Clouds over Merkel’s pre-election holiday

There are many plenty of potential pitfalls in the seven weeks before the election

German chancellor Angela Merkel shows few signs of political wear and tear after 12 years in office. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

German chancellor Angela Merkel shows few signs of political wear and tear after 12 years in office. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

 

Like all passionate hill-walkers, Angela Merkel knows how quickly the mountain weather can turn. This year, as always, she is in South Tyrol’s spectacular Dolomites. But, armed with her cap, walking sticks and husband, she knows not to be lulled into a false sense of security by a sunny day.

That may explain her grim expression in Monday’s Bild tabloid despite a political weather forecast before the September 24th election suggesting an appropriate choice for her campaign song would be Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies.

Showing few signs of political wear and tear after 12 years in office, Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democratic Union stand at or near 40 per cent in opinion polls, within spitting distance of the 41.5 per cent they secured in the 2013 election.

The springtime of Martin Schulz, her challenger, seems a long time ago now. After a brief surge, his Social Democrats (SPD) are struggling to switch back from junior grand coalition partner to political rival and close a 15-point gap with the CDU.

As the SPD launches its campaign on Tuesday, the question is less whether Merkel will win a fourth term in September, but with whom.

Of course, seven weeks leaves plenty of time for surprises. The most unsurprising surprise, politicians concede, will be attempts to influence the result using computer hacks of political parties or candidates, similar to those in the US and French presidential elections – if they haven’t happened already.

Other unpredictables: growing provocations from Turkey, the security threat posed by North Korea and rising tensions over US sanctions against Moscow, which Berlin fears will affect its companies involved in building a second undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Hardened refugee stance

At home the smouldering refugee crisis could yet flare up again in the dry news brush of August. Numbers of people arriving in Italy so far this year by sea have swollen to almost 100,000. Rome’s demands for assistance are falling on deaf ears and new arrivals are only being held back from central Europe by closed borders that could yet give way.

A wary Merkel has quietly hardened her refugee line and dropped her “we’ll manage this” rhetoric of 2015, even though Germany has – by any fair-minded measure – managed remarkably well with the humanitarian and logistical challenge.

The new challenge is integration, and that could be blown off course by further Islamist attacks, such as those in Bavaria a year ago or at a Berlin Christmas market in December.

German chancellor Angela Merkel on holiday in northern Italy on Monday with her husband, Joachim Sauer
German chancellor Angela Merkel on holiday in northern Italy on Monday with her husband, Joachim Sauer

On foot of those attacks, new laws came into effect last week allowing expedited deportations of failed and criminal asylum seekers, or those viewed as potential threats. But that was too late to stop a 26-year-old Palestinian asylum-seeker stabbing to death a Hamburg supermarket customer on Friday and injuring seven others with a kitchen knife he picked up in the store.

The supermarket stabbing throws up more questions than answers: the perpetrator came to Germany from Scandinavia, was living in a regular asylum facility despite having psychological problems and, though he described himself in asylum interviews as an extremist, was not deported because he had no papers.

Pass the parcel

After a narrow political escape from the first refugee crisis, Merkel knows that election rallies are no place to explain the complexities of security and asylum policy. And there has been no overhaul of German competence structures that have made police, prosecutors and politicians at state and federal levels experts at passing the parcel of responsibility. But an election season terrorist attack deposits the parcel at the top: in the chancellery.

A final upset to the looming election could yet come from Germany’s crisis-hit car industry, although Wednesday’s meeting in Berlin of auto executives and politicians will be missing their most effective political lobbyist for the past 12 years: Angela Merkel.

She has done sterling, pro bono work for VW, BMW and Daimler, something that could come back to haunt her if it emerges – by leaks or computer hacks – that political collusion assisted car companies in putting profit before public health risks.

With seven weeks to go Merkel may refuse to let a federal election get in the way of her holidays. But the veteran German leader knows that the chancellor is never really off-duty.

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