The elections in Germany this Sunday (22 September) appear to be dominated by a sense of indifference and a wish for continuity and stability.
According to the polling institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, 62% of the citizens are uninterested in the campaigns of the political contenders, the Christian Democrat chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her Social Democrat rival, Peer Steinbrück. Voter turnout is expected to decline compared to the last elections.
The reasons are not frustration or protest, with only 11% of Germans professing to be disappointed with the political system. It appears that voters are becoming increasingly indifferent to politics, according to a study by the Allensbach Institute and Bertelsmann Stiftung.
They want stability. According to the polling institute Infratest dimap, 52% of the Germans are satisfied with Merkel and as many as 60% would like to see the chancellor re-elected for a third term.
"The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) does not offer convincing alternatives to the policy of the Christian Democrats Union (CDU)", Gero Neugebauer, political scientist from the Free University of Berlin, told EurActiv Germany. He says the CDU promises economic security and a sovereign management of the euro crisis. The German people are afraid that their economic situation will become worse if the Social Democrats, with their idea of introducing Eurobonds, will come to power, he argues.
‘An excuse for status quo‘
“The German elections are an excuse for the status quo. On many issues, since many months, we say – we’ll talk it over after the German elections,” a government source told EurActiv France.
Many issues - from EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy, to the need of new assistance to eurozone countries in financial trouble, reform the EU institutions through a treaty change - have been put on the backburner in recent months. The obvious reason is that Merkel would not like the election campaign to be contaminated with EU debates which are out of her hand.
Perhaps not wishing to upset the German bandwagon, Commission President José Manuel Barroso made no mention of the word “federalism” in his recent State of the Union speech, in sharp contrast with his speech his passionate plea one year ago for "federation of nation states".
The 'authorised' message leading up to the German elections appears to be that the worst of the eurozone crisis is now over, thanks to the efforts of top EU politicians, but that fiscal and monetary discipline should continue.
Paradoxically, Germany’s EU partners have been more strict in applying the rule than Merkel’s closes aide. It was Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s finance minister, who said in August that Greece may need a third bailout, while the Commission’s services bought time, saying that they would give their verdict later.
Having no choice, Europeans just keep waiting for the elections, without having big expectations as to their possible consequences.
For the French, there is little to distinguish between Merkel and Steinbrück. Consequently, the German elections may be failing to thrill the French audience. In addition, the legacy of Chancellor Merkel, fostering austerity in Europe’s south and her decision to abandon nuclear energy in 2020, is little understood by the French.
French interested in Die Linke
One issue, however, appears to interest the French: the possible surge of extremist parties.
Several French newspapers have highlighted the growing influence of Die Linke (The Left), comparing them to the Front de gauche (Left Front) of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left party hybrid that opposes globalisation or Europe, which nevertheless contributed to the election of François Hollande in 2012.
But pundits warn that Germany is not France. "Extremists have never obtained significant results and it would be a French fantasy to expect so this time,” said Isabelle Bougeois, chief editor of Regards sur l’Allemagne , a publication by Cirac, a French research centre on Germany.
Few believe for a new winner, but even less believe in an eventual change which could influence the Franco-German relationship.
One of the leading French Socialist MEPs told EurActiv France that her party would have liked to see the SPD score better results in the polls, but conceded the challenge was offsetting the popularity of Merkel.
“The economic and social situation explains the gap between Steinbrück and Merkel. SPD is mainly a party of workers and abstention affects them more than other voters. But even if mobilization increases, a win for Steinbrück seems difficult," said French Socialist MEP Catherine Trautmann.
Poland wary of ‘Grand coalition’
Abstention could play a role, but what could affect the election outcome would be the poor score of Merkel’s current allies, the Liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
If the FDP does not get enough of a share of the votes to enter the Bundestag, the German parliament, a ‘Grand coalition’ between the CDU, CSU and SPD could be crafted. Poles, however, are wary of grand coalitions, Polish political experts told EurActiv.
Poland will hold parliamentary elections in 2015 and many Poles would not like to see such a coalition installed in Warsaw, as the Polish Social democrats are suspected to be too friendly towards Russia.
