From extensive coverage of elections in the United States and India…
…To observing, understanding and writing on the referendum in Germany things have come to a full circle for yours truly
With Angela Merkel stepping down after 16 years it is not just about replacing a chancellor but also matching up to the legacy, and this is something that makes these elections different from the ones I have written on so far
For someone who has extensively covered elections in both the world’s largest democracy (India) and to one of the world’s oldest democracies (United States), the elections in Germany not only offers a chance to follow in detail the electoral process in a third different country but also analyze it from a different perspective.
Unlike in the 2012 US Presidential Elections and the 2014 Indian General Elections — both of which remain among the highlights in my resume, I am not attached to any mainstream media organization and do not have to get involved in day-to-day reporting or coverage.
However, being a political scientist has its own advantages. The innate desire and focus to observe and interact helps in deep understanding of the situation and thereafter offering a clear perspective. There is also scope for more objectivity.
Talking to people and getting their side of the story is always the best means to assess the political climate while interacting with grassroots workers working for various political parties helps get a sneak peek into their efforts and expectations. I happened to utilize this outsider’s perspective and analyzed the 2018 Indian elections, to some encouraging feedback. Now, after observing the state of affairs and getting to interact with the locals I am ready to offer my two cents about the electoral procedure in a third different country, and this happens to be Germany — the largest democracy in Europe. But before that let me explain how this election is different from the ones I have written on previously.
While the 2012 US Elections was all about continuity — Barack Obama surviving the challenge from his Republican rival Mitt Romney to secure his second and final term at the Oval Office, the 2014 elections in India was a seminal event. It marked the culmination of an anti-incumbency factor and a systemic shift from status quo. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won an absolute majority. For the first time in 30 years the Indian electorate was assured of a stable government, devoid of the petty coalition politics and repeated arm-twisting tactics by parochial partners in the preceding years.
Overall Obama’s eight years was somewhat of a disappointment, something illustrated by the fact that the American voters, left frustrated by the many unkempt promises, opted for a Donald Trump instead of a Hillary Clinton. That the Trump administration was subject to criticisms and ridicule in its four-year tenure was something on expected lines.
However, in the 2019 Indian General Elections the BJP built on its 2014 success, in fact bettered it. Narendra Modi created history by becoming the first non-Congress prime minister to be re-elected after completing a five-year term in office, even as the Grand Old Party - as the Indian National Congress is known — fell short of the number of seats (55) required to become the official opposition party in the lower house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha).
Germany presents a different scenario altogether. It is not only about the shift of power. It is definitely not much about any of the candidates in the fray. It is about replacing the most powerful woman in world politics. It is about taking reigns from Europe’s most powerful leader. It is about the legacy. It is about Angela Merkel.
After being in power for 16 years Merkel is stepping down. While the 67-year-old had made it clear a long time back that she won’t be in contention for a fifth term, the challenge for the other candidates is to live up to the legacy of Merkel. Even in the home stretch of her tenure Germany’s first woman Chancellor continues to have high approval ratings, and will without doubt leave as the country’s most popular politician.
Even as eminent columnists and political experts are busy analyzing, eulogizing or criticizing Merkel’s tenure, and her successes and failures, they seem to agree on one thing: whosoever succeeds her will have a tough job at hand.
Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state, is the candidate of the ruling Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) coalition. Despite Merkel backing him as her successor Laschet’s stock has fallen drastically over the last year. In fact when Merkel and CDU opted for party leader Laschet over his rival, Bavaria state premier Markus Söder, as the nominee for chancellor not all were happy with the choice.
“Merkel doesn’t know what she is doing,” said Andreas Becker, a long-term supporter of the ruling coalition. There are many who echoed his sentiments.
The second contender Annalena Baerbock (of The Greens) is only 40 years in age, and is deemed too inexperienced. In any case she was never really considered a frontrunner for the post, but more of an influence as a coalition partner. On the other hand the support for Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) grew steadily in the run up to the elections. The fact that he is the most experienced of the candidates is something that worked in favor of the country’s Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister. Someone who many believed lacked the emotional connect with the voters is basking in new-found popularity just ahead of the elections.
That said, many opine that none of the three candidates have the charisma needed to succeed Merkel. While Germans don’t vote directly to elect their Chancellor, instead casting their ballot to choose their Members of the Parliament (Bundestag), there are issues which influence their decisions. There’re wide-ranging issues in Election 2021 like climate change, coronavirus and vaccine roll out— with only about 63 % of the country fully vaccinated, economy and migration, especially in aftermath of the developments in Afghanistan. No wonder even a week before the elections a sizeable chunk of the electorate are not certain as regards their choice.
While Merkel’s overall popularity helped mask these issues to a large extent, her successor may not be as fortunate. Besides, he/she will have the onus of matching up to the status enjoyed by the outgoing Chancellor as the undisputed leader in Europe. That, by no means is an easy task.