands today at less than 4%.
Yet, among the seeds of this strong economic performance was a decision in 2003 by then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to slash unemployment benefits, pension benefits, and reform the German labor market. The economy initially weakened as it absorbed these changes and Schroeder lost the next election to Merkel. The long-term impact of the reforms, however, was to lower unit labor costs in Germany, making Germany industry far more competitive with other European countries.
While continuing the economic policies begun in 2003 by Schroeder, Merkel has revamped German foreign policy, making it a more active participant in international affairs and the undisputed leader of the European Union. She has also improved relations with the United States, working particularly closely with Barack Obama, who said that Merkel was his closest international partner.
Merkel has focused her campaigned on these factors – Germany’s seeming renaissance in world standing and economic prosperity, as well as a stability through crises most country’s have envied. It worked. The most recent polls show Merkel’s CDU as having a double-digit lead over their nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party or SPD.
The only question remaining to be answered is how strong the far right party Alternative for Germany will emerge. In the last Bundestag elections, Germany’s Parliament, in 2013 the part won slightly less than 5% of the national vote and earned no seats. This time around, polls show that the party is likely to garner about 13% of the vote, placing them third behind the CDU and the SPD as well as qualifying the party for seats in the Bundestag.
The source of the AfD’s popularity has been displeasure over Merkel’s immigration and refugee policies, one of the few deeply unpopular acts of Merkel’s tenure. Afd was originally founded as an anti-Euro party in 2005, sharing similar roots to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the UKIP party in the UK. The AfD has made immigration and the growing percentage of Muslims in Germany the central focus of their campaign, calling for a ban on headscarves and using the slogan, “Islam is not a part of Germany.”
That the AfD has not made greater inroads have been due to a few factors. One, Merkel has a genuinely strong economic hand to play. Second, immigration numbers have fallen drastically since 2015 when Merkel gambled that welcoming a large number of refugees would both ease the Syrian crisis as well as provide a demographic boost to Germany. The 890,000 asylum seekers of 2015 fell to 280,000 last year and to only about 80,000 this year.
Most importantly, as the country has learned how to better receive and integrate asylum seekers, the picture continues to improve for refugees that have settled in Germany. Children are integrating particularly well and all granted asylum are required to take 600 hours of German lessons and 100 hours of civics. The percentage of those granted asylum who are working has also improved markedly and while not every story is a success story, Germany appears as if will successfully absorb the migrants it has taken in.
The 21st century German renaissance has been the most powerful story in Europe in recent years. It looks like voters will decide to not end it yet and if Merkel continues to deftly maintain political and economic stability, the AfD may yet fade after having a big election.