Angela Merkel’s election manifesto attempts to rebrand refugees

Did I write this? EPA/Clemens Bilan

After a slow start, campaigning for the 2017 German federal election has stepped up a gear. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) launched its customary joint manifesto together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

The document offers an insight into Merkel’s preferences for the “hot phase” of the campaign. More than the actual contents, the exclusions reveal the challenges facing the CDU as the leading party of government. The manifesto sidesteps some of the most controversial issues of the day and skims deftly over the issues that divide the CDU/CSU “union” parties.

The CDU/CSU election programme, entitled “For a Germany where we can live well and happily”, is firmly rooted in domestic politics. Merkel’s profile as an international leader hardly needs reinforcement, but voters want answers to the day-to-day problems of growing social polarisation in Germany, rising rents, community conflicts over immigration, childcare and pensions.

The manifesto treads a careful path through this potential minefield. In particular, it aims to ease the pressure on working families. Key proposals include a reduction of income tax that will save German taxpayers €15 billion a year. The parties promise to achieve full employment by 2025 – that is, a reduction in the unemployment rate from its current level of 5.5% to under 3%. Immigration is presented as a means to achieve full employment, with incomers recruited on the basis of their contribution to the workforce. The unpopular “solidarity tax” – a federal surcharge first introduced to fund the “equalisation” of living conditions in the east of Germany after German unification, is to undergo a phased withdrawal.

Child maintenance payments are to increase and there will be supplementary payments for young families who are first-time buyers. Tax breaks on new builds are to help offset Germany’s growing housing problem.

A second key theme is security. Protective infrastructure is to be beefed up and 15,000 more police and security officials are to be recruited to meet the needs of the authorities at federal and regional level. In addition, data sharing across federal and regional authorities is to be improved.

It’s clear that the Christian Democrats want to avoid controversial issues in the campaign. The manifesto contains no distinct section on refugees, immigration and Islam, even though this issue combination is high on the public agenda. The manifesto’s rebranding of immigrants as workers is an attempt to break the negative perceptions linking immigration and security that preoccupy the voters after a series of immigrant-led terrorist attacks in the country. Also, there is no attempt to set out a realistic reform of Germany’s ailing pensions policy, an unenviable task waiting for the next government. In the CDU/CSU manifesto, the outside world stops at EU borders.

In the context of army scandals and unpopular overseas military engagements, defence and foreign policy are also risky in campaign terms. A bland restatement of Germany’s traditional multilateralism and a promise to commit more funding to the federal military forces are buried in a general section on security.

It’s also true that many of the proposals in the manifesto bear a strong resemblance to those put forward in the programme published by main rivals the Social Democrats (SPD). Both manifestos carry central proposals on lowering income tax and the phased withdrawal of the solidarity tax. The SPD has been quick to complain about its ideas being stolen.

Nevertheless, this SPD has slumped in the polls, and not because its manifesto has been copied. Its main problem can be found closer to home. The latest Emnid poll of July 1 shows the SPD running at 24% to the CDU/CSU’s 39%. The SPD launched Martin Schulz as its leading candidate in March, at a time when Merkel’s popularity had taken a hit over her refugee policy. After a promising start, the Schulz effect failed to deliver in key regional elections in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, leaving the SPD struggling to reignite its campaign.

The thorn in Merkel’s side

Merkel is operating well within her comfort zone ahead of this vote. She already has three successful general election campaigns under her belt. However, there is still the possibility of a serious upset between now and September. Danger threatens less from other parties, such as the Social Democratic Party (SPD), than from the right-leaning opposition within her own party. And for Merkel, Bavarian state president Horst Seehofer is danger personified.

Seehofer and Merkel: almost close. EPA/Clemens Bilan

Seehofer is a man who speaks his mind, often at the cost of party unity. Representing the conservative-nationalist wing of the CDU/CSU, he condemned Merkel’s humanitarian handling of Germany’s refugee crisis as a “rule of injustice”, a term which, in Germany, references an oppressive or illegitimate regime.

In February 2016 he caused embarrassment with his freelance attempts at diplomacy in Russia. His criticism of EU sanctions against Russia flatly contradicted government policy.

Seehofer now describes his relationship with Merkel as “almost close”, but party friends may fear that this détente – a triumph of hope over experience – could implode before election day or during any coalition negotiations to follow.

In return for his parliamentary party supporting a future government coalition, Seehofer is likely to demand a maximum quota on incoming migrants of 200,000 a year. An anticipated “Plan for Bavaria” will include this and other demands that have been screened out of Merkel’s anodyne manifesto. Whether he will get his own way will depend in part on the coalition arithmetic yielded by the vote on September 24.

Merkel is adamant in particular that there will be no maximum quota for migrant entry. But Seehofer will no doubt be gratified that in the coalition negotiations following the last federal election, Merkel conceded to SPD demands over the introduction of a minimum wage – another issue to which she was strongly opposed.

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