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Fourth Time Lucky?
How will the election results in Germany impact the Sino-German relationship?
By Li Chao | NO. 36 SEPTEMBER 7, 2017
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends an election rally in Munster on August 22 (XINHUA)

This is a crucial year for the EU with two founding nations, France and the Netherlands, having held elections and a third, Germany, scheduled to follow suit this month. The Dutch and French elections were nail-biting with public support for populist far-right parties rising in the two countries. Since there would have been great uncertainty for the EU had France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen or the Netherlands' Freedom Party chief Geert Wilders won, the two elections were viewed as vital events that could derail the EU.

Now federal elections will be held in Germany on September 24 to elect members of the Bundestag, the German parliament, and a new chancellor to form a new government. As Germany is a European economic powerhouse as well as its leader in foreign policy, the national election is also the subject of attention.

However, the calm in Germany's politics and public opinions marks a sharp contrast to the situation in France and the Netherlands. There is no overwhelming coverage of this election and people have been rarely discussing it. Even the candidates themselves have not had confrontations during campaign programs. Why is the most important election in the EU so calm?

A different scenario 

The support rate of the far-right parties in France and the Netherlands was not far behind that of the most promising and pro-EU mainstream parties, leading to a high uncertainty about the election results, which explains people's concern over these two elections and the intense attention.

But the situation in Germany is different. The latest opinion poll showed Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal popularity rate reaching 60 percent, a rare high rating in European countries as well as the United States. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union received a 40-percent approval rating followed by the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Martin Schulz (25 percent).

As a powerful female leader, Merkel is noted for her uncompromising politics and leadership style, as well as her pledges to safeguard the interests of Germany and the EU. To deal with the European debt crisis, Merkel pushed the southern European countries to reform their social and economic structure and refused to give in to relief policies. She also took a tough position on Brexit, saying the EU won't tolerate Britain "cherry-picking" while negotiating its future relations with the EU.

As a cautious person who does not take decisions quickly, Merkel is, however, unwavering when it comes to implementing policies that have been formulated, despite controversies. The decision to close nuclear power plants by 2020 is an example; others are rejecting euro-zone debt mutualization and refusing to cap the number of refugees Germany would take in. Merkel's tenacity and calmness have kept Germany stable, and it could meet the expectations of Germans in the changing global situation, an uncertain EU and frequent geopolitical conflicts.

Merkel's performance in the last 12 year has also scored points for her in her election campaign. She bridged the gap in the policies of the traditional right and left parties. By continuing to implement Agenda 2010, which was initiated by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to reform the social welfare system and economic structure, Germany has weathered both the financial crisis and European debt crisis, standing out as the economic engine of Europe. In sharp contrast to the economic downturn in many Western countries, Germany has been enjoying continued economic growth, record foreign trade surplus, years of fiscal surplus and almost 100 percent employment.

Second, to change the image of Germany being a "political dwarf," Merkel has pushed forward the normalization of German's diplomacy and security policies and made breakthroughs in crisis meditation and troop dispatches overseas. Germany has also responded with unprecedented vigor to regional issues, such as the Ukraine crisis, Middle East conflicts as well as free trade and global warming, which has greatly improved its international status.

Merkel's main rival Schulz is a newcomer to German politics. As the strong-willed former president of the European Parliament, he pushed forward reforms to strengthen its functions and powers and they were widely recognized. But where German politics is concerned, he is inexperienced and less charismatic compared to Merkel. Moreover, the lack of convincing policies in his campaign program has also contributed to his limited support rate. Indeed, SDP supporters have declined in number as many of their political ideas for workers' benefit have been absorbed by Merkel's administration.

To gain more support from the working class, Schulz is focusing on the ills of inequality in Germany with promises to expand the social welfare system. However, it is against the global trend of welfare reform and many Germans disagree with him. Therefore, the one-time apparent neck-and-neck status of Schultz and Merkel was just a flash in the pan. Presently, the SDP is lagging behind Merkel and the situation is hard to reverse.

Withstanding change 

If there is a change in administration, it will undoubtedly exert great influence on the future of the EU. What about the effects on Sino-German relations?

A basic assessment is that the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Germany will not waver, no matter who is elected, though Merkel's reelection could better maintain the stability of Sino-German ties, considering her 10 visits to China, as well as her understanding of China and good personal relations with Chinese leaders.

The cooperation between China and Germany has been bearing more fruit since their ties were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic relationship in 2014. In trade and economy, China is the biggest trade partner of Germany. Exports to China were over 170 billion euros ($203 billion) in 2016, accounting for 14 percent of Germany's total export volumes. As an export-oriented economy, the huge Chinese market is vital to Germany.

China can also provide support to Germany in the global governance spectrum. Germany can better shoulder its global responsibility, meditate in crises and combat terrorism by cooperating with emerging economies like China. Also, the torch of Western leadership is considered to have been passed to Germany in the wake of Trump's "America first" strategy. This requires Germany to make progress in dealing with climate change, Middle East conflicts and safeguarding globalization. China is actively engaged in global affairs and can offer support. For example, the third-party market cooperation in Afghanistan and African countries initiated by China and Germany is an effort to resolve conflicts at the root.

But although Merkel holds a pragmatic and friendly policy toward China, some problems still exist, restricting the full development of bilateral ties. There is spreading skepticism about the China proposed Belt and Road Initiative in Germany because of lack of trust. Germans have misunderstood this economic and infrastructure-building initiative as a tool for geopolitical competition which would harm German interests.

Secondly, as China's competitiveness increases, trade protectionism is rising in Germany to maintain its advantages. There are anti-dumping charges against Chinese products, strict limits on Chinese investment, and restriction of hi-tech innovation and cooperation.

Thirdly, Germany holds a bias against China on human rights issues, which could become a key obstacle to promoting bilateral ties. In the complex international context, the strategic partnership between China and Germany is likely to be strengthened if Merkel is in office for a fourth term.

In the complex international context, the strategic partnership between China and Germany is likely to be strengthened if Merkel is in office for a fourth term.

The author is a researcher with China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar  

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