Frau Merkel's Pyrrhic victory

THE EDITORIAL BOARD
ISTANBUL
Published
Frau Merkel's Pyrrhic victory

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with her chief rival Martin Schulz, were the biggest losers of Sunday's federal elections in Germany. Although Merkel won 33 percent of the vote, she fell far short of scoring a victory. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany by contrast, scored a historic win by becoming the third most popular political movement in Europe's largest country. Unless German politicians start taking responsible steps without delay, the rise of neo-Nazis could undermine the country and Europe's political stability.

The election results were not completely unpredictable. Ahead of Sunday's vote, Daily Sabah had warned Merkel and Schulz that "fueling hatred toward Turkey among the German people might seem … like a surefire way to run a successful campaign," but it would ultimately bite them in the back.

Such anti-Turkish rhetoric was a symptom of the intellectual laziness afflicting the top echelons of German politics. Rather than providing a more inclusive vision their country and Europe desperately needs, they preferred to ride through the safe and narrow confines of a status quo.

When the public is aware something brand new is needed to re-energize Germany and the current batch of politicians lack the imagination necessary to steer the country in a positive direction, they tend to shift toward the only new thing on the block. That new thing was the AfD in Germany.

When faced with hate, which the AfD epitomizes, Germany needed true statesmen, but they got Merkel and Schulz. Political appeasement did not work the first time. There is no reason to expect that it will work now.

Although Merkel will likely form Germany's next government, coalition talks will not be a walk in the park. Under the circumstances, it remains unclear how Germany's next government will be able to implement rational and reasonable policies. With a stable coalition far from sight, Merkel must pull a rabbit out of her head to empower mainstream politics over the next couple of years unless she wants to lose the next election.

Germany's mainstream politics, however, is not beyond saving.

Spreading fear of Turks and Turkey not only alienated one of Germany's biggest trade and diplomatic partners but also the biggest and most dynamic minority in the country. The politics of fear practiced by Germany's mainstream political parties scared voters into supporting a radical movement like the AfD.

For the time being, let us hope that CDU/CSU and SPD politicians will enjoy working with openly racists parliamentarians. But if mainstream actors want reason to triumph over paranoia, they must distance themselves from fear-mongering and lead the German people by example.

For instance, Schulz, or his replacement, must restore his party's factory settings before it is too late. When he originally assumed the SPD's leadership, there was some hope that he could steer the movement in the right direction and come to power. Unfortunately, he lost his potential, time and energy on anti-Turkey rhetoric – a mistake that came with a heavy price tag.

As the leading member of the EU, Germany does a disservice both to itself and the union by following a very narrow-minded path. Instead of threatening Turkey and acting like Germany owns the European Union, German politicians need to focus on domestic issues and stop alienating millions of Turks living within their country's borders.

At the same time, they must acknowledge the severe difference in voter behavior between the former West and the former East.

Traditionally, far-right populism tends to become more popular at times of economic crisis. How a radical movement like the AfD was able to receive the support of millions of German voters at a time when the country's economy performs quite well is a question Germany's leaders must ask themselves without further delay.

To be clear, the crisis of German politics is much bigger than any single movement or party. Germany and the EU are faced with disillusionment and dissolution due to rising nationalism and the absence of statesmen with foresight and imagination. Merkel may serve as chancellor for another term. She may serve all she wants. However, when historians take note of the current era, they will mention her as the chancellor who oversaw the sinking of the EU and Turkey's estrangement from Europe, if they mention her at all.

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