The ‘Sleep Campaign’ Produces a Nightmare for Angela Merkel
Critics called it the “sleep campaign” because Angela Merkel did everything in her power to send voters into a slumber. Her tactic in the German federal election, termed “asymmetric demobilisation,” was designed to depress turnout amongst opposition parties by making a maximally inoffensive pitch to the electorate. It successfully pushed her main opponents, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), to its lowest poll numbers since 1949. Unfortunately for Merkel, it failed almost everywhere else.
Every other party, from left to right, made gains on her governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Although she will undeniably remain in post as Chancellor, she must now consider overtures to her greatly weakened and embittered former coalition partners, the Social Democrats, or to opt for the so-called “Jamaica coalition” with the Free Democrat (FDP) and Green parties, who, alongside the CDU, would provide the yellow, green and black of this colourful but potentially unwieldy government.
The biggest winners, however, were the Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD). The right-wing populist party scored exceptional results in the poorer, working-class areas of eastern Germany where, as the minister of integration in Saxony observed, many voters felt that the federal government had made greater efforts integrating the recently arrived Syrian refugees than the citizens of the former Eastern-bloc. Across the east, the AfD secured second place; amongst men, it topped the poll.
Support for the AfD was supercharged in 2015 by Merkel’s decision to admit more than one million Syrian refugees into Germany. Throughout the recent campaign, she saluted the policy, viewing it as ethically just and geopolitical essential—the migrants journeying through Turkey would have been detained in the Balkans, creating a dangerously unstable backlog. She also observed that it “cannot and must not happen again.” The open door was now firmly shut. Her assurances seemed to resonate.
In reality, the “sleep campaign” hid latent turmoil. For several years, the AfD has been shifting the political language of German politics in ominous directions. In 2017, the party drove more traffic on Twitter than any other political organization, bringing Nazi-era ideological vocabulary, including “Volksverräter” (traitor to the people—a term that AfD supporters have shouted at Merkel), and “Altparteien” (establishment parties), to the center of political debate.
Its election manifesto declares that “Islam does not belong to Germany,” an opinion echoed by a majority of Germans surveyed in a poll earlier this year. The party has repeatedly warned of a Muslim “invasion,” urging voters to fight against the threat of growing Islamic power in German politics. The AfD has built a presence in thirteen of the sixteen federal assemblies, profiting from the anti-immigrant surge and the perceived “out-of-touch” politics of liberal elites. They now have 93 seats in the national parliament and have already promised to “hunt down Frau Merkel” and “reclaim our country.” In the genteel, consensual world of German politics, statements such as these sound like fingernails screeching down a chalkboard.
The story, then, appears similar to the rest of western Europe. The cosmopolitan leadership of social democratic movements have drifted, both socially and culturally, from their working-class base; and its working-class base has gradually drifted towards the nationalist right, with its unnerving confection of social intolerance and command economics. The AfD—like the Front National in France and UKIP in Great Britain—feed, almost vampirically, on resentment. And, like those parties, it has vowed to abandon the euro, bring back the national currency—the Deutschmark—and to exit the European Union if reforms fail.
But there is another reason behind this populist surge: boredom. This is not frivolous. The AfD clearly entertain the thrill of the new, the act of choosing an untested option, but they also testify to the gathering revulsion for the tedious structure of German party politics. During the campaign, Alexander Gauland, joint-leader of AfD, promised that its presence in the Bundestag—the German federal parliament—would draw to an end four “boring” years of establishment rule. “We must get into the lower house,” he insisted, “so that debates happen again.”
Consider the dull television debate between Merkel and her Social Democratic opponent, Martin Schultz, which proved peculiarly bloodless. Observers wondered whether the restraint was a way of ensuring that post-election talks to create another “grand coalition” between the parties would be cordial. To many voters, it looked like a stitch up. The “sleep campaign” has done serious damage to German political centrism.
Yet it was for this very reason that Merkel ran as a centrist—not only out of political conviction, but sheer statistics. According to a recent study compiled by the Bertelsmann Foundation, 80 percent of Germans see themselves as sitting in the political centre, as compared to 66 percent across the EU on average.
The problem is that the center no longer guarantees “boring” electoral outcomes. The second “most centrist” nation in the study was Britain, whose recent flirtations with extremes have brought reheated Trotskyists like Jeremy Corbyn and transparent charlatans like Nigel Farage into the heart of public life. Tellingly, the total combined vote share of the two major German parties in the 2017 election—CDU/CSU and SDP—slipped to a mere 52 percent, the lowest since the Second World War.
It looked as though German voters had been inoculated against populism by the events of the past eighteen months. The self-inflicted wound of Brexit continues to baffle most Germans, and the erratic behaviour of Donald Trump certainly concentrated minds. One CDU official even offered to send the U.S. President a thank you card every week, for the next four years, to show his gratitude for boosting Merkel’s campaign. It was a premature celebration.
Angela Merkel is undeniably the winner, but this does not feel like a victory. The results now leave her with the herculean task of shaping a government out a bitterly divided Bundestag. The SDP, battered and exhausted by the experience of coalition, have refused to re-enter government; the Free Democrats and Greens make the unlikeliest of bedfellows, evincing irreconcilable differences over the issue of deeper EU integration; the AfD is totally off-limits.
If the campaign was a snoozefest, then the coalition talks are going to be a nightmare.
Rhys Jones is an historian, writer and fellow of Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge. He tweets @rhyshistorian.