- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Picture this. You’re a left-leaning German in Berlin — or Bremen, or Hamburg, or perhaps even Tübingen. Maybe you normally vote Green Party; perhaps the Social Democratic Party. One day, you stop into your local REWE, Lidl, or Edeka, bundled in your Jack Wolfskin coat and inexplicable urban hiking boots. While recycling your plastic bottles for a discount on your groceries, you see a friend who is also leaning left, who asks you who you’re supporting in the elections.
You look around, making sure none of your Green Party pals can see you.
“Merkel,” you say in a hushed tone.
She looks around, then blushes. “Me, too.”
You and your hypothetical German friend are not alone. You’re two of many Germans who are secretly — or not so secretly — hoping that Angela Merkel survives 2017 as German chancellor.
According to Der Tagesspiegel on Thursday, 20 percent of Germans are considering voting for the center-right CDU/CSU for the first time in this year’s elections. Why? For 19.1 percent of Green Party and 11 percent of SDP voters considering the switch, the reason is the woman known as Mutti.
With a center-left SDP that many think has no chance of winning even by forming a coalition, a rising far-right, a populist far-left, and identity as the central issue for German politics and people, for many, Merkel is not one more choice. She’s the only choice.
Left-leaning Germans aren’t running down the street proclaiming their allegiance to a woman whose party they’ve long opposed. Raphael Peter, a young German in Marburg, says that even though he considers Merkel “the one chance we have,” he still won’t vote for her, though he understands why other left-leaning voters would. “Many are disappointed with the Social Democrats, the Green Party is caught up in discussions on how to react, the Liberal Party is trying to reinvent themselves, and the Left Party is torn apart to some extent,” he explained to Foreign Policy. But he still isn’t sure how he, as a left-leaning German, should vote.
And Milena Brechenmacher, who lives in Berlin, says that people “do not necessarily want their friends to know that they are considering voting for Merkel simply because she is a good politician and the only one with a real chance of winning the elections.” It’s in informal conversations, political observers say, left-of-center voters let slip that they might or would or could or will support Merkel.
And, as Der Tagesspiegel makes clear, many would. In part, this is because they can root for Merkel — and even for her party, the CDU — and still be true to their leftist roots. As Cornelius Adebahr of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted, the kind of coalition politics so common in Germany’s parliamentary system makes it easy for some voters to justify supporting Merkel on certain issues, even while staying true to their parties. “Their – not so secret – hope is that their party would form a government with the CDU after the elections,” he said.
Indeed, the chance for a coalition — and the structure of the German political system — is one reason that Merkel has gained support from the center left. Some voters see her as having moved the party more to the middle. And while that means she’s facing the threat of defection from the Christian Social Union — Bavaria’s variant of the CDU, more conservative and arguably nativist than the CDU — it also means she’s made the CDU a more palatable option for those who couldn’t imagine voting for it 10 years ago.
Her stance on accepting refugees — against plenty of domestic opposition from the right — has helped attract some votes from the left. “Left-leaning people welcomed Merkel’s attitude towards the refugees in late 2015,” Brechenmacher explained. “They were also surprised of finding themselves on the same side as Merkel on this issue.” Arun Frey, a graduate student, said, “I definitely think her progressive attitude towards immigration is drawing a fair bit of votes from the center left.”
The irony is that on refugees, Merkel toughened her welcoming stance fairly quickly. That means that people on both ends of the political spectrum are reacting to something — her supposed openness to refugees — “that’s not really reality,” said New America fellow Yascha Mounk.
None of which is to say that all the voters on the left are looking to Merkel for salvation: There are left-leaning voters outside of the Green Party and SPD who will not vote for Merkel, secretly or openly or in any other way. Far-left parties like DIE LINKE veer toward the populist, illiberal part of the spectrum and compete with the far-right AfD for votes.
For people like Brechenmacher and Frey, that’s fueled fears that left and far-left parties could band together and defeat Merkel. All the more reason, they say, to be pulling — whether quietly or quite proudly — for Mutti to prevail.
Photo credit: Jochen Zick – Pool/Getty Images