BERLIN — When the United States headed to the polls in November, German newspapers followed the divisive campaign breathlessly for weeks. Almost a year later, however, the country’s own election is attracting much less interest. On Thursday — four days before the crucial vote — some of the top German national papers did not even mention it in their lead stories.
The German election campaign has certainly lacked the drama and surprises of last year’s U.S. vote. In many ways, it has been the exact opposite, even though the far-right is expected to make significant gains on Sunday.
No investigation is overshadowing the German campaign, and there are no reports of Russian election meddling. After elections that have swept anti-establishment politicians into office elsewhere, Germany will most likely choose the most mainstream Western leader: Angela Merkel.
She’s not even on Twitter.
Many here praise the stability the chancellor’s consensus-based approach is providing, especially after Donald Trump’s victory in the United States and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. However, what may appear to observers abroad like a role model for civilized dialogue over polarization and personal attacks, has left other Germans worried. They fear that too much consensus in the center may drive some toward extreme alternatives. They argue that Merkel’s dominance and reluctance to engage in direct political confrontations with her opponents are killing the lively political debate that defines democracies.
Germany has become a country where one of the key political fears is that there may be too much stability, rather than too little. How did it get there?
Economic prosperity and gains of populists elsewhere have muted calls for change
In theory, there should be no shortage of issues ahead of the German election, such as slow progress in the country’s turn toward renewables, demographic change, and the immense challenge of assimilating over 1 million asylum seekers or refugees who arrived over the past years.
Yet, Germany’s long-running economic prosperity has helped Merkel, and the recent gains of populists elsewhere has elevated the standing of a chancellor perceived as offering the opposite approach to politics.
Blurred ideological lines in Germany vs. deepening party differences in the United States
Merkel has managed to win over new supporters without disgruntling her core base. Over the last decade in office, she has skillfully co-opted rivals’ stances, making it difficult for them to criticize her. She dropped her support for nuclear energy after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, for example. In 2015, her decision to let hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country astonished many on the left, although Merkel may not have had much of a choice.
In an indication of how similar some of the leading German parties have become, younger German voters took to social media over the past weeks to share their scores on a tool called Wahl-O-Mat, which checks how much users agree with the policy proposals of certain German parties. Many aligned as much with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union as with the left-wing Green Party. Although Germany’s multiparty system should theoretically make it easier for voters to choose a party more closely aligned with their own political views than the American system that clearly favors two parties, the opposite may be the case. Ultimately, a lack of clear ideological differences may mostly benefit Merkel, who has 12 years of experience as chancellor, and extreme parties on the sidelines.
Merkel’s consensus-based approach is deeply ingrained in German politics
The willingness to cross ideological lines that were once considered unalterable is not unique to Merkel. It is inherent to Germany’s political system, which essentially forces parties to think about negotiating possible coalitions with others, even before campaigning has even started. Compare that with the United States, where the lack of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill continues to frustrate voters.
Also, consensus-based politics may be more deeply anchored in Germany’s constitution, the Grundgesetz, than in that of some other countries.
For example, the selection of Supreme Court justices in the United States is highly politicized, but in Germany, a committee of 12 representing all parties in parliament privately selects a nominee. The parties take turns proposing candidates, which ensures even smaller parties with as little as 5 percent of popular support can propose a nominee every few years, usually without government resistance. A two-thirds majority of parliament is needed to confirm a nominee, which requires a consensus and usually ends up empowering moderate candidates.
Although that approach may ensure that all political parties have a say, there is one group which is still neglected: younger voters.
Germany’s older society vs. U.S. demographics
The median age was about 38 in the United States last year and 46.8 in Germany. The rapid aging of German society has implications for the country’s politics. Elections are decided by older generations, which is why mainstream parties are frequently blamed for not focusing on the future and issues affecting younger people, such as education.
Younger generations are also underrepresented in the political apparatus. Becoming a member of parliament is much harder for younger politicians in Germany than in the United States — limiting their ability to pressure established parties to evolve.
Whereas Merkel’s approach to politics could be summarized under the slogan “no experiments,” it is a promise that has a long history in her CDU. The party already used it during general elections in 1957, shortly after World War II.