Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The G20 Hamburg riots and the German election

The G20 riots in Hamburg have raised a number of pertinent political questions about domestic security and political extremism in Germany.

Photo: Getty Images/Boris Roessler
Photo: Getty Images/Boris Roessler
Published 17 Jul 2017 

In many ways, the city-state of Hamburg embodies the self-image that contemporary Germany likes to project. With sparkling new galleries and trendy cafés interspersed among rough-and-tumble beatnik quarters and burly workers' bars, it exudes an elegant but unpretentious charm. The gleaming new Elbphilharmonie overlooks a vast and bustling port, literally reflecting the city's smooth confluence of high culture and working-class earthiness. In its own eyes, Hamburg is the consummate European city; cosmopolitan but traditional, rich but restrained, hip but gritty. For all these reasons, it was as fitting a host as any for the G20 summit.

Yet, as the riots that accompanied the summit revealed, there exist subterranean currents in German political life that can all too easily rise to the surface. These disruptive forces come in many degrees and have many causes. Some are primarily reactions to the prevailing political climate – 'Grand Coalitions' between the two major parties – the Union, comprised of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD) – have pushed exasperated voters in search of a democratic outlet to the extremes. This trend has been assisted by the SPD's embrace of a 'neoliberal' program under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the early 2000s and by Merkel's calculated pilfering of SPD policies. Together, these developments have swelled the influence of extreme parties on both left and right, which, in a system that is both federal and proportional, are given ample opportunity to wreak political havoc. What transpired in Hamburg, however, was of a different magnitude, and derives in part from a German left-wing tradition of political radicalism with a deep post-war history. The political right has its own variety of extra-parliamentary extremism, which in recent years has manifested in a spate of arson attacks on asylum seeker lodgings.

The riots dominated German coverage of the G20 and the political aftermath. The accusations of blame congealed into a messy blancmange, criss-crossing both party lines and state-federal distinctions. First and foremost, local Christian Democrats attacked Hamburg's Social Democrat Mayor Olaf Scholz, under whose jurisdiction security arrangements for the event fell. Foreign Minister and senior SPD figure Sigmar Gabriel immediately went on the offensive. He decried the criticisms of Scholz as 'a hitherto unknown level of mendacity', contending that anybody who holds Scholz responsible must necessarily call Merkel to account as well. The Chancellor, he argued, chose to host the G20 in Hamburg out of her own political vanity, ignoring the obvious security risks inherent in assembling the world's major leaders in one concentrated inner-city area. Gabriel may have a point – according to a survey this week, a vast majority of Germans do not believe the overall expenditure and effort spent hosting the G20 was worth it. But Gabriel's is a curious argument, for any attack on Merkel must by the same logic implicate Gabriel's own comrade Scholz in Hamburg's town hall – himself an eager host for the summit. Further complicating this cross-party matrix is Peter Altmaier, Merkel's powerful chief of staff, who leapt to Scholz' defence on his boss' behalf, laying the blame exclusively at