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Gallup Podcast
'It May Be Time for a Political Shift in Germany'
Gallup Podcast

'It May Be Time for a Political Shift in Germany'

What is at stake in Germany's coming election? Constanze Stelzenmueller -- expert on German, European, and trans-Atlantic foreign and security policy and strategy, as well as the inaugural Fritz Stern chair on Germany and trans-Atlantic Relations in the Center on the U.S. and Europe at Brookings -- joins the podcast to discuss outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, the candidates for her succession and the "whiplash" of events leading up to Election Day. "We've not seen anything quite like this in German postwar political history," she says.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is the Gallup Podcast. In this episode, we take a closer look at a key election across the Atlantic that will likely have global implications, both for Europe and the United States. Constanze Stelzenmueller is a senior fellow at Brookings and an expert on German, European and transatlantic foreign and security policy. Constance. Welcome to the podcast.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 00:31
Thank you very much for having me on.

Mohamed Younis 00:33
I want to start by simply asking you what's at stake in this election that's coming up, and why is it critical for Germany's political future?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 00:42
Well, I'd argue, it's not just critical for Germany's political future, but also for Europe and I think increasingly for the way at least the Biden administration sees its relationship with Europe. As I think everybody in the world knows by now, Angela Merkel, the current chancellor, is the first chancellor not to run again and be defeated, but to step down voluntarily. And she's leaving office after 16 years. And that hinge moment in German politics comes at a point when Germany's strategic environment in Europe and its environs has greatly darkened. We're seeing divisions in Europe, we're seeing divisions in the transatlantic relationship and an increasingly assertive and authoritarian Russia and China. With Germany, at least in economic terms -- and I would argue in political terms -- as the anchor nation of Europe, at least on the continent, it really does matter whom Germany elects to lead it in the next couple of years.

Mohamed Younis 01:49
And I'm just chomping at the bit to dig into that with you. But before I do, I want to first just reflect on Angela Merkel's leadership. Her party is in such a tough position now. And when I look at the data we've been gathering across the world on approval of German leadership, it's really fascinating that she has entered a moment now where we have the highest approval rating ever for German leadership across -- at least in 2021 so far -- across the 50, about the 50 countries we have gathered; it's at 52% approval. In fact, she's really the only major global leader that saw her own approval rating really dramatically improve during the Trump years. You look at our data that we've been gathering in Germany, and people are relatively, I mean, speaking, satisfied and happy with the economic state as it's rebounding, of course, from the 2020 shutdown. How does a leader who's kind of in that moment end up in a situation where her party's sort of fighting for their lives and facing potential defeat?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 02:57
Those are really interesting questions to which there is no sort of binary chop-chop, you know, 30-second answer. I would remind you and listeners more generally that Merkel's reputation has had some significant ups and downs, both within Germany, within the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, sort of two of the troughs of her reputational career have been during the eurozone crisis, which was the European follow-on of the global financial crisis And with all the fights about bailouts of countries like Greece and in Italy. And then only a couple of years later, in 2015, in the context of the global migration crisis, where she refused to close Germany's borders and took in more than a million Syrian and other mostly Middle Eastern refugees, leading to a really distressing uptick in, in populist movements in Europe and in Germany.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 03:49
My take on her is mixed. I have an immense admiration for her as a person. I have a "on the one hand, on the other hand" take on, on her policies and the, and their impact on Germany and Europe. But I will also say this: The fact that she's leaving of her own volition rather than being thrown out by voters, I think may also have impressed people. And I think that that might be not an insignificant contributor to her current status in the polls. Let's keep that firmly in mind. The competition, if we're completely honest, you know, isn't that great.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 04:26
Now, you were asking about the contrast between the parlous state in which her party and her would-be successor Armin Laschet find themselves in. I think there are a variety of reasons for that as well. I think that after 16 years in power fielding the chancellor, and actually fielding the chancellor from about half of the life of the postwar German republic, I think that exhausts a party and its political resources, its capital and its, and its personnel. It may just be time for a, for a political shift in Germany, the way we had back in 1998 when the Social Democrats and the Greens first came into power after the political demise of the, that other titan, Helmut Kohl.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 05:12
That's one reason. The other reason is that while Merkel has been a superb crisis manager and very good mediator of differences and bridger of differences in Europe and in transatlantic relations, there is a pervasive sense in Germany that that incrementalist mediating approach, a balancing approach between Western democracies and the Russians and the Chinese, on the other hand, has come to its limits. And that something, that a leadership posture that is more forward-leaning, that is more hard-edged, may be necessary, and is also more plans ahead because it understands that crises are the new normal. Those things, I think, frame the question of whether her successor candidate is the right man for the job. Based on German polls, he's not. Based on my own personal assessment of his performance, I tend to agree with the polls.