The German elections are not a big topic in the national media, EurActiv Poland reports, as they rely on translated commentary and analysis.
As Sebastian Płóciennik from Wrocław Univeristy told EurActiv Poland, Polish politicians appreciate the stability coming from the long working relationship with Chancellor Merkel who outlasted two different Polish governments, the one of current Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the one of now opposition leader Aleksander Kaczyński.
Spain wonders: Is Steinbrück softer on austerity?
Spain, a country severely hit by the eurozone crisis, is trying to anticipate the impact of a third Merkel term on economic policy, EurActiv Spain reports.
As Berlin is the main driver of austerity in Europe, Madrid has been wondering whether the 22 September vote will lead to further budgetary cuts imposed by Angela Merkel via the EU institutions.
Spanish media are wondering if Steinbrück would be softer on fiscal and monetary policy, but appeared to conclude that the differences were small between the SPD candidate and Merkel and that the chance of him winning appears slim.
Slovak Social Democrats prefer Merkel?
Little is said in Slovakia about the possible political implications of the German elections, EurActiv Slovakia reports.
Tomáš Strážay, senior research analyst at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), says that there are many reasons that Slovakia should follow the German election more closely.
While sharing the view of the need for economic stimulus allowing for more robust economic growth, pushed by François Hollande, Slovakia does not distance itself from the budget rules and overall fiscal consolidation promoted by Merkel’s government. In general, Slovakia shares common interests with Germany, whether in European or foreign policy, with a notable exception in the use of nuclear energy.
A preference for Merkel can be decrypted from his analysis, despite the fact that Slovakia is led by a Social Democrat prime minister, Robert Fico.
“The popularity of Steinbrück is considerably lower, which translates to the SPD being unable to generate a personality that could overshadow Merkel. The coalition with the dominant position of CDU was able to coach Germany out of the crisis relatively successfully,” the analyst also said.
Czechs busy with their own election
Czech analyst Vladimír Handl from Institute of International Relations (IIR) in Prague said that the SPD did not solve the question of leadership. In his words, Steinbrück is competent but it is “not a typical leader of the SPD as a party of the workers”. Moreover, Merkel moved CDU further to the left and took policies from other parties once they seemed attractive. “Therefore there is not much space for SPD,” concluded Handl.
In the Czech Republic, the interest for the German elections appears exceptionally low, in spite of its strong connections with its western neighbour.
Petr Šafařík, from Institute of International Studies at Charles University in Prague, said that there was little Czech media coverage of the German elections and that was rarely more than anecdotal statements or opinion poll reports.
The Czechs are also preparing for Parliamentary elections which will be held on 25-26 October. But there are few other comparisons.
Unlike the Germans, Czechs will have early elections, following a protracted political crisis.
Furthermore, issues like the eurozone crisis divide the political sphere, Handl said. “The most likely outcome will be a right wing victory in Germany and a left wing victory in Czech Republic with the possible participatorgion of Communists in government,” Handl said.
Bulgarian, Romanian opposition banks on Merkel ties
In Bulgaria internal issues are also eclipsing the German elections, writes Dnevnik, EurActiv’s partner media organisation in Bulgaria. The minority government of Plamen Oresharski, supported by the Socialists, faces street protests requesting his resignation.
Of the two main political players in Bulgaria, the Socialist Party (BSP) of Sergei Stanishev, who is also leader of the Party of European Socialists, supports the SPD and Steinbrück. The other force, the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, staunchly supports Merkel. Few believe that Steinbrück could have the upper hand, but a “grand coalition” between CDU and SPD could be seen as archetype for a similar union between BSP and GERB.
In Romania, Merkel also has friends in the opposition. Last year, when a serious political crisis had questioned democratic developments and divided the population, Merkel was among the special guests of the Romanian Congress of the center-right parties, members of the European People's Party (the Romanian Democrat-Liberal party (PDL) of President Traian Băsescu and the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania).
Analyst Emil Stoica told EurActiv Romania that for the south-central European country the EU represents stability, and Merkel embodies this stability.
Diplomats told EurActiv that once the German elections were over, several important dossiers, such as the Ukraine bid to sign a landmark association agreement, would finally be unfrozen.