BERLIN — Six months ago, it looked like her job might be in jeopardy, but now Chancellor Angela Merkel is cruising to victory in Germany’s Sept. 24 vote and the big question is what Europe’s dominant political leader plans to do with her mandate for a fourth term.
Although the vote is still a few weeks away, the polls — and many German voters — feel that Ms. Merkel already has won the race.
Her conservative Christian Democrats lead Germany’s second-largest party, the left-of-center Social Democrats, by almost 15 points. Analysts said that gap is far too large to bridge in just a few weeks.
But it already looks to be a minefield for the East Germany-born chancellor, who must contend with assertive Russian President Vladimir Putin to the east, the European Union’s internal problems and talks over Brexit, and the Trump administration, which poses an unprecedented challenge to traditional German foreign and economic policy goals.
Still, the campaign shows Ms. Merkel remains a master of the domestic political game.
“Merkel is still able to give people this feeling that she’s the nation’s mother and you don’t have to be afraid of things as long as she’s in charge,” said Olaf Boehnke, a senior adviser in Berlin with Rasmussen Global, a political think tank based in Brussels. He said a Social Democratic win is “absolutely not in the cards.”
The first and only televised debate between Ms. Merkel and Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz, a former head of the EU Parliament who at one time seemed a real threat to the chancellor, likely solidified her prospects.
More than 16 million Germans tuned in Sept. 3 and watched as the chancellor displayed her signature reserve while ably discussing such issues as refugees, domestic security and Berlin’s prickly relations with Turkey.
“We Germans have enjoyed the advantages of globalization,” Ms. Merkel said during the debate, “but we can’t be disconnected from the conflicts we see around us. We have to respond, which doesn’t mean that all people can come here, but we have to do more against the causes of these problems.”
After the 97-minute debate, German public broadcaster ARD found that 55 percent of respondents gave Ms. Merkel the win, as opposed to 35 percent for Mr. Schulz.
Ms. Merkel’s trademark low-key competence appears to be playing well with German voters despite a troubled third term. Her decision to allow large numbers of refugees from the Middle East and other world hot spots into the country in 2015 brought on severe strains.
The latest DeutschlandTrend poll gave Ms. Merkel’s CDU and its conservative sister party, the Christian Socialist Union, 37 percent of the vote, compared with 21 percent for the Social Democrats, setting the stage for yet another Merkel-dominated “grand coalition” government.
“It’s great that Merkel always tries to remain matter of fact and to conceal her emotions on certain matters,” said Hendrik Schwick, 21, a student of computer science at the University of Potsdam near Berlin. “It’s not the worst thing that she’ll be chancellor again.”
Reversal of fortune
Such support is a stark reversal from the political forces that were at play six months ago when the Social Democrats, who last led a German governing coalition more than a decade ago, unanimously elected Mr. Schulz to lead the charge against Ms. Merkel.
Considered a firebrand outsider in domestic politics, Mr. Schulz surged ahead in polls as he appealed to voters who were weary of the chancellor’s political dominance, her unpopular openness to refugees and her perceived disconnect with the needs of everyday Germans.
But Mr. Schulz displayed an arrogant streak as his political fortunes rose, analysts said. His stinging critiques of Ms. Merkel’s policies fell flat, given that his party helped craft the chancellor’s agenda as a junior partner in her parliamentary coalition for much of her 12-year tenure. Crippling losses in a series of decisive state elections undermined his leadership, too, analysts said.
“Schulz said that he wanted to deviate from the administration’s social and economic policies,” said Georg Neugebauer, a professor of political science at Berlin’s Free University. “But he didn’t perform on delivering this to voters. Merkel is known in many ways as someone who can deliver, or at least as someone equipped with a track record of reliability. Nobody knows Schulz.”
The 3-year-old, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is at 11 percent, enough to pass a historic milestone and win seats in the federal Bundestag for the first time, but that result would be well below what some in the party had hoped given the surge of far-right nationalist parties in European elections earlier this year.
Still, it’s not hard to find Germans who don’t look forward to yet another four years under the 63-year-old incumbent. Many think the country needs a shot of energy and fresh thinking about the vaunted German model. While Europe’s largest economy continues to prosper, many are disheartened that the chancellor often avoids debate on the nation’s rising levels of inequality, stagnant wages and the security of its generous pension system as the population ages.
“With Merkel in charge, I think it’ll be quite some time before the country is focused on social policies again,” said retiree Peter Brans, 64. “Our social programs will only continue to suffer as a result of her re-election.”
For 25 percent of Germans, reforming social policies is the most critical issue facing the nation this election cycle, according to a YouGov survey released last month. The survey found that 79 percent of respondents said social inequality wasn’t being properly addressed.
“The question on most Germans’ minds is how the country should look in 10 years in terms of education, social security and health care,” said Mr. Boehnke.
He added that Ms. Merkel has given only lip service to the issue. “Merkel is able to tick a few boxes without giving any kind of concrete answers,” he said.
Disaffection has spread among voters. According to an Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research survey, 46 percent of Germans are undecided how they will cast their vote on Sept. 24.
But turnout won’t alter the vote, analysts said.
“She will be the next chancellor,” said Mr. Boehnke. “She’s just trying to manage the status quo. The times we’re living in are very interesting and challenging, and defending the status quo across so many differing fields is pretty amazing. She could be more ambitious, but her experience now is that people like that she’s not too ambitious.”
Many are now asking how the victory will shape history’s view of the chancellor, who defied considerable odds to become Germany’s most dominant and successful leader since the end of the Cold War. If she wins as expected, she will be on track to matching the 16-year tenure of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw German reunification in 1990 and stronger ties among members of the European Union.
Letting 1 million Syrian and other refugees into the country in 2015 and 2016 will undoubtedly be an important chapter in her legacy, said Mr. Neugebauer, but public attitudes on that decision are still evolving.
Ms. Merkel has taken the blame for some of the disruptions caused by the influx of refugees and has shifted from welcoming them with open arms to managing and sometimes expelling those who have remained.
“Merkel is already in the history books, but the question is: How will she be portrayed?” Mr. Neugebauer said. “As the woman who said that everyone is welcome or as the woman who declared that we have to deport all these people?”
© Copyright (c) 2017 News World Communications, Inc.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.