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After Merkel: Upholding Democracy in Germany

Three Questions to Stephan Steinlein

INTERVIEW - 2 September 2021

Angela Merkel's departure in September 2021 marks a political, economic, and geopolitical turning point. What legacy will Merkel leave to her successor? How is Germany preparing for time after Merkel? In this series, Head of our Germany Program Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano and Senior Reporter Marion Van Renterghem have interviewed a number of leading economic and political actors in Germany, in order to gain insight into debates before the federal elections. In April, they spoke with Stephan Steinlein, Chief of Staff of the Federal President of Germany, about the political landscape in Germany and its underlying history. 

For nearly 16 years, Angela Merkel's Germany represented a haven of stability and moderation in a world of constant change. How would you define Angela Merkel's political legacy? 

Angela Merkel leaves behind a country that is no longer in search of itself and open to a world that has become increasingly unpredictable. A country that functions well but which will have to redefine itself to face new changes in the world and in Europe. Germany is facing several questions today: the future of its relationship with China and the United States or the possibility of maintaining a united Europe. The refugee crisis showed how important Africa and the Arab world are to Germany. It is therefore necessary to define a new relationship with these areas. 

On the European level, the term sovereignty remains a problematic concept: the idea of autonomy is unfamiliar to Germany. In its recent history (after the Second World War), Germany has never been autonomous: it is instead part of a system of alliances. In a world marked by interdependence, it prefers the term "capacity to act" (Handlungsfähigkeit). Even though there is a real desire to advance a sovereign Europe with other European actors, sovereignty remains a difficult notion in Germany. 

Most Germans, and even her political party (the CDU), have not yet realized that Merkel is leaving. However, Merkel's approach to politics is no longer unanimous. A part of the German electorate has developed a desire for strong, more charismatic, and more authoritarian personalities - comparable to Donald Trump. This aspiration is particularly keen among the electorate of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Its supporters are very present in the Eastern regions, which are poorer than the rest of Germany. Though they also exist in relatively rich and industrialized regions, such as Baden Württemberg, where people feel threatened by the possibility of social decline. 

The AfD emerged during Merkel’s time in power as a stable political force to the right of the Christian-democratic CDU. How do you evaluate the fractures that the emergence of the AfD has caused? 

Compared to France, there is no gap between the center and the periphery in Germany. Even though some regions in Germany might feel marginalized, there is no strong opposition such as the one that exists between Paris and the rest of France. There is no misery in the East of Germany. Those who vote for the AfD are generally not the poorest, but those who are afraid of "another loss", after the ups and downs of the German reunification. Demographic change also plays an important role. In many areas in the East, women and young people have left to the West or to big cities. Those who remain behind are often poorly educated "white men". 

There is also an area along Germany's Eastern border where the AfD is particularly strong. The fear of social decline or insecurity is the main driver for voters of the AfD, especially in the East. The reunification was a painful process that lasted for almost thirty years and initially resulted in very high unemployment rates. Today, the gap is closing, and the "victims" of the reunification are gradually retiring.

The fear of social decline or insecurity is the main driver for voters of the AfD, especially in the East. 

However, the core problem is demographic rather than social. People remain nostalgic about a period where inequalities were lower than they are today. Initially, the left-wing party Die Linke took advantage of these emotions, but today perceptions have changed. Die Linke is no longer perceived as a radical opposition party, but more as part of the "system". Its electorate consists mainly of retired people, nostalgic about the East, and leftist students. Discontented people vote for the AfD. 

However, it would be wrong to consider the East a monolith. In Saxony, you can see the difference between Leipzig, a rather left-wing student city, and Dresden, a rather right-wing bourgeois city. It is important to know the history of the Länder, and even of the cities and regions, to understand their current political situation. The mentality in Dresden is very different from the one in Berlin and Brandenburg, regions where people could receive signal from West German television, for instance. To understand Germany today, one has to understand the differences between its regions. 

The introduction of health measures in Germany led to violent protests. Are we now witnessing the emergence of new forms of radicalism in Germany? 

Extreme left-wing violence has existed for a long time in Germany, especially in large cities like Berlin. The new phenomenon is far-right violence. For instance, groups linked to the Reichsbürger deny the existence of the Federal Republic and consider the German Reich, which disappeared in 1918, to be the only valid legal and political framework. These movements receive upwind from new conspiracy movements on the internet. Anti-vax protests have become a melting pot for these different movements. 

The first groups that demonstrated against health measures came from Baden Württemberg (BW), especially from Stuttgart. Yet, you have to understand that it is actually more about an opposition between Berlin and the central government. This is an old struggle against Prussia that is being replayed today. We should not forget that the North/South division in Germany is very strong. For instance, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung explains that the opposition in BW is so strong because Berlin is imposing itself as the center of the country. Another factor is that the population feels somewhat left behind, despite the economic importance of this region. For example, in BW, there are no longer any local newspapers with a regional scope. 

Germany makes no exception in a world that increasingly questions the role of democracy: 20 to 25% of the German population is tempted by authoritarian leaders.

Germany makes no exception in a world that increasingly questions the role of democracy: 20 to 25% of the German population is tempted by authoritarian leaders. This is why President Steinmeier made the renewal of democracy his absolute priority. You should never take democracy for granted. Who better than Germany, with its troubled past, would know this? 

 

Copyright: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

 

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