Mohamed Younis 06:14
And this is a perfect segue to asking you, Who is Olaf Scholz? And tell us about him and his history and why are people kind of expecting him to be the most likely person to, to take the helm?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 06:28
So Olaf Scholz is the chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic Party, which is one of the oldest parties in the West. It's more than 150 years old. He is also the current finance minister. His party has been in grand coalition governments with Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats three out of four of her executive terms, sorry, that which coincide with the terms of the legislature, because we have a parliamentary system. He is a former mayor of the city-state of Hamburg, used to be quite left wing when he was a student and had curls. Those two things are long gone. And I think in the context of the choice that Germans find themselves faced with, which is Armin Laschet of the CDU, who is the governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia in the west; Annalena Baerbock, the young 40-year-old leader of the Green Party; and Olaf Scholz, I think he has come off a little bit as the least worst option.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 07:32
I think it's worth sort of taking listeners back to what this election campaign has been like, which is really a whiplash of polling and of candidates sort of rising to the top and then falling from grace again in public favor. That we've not seen anything quite like this in German postwar political history. Never has an election in Germany been so open, so volatile, involved so many possible outcomes until just, you know, shortly before the Election Day, which is September 26, and with so many coalition options. Notably for the first time, we're looking -- at the first time in history -- we're looking at the high probability of, of the, the winner A) not, not being the winner in absolute terms, and having to form a coalition with not one other party, but two. That is confusing to everybody, including me.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 08:28
Back to the candidates briefly. Annalena Baerbock, the head of the Greens, was, for quite a while, the favored winner. Everybody was gearing up for another female chancellor, the first Green chancellor. This generated a great deal of excitement and press. And then her highly professional campaign began stumbling over what, in truth, in retrospect, were minor infractions, inflations over CB. A book written somewhat hastily with a ghostwriter who clearly hadn't sort of fully made clear where he was sourcing information from. And that sort of led to a howl of, of critique and mixed in with, with a not inconsiderable amount of disinformation, it has to be said, showing again, just how, how many sort of malignant actors these days are also involved in national election campaigns.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 09:24
My personal bottom line on Annalena Baerbock is she is an attractive, intelligent and principled candidate whose major flaw, in my view, is that she has no executive experience whatsoever. In Germany, you don't become chancellor unless you've at least been the governor of a major state or you have had an executive office in a government. And she has had neither. She's had, I believe, two terms in the federal legislature, and that's, I think, not enough to prepare you for the job of running such a large country. But I do think that if she gets that experience, she will be a very serious contender in the, in the next elections. Now, Armin Laschet, the man who would be Angela Merkel's successor, is a governor, has that experience, comes from a very tribal west German regional Catholic-based, industrial state-based culture, which, in some ways, you know, does root him very firmly in German political culture. It's not just the Americans that, where it matters whether you're from Texas or from Vermont; that, that, that's the case in Germany as well.

Mohamed Younis 10:36
It turns out local, local realities are important everywhere, including Germany.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 10:41
Exactly. And, and, and the rest of Germany, you know, knows what those are, and it adds to, it adds depth and, and granularity to somebody's political positions. But Laschet gives the impression of also not quite being ready for prime time. He is cloudy and vague on foreign and security policy all too often. He's also made some missteps like being seen laughing at a joke during the flood catastrophe, standing behind Germany's federal president, who was giving a very emotional speech to the flood victims. Again, things that are minor but sort of gave the general impression that he has not been able to shake off since of him being somewhat superficial and lightweight. And Olaf Scholz has problems of his own, but he is experienced, and he's not a lightweight. He is, I think intellectually well-versed, he is a, he is interested in political philosophy and economy. And he was a successful mayor of a very wealthy city state, Hamburg, which is globally connected through its port.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 11:45
That said, the three things that are sort of thrown at him in terms of critique are his handling of some very violent riots by the Germany's extreme left during a G20 meeting in Hamburg that he had, apparently, utterly as mayor, failed to anticipate and prepare for. Then a banking scandal during his tenure as mayor. And finally, when he was finance minister, the Wirecard scandal, the financial services firm, which ended up not being so much a problem of, I think, of his own personal responsibility, much, much less of a personal corruption in any way. But I think the most valid, the most serious critique to be directed to him is that he did not realize just how flawed Germany's financial supervision systems were, and that it could be politically damaging for him not to jump on those and, and fix them as quickly as possible. I think, I think a great deal has been done for that since. But he's still, he comes off oddly defensive when he's challenged on it in debates.

Mohamed Younis 12:46
It's a really important component because Germany, of course, played such a critical role in what was called, at the time, austerity measures or encouraging further austerity across the EU, particularly --correct me if I'm wrong -- when Greece was going through its crisis. So it is right at the heart of the matter of what kind of a German policy will Berlin really bring to the EU and those conversations?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 13:12
May I sort of open the lens here a little even more widely? The conundrum that the next German chancellor and his, and his cabinet will face is reconciling Germany's position as a political middle power with global trade interests and a profound global interconnectedness that is both, you know, the source of its GDP and a great source of vulnerability and increasing global competition. And a global competition from authoritarian powers who have become better and better at exploiting the vulnerabilities of interdependence, in order to exert pressure on actors like Germany.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 13:59
In other words, the vulnerability of Germany's banking system, its financial institutions, its financial oversight is directly relevant to its security and its ability to act strategically, or not to be, not to be pressured by external authoritarian great powers. And that, because we are the anchor economy of Europe, is relevant to the security of, of all of Europe and of NATO. And so, you know, we agonize over the state of our armed forces and whether we pay enough on defense, but the state of our financial system is at least as relevant to our capacity as a strategic actor as our military powers.

Mohamed Younis 14:46
That's such a critical point, and one can only imagine the ripple effects across the continent it would have if Germany were to see a sort of a financial sector or banking crisis. That is a real challenge for those who follow that closely. Germany also, and you alluded to this, has a very complicated relationship with Russia. On one hand, they hold Moscow to account on several issues of global concern, such as, you know, nefarious behavior, cybercrimes, violent criminal acts.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 15:16
Annexation of Crimea.

Mohamed Younis 15:17
Exactly. But on the other hand, and case in point is the gateway to Russia that Germany really plays in terms of energy through the North Stream pipeline. What does the future German policy look like with Moscow? One of the things -- and you'll correct me if I'm wrong -- that really fascinates me is the relationship that the former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, had with Gazprom and Russia and Putin altogether. What does the future German-Russian relationship look like based on, on this election? Or maybe is it not really going to be that impacted in the short term?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 15:53
Another complicated question. I think the answer to your question depends very much on which party fields the chancellor and in what coalition. But let me maybe start off by saying that Gerhard Schroeder is a highly controversial figure in Germany, and even within his own party, the Social Democratic Party. And in the past, there have been those who have asked him not to campaign with them or for them. In other words, there are people who despise him for having basically sold himself to Gazprom immediately after leaving office, even in his own party. I think it's important to say that.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 16:27
I think it's also, although unpleasant, to, to say that other parties have issues with folks who are too close to, shall we say, too close for comfort to both Soviet nations like Azerbaijan. The Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel's party, have had issues of their own with legislators who are were deemed to be lobbyists for the Azeri government. So critical as I am of Gerhard Schroeder, he's not the only one and his old party is not the only one that has had that kind of issue. And the sort of political-philosophical divide about where Germany should stand -- should it be firmly anchored in the West or should it engage in more traditional Cold War balancing between the West and Russia and now China -- that, that political-philosophical divide runs through almost all the parties except the two extreme parties -- on the hard left, Die Linke, and on the hard right, the AfD -- both of whom firmly espouse closer relations with Russia and China. They also have other positions that are unpalatable to any sane person in the other parties.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 17:40
So I have a hard time imagining, I mean, there is actually a noncooperation ... in the CDU and Merkel's party, as far as the AfD is concerned, and no other party would work with them either. And Die Linke, I think, is angling for offering itself as a potential coalition partner to the Social Democrats, should they come out on top. But I've just been reading their party program -- in fact, here it is, because I'm just plowing through all the damn party programs. And frankly, I don't see how that would work. And I think everybody knows that. Olaf Scholz, in fact, himself has made that very clear -- that there are red lines that he won't cross. Now, on Russia more generally, I am and have been highly critical of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, but I think there are myths connected to it that I think need to be debunked. One is that Germany is dependent on Russian energy. That's just not correct. Gas makes up a very small part of the German domestic energy mix.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 18:38
So Russian gas imports just don't translate into Moscow having power of decision-making in Berlin, full stop, end off. And while I have no doubt that the Russians, like some other authoritarian nations, have been busy buying political assets in Germany and elsewhere -- that is what they do -- I don't see that really translating into a policy shift, for the simple reason that I think the strategic community in Germany is and remains alarmed by Russian assertiveness, unpredictability. The questions of, you know, an increasingly authoritarian and remote Vladimir Putin who appears to intend to stay in power forever, and what that means for European security. I do not see a, any establishment party in Germany pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Moscow, right.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 19:29
Now, there is the matter of what Nord Stream 2 means politically for Eastern Europe and for Ukraine. And there I would say that the bilateral agreement between the Biden administration and the, and Berlin, the Merkel administration, which I feel uncomfortable about because it left out, went over the heads of the Eastern European and the Ukrainians -- I understand their objections to that --does have one significant advantage that I think Kyiv and other Eastern Europeans ought to be aware of. Which is that Germany now owns the problem. Whatever happens now with regard to Ukraine's security, and not just the, its, its gas-transit income security, its energy security, but its security as a polity, Germany owns that. And to some degree, I think that that might have a stabilizing influence, because I am sure that Moscow understands that as well.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 20:23
And I think that if the Kremlin challenge that, it would be dealing not just with Kyiv, but also with Berlin, and it probably would think twice about that. I mean, that may be some, that may sound counterintuitive to some, but I do think that that's quite a serious actor. On the whole, you know, the larger the larger question is, is how hard the Russians are going to try to push for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, that is deleterious to, to the security of, of, of NATO and, and Europe. And because Putin likes surprising people, I wouldn't exclude him sort of probing the alliance's or Europe's weaknesses on this point. But if you look at the tremendous amount of support that the Belarusian civil society has been getting in Europe overall, but also in Germany, again, I think it would be rational behavior for the Kremlin to think twice about such provocations.

Mohamed Younis 21:18
We haven't talked about China, and what this election could mean for Germany's critical relationship with that nation. Take us through the kind of the elements of that dynamic, and what's at stake with regards to this election.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 21:31
So China has become, I think the single largest geostrategic conundrum for Berlin, because it's where there has been such a distinct flipping of the strategic paradigm in which this relationship has been handled. For the longest time, Germans thought that the Chinese market was what was going to assure German growth rates. In parentheses, it was also, I think what and, and more damagingly for Germany, permitted Germany's manufacturing industry, especially its current industry, to evade some fundamental transformational challenges, which it is now racing to catch up with. And that's the sharing economy. The electric cars, artificial intelligence and so on.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 22:21
We used to be unquestioned market leaders on, in manufacturing and the car industry. The Chinese are catching up; other nations are catching up. And I think that our keenness on the China connection has, I think, set us back. It's also now become very clear, and in reality we ought to have known this because something very similar happened in the energy trading and banking relationship with Russia a decade ago. Our assumption that this would be a one-way relationship where the Chinese would buy from us and, and we would, as it were, bring them closer to the West and to and to political transformation has been a misconception. And that, in fact, it is the other way around: The Chinese are appropriating our technology and have no intention of becoming a democracy -- at least, this regime is not.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 23:11
I wouldn't want to extend that presumption to all of China's population. In fact, I think that would be deeply wrong. And so, Germany suddenly finds itself in the very unpleasant position of having a trade partner on whom it is profoundly dependent, who is now not just being very assertive in his own neighborhood, which has an impact on other trading partners of us, ours, like Vietnam or democratic Asian trading partners like Korea, but also increasingly being more assertive in global institutions, and in fact in Europe's neighborhood and in Europe itself. That's a really big shift. And while you could call Russian geostrategy opportunistic and reactive, the Chinese geostrategy is very, very, very strategic, very planned and, and appears to be directed, heading in the direction of replacing the American order, and, and a dominance that I think would be felt very painfully in Europe.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 24:16
And so that is the point on where Merkel -- who has been very keen on a, while, while worried about this course of China, has still maintained the necessity of keeping the relationship with China balanced and constructive -- finds herself I think as somewhat of an outlier in the strategic community of Germany, including in her own party, where the concern over China's dominance strategies is now much greater. And that's even true, I think, of German industry leaders. So that's where I expect we're going to see the most notable shift after the German elections.

Mohamed Younis 24:58
And that's really critical as a Biden administration now begins to really rethink through their relationship with China. How likely is it that the U.S. and Berlin's position will become closer vis-a-vis China as this develops, or will they sort of all pursue their independent interests? It's interesting that you lay it out that way, because I think a big realization in U.S. foreign policy has been just that: that the notion that increased trade and economic relations with China was going to turn it into a democracy really set the U.S. strategic position back decades. Because as, as the U.S. was waiting for that to happen, it never happened, and they really improved their strategic position. So my question is, given everything you've said, how do you see that impacting the relationship with the U.S. as they both together confront this challenge with China?

Constanze Stelzenmueller 25:54
Well I do want to say, not least because I used to be a journalist and trained as a human rights lawyer, that I pay a fair amount of attention to civil society debates. And I think it's, it's inaccurate and a mistake to think of Russian or Chinese society as monolithic or as somehow not interested in, in fundamental freedoms and civil rights. They are. And we should empathize and help, and not deviate from our own principles when dealing with authoritarian powers. I'm firmly convinced of that. That said, I think that Germany's greatest concern vis-a-vis the Biden administration's China policy will be whether it manages to contain the risk of escalations, military escalations, based on mutual misunderstandings or miscalculations, and whether it manages to integrate the fact of economic interdependence -- which is true not just for Germany as a middle power, but also true for the U.S. -- with China into its strategy.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 26:57
I think we all agree these days that we need to protect Asian democracies; that we might need to provide sanctuary for Uyghurs and citizens of Hong Kong, maybe of China itself. We agree that we need to maybe re-sure value-added chains, protect ourselves against espionage, certainly protect ourselves against political bullying. But the notion of economically autarkic Western nations, I think, is unrealistic. There is no such thing, parcher the economic advisers of the previous president, as a, as a Western economic policy that entirely uncouples itself from China. That's just not possible

Mohamed Younis 27:40
And I think that, that speaks to the very fundamental challenge, right? There is no easy solution. There's no walking away from a relationship that's now become so critical to the very economic engines of the Western world. I mean we're talking about the United States and Germany, in their own unique ways, have such a critical relationship with China that really Japan doesn't, because of obviously a difficult history and, and, and just a different position geopolitically. Constanze Stelzenmueller, thank you so much for making the time to explain this election to us. So much is at stake. And we will be checking in with you in a few months to see how the new German government is handling these challenges.

Constanze Stelzenmueller 28:24
All right, thank you so much. I look forward to it.

Mohamed Younis 28:26
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, Just search for The Gallup Podcast wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup. Reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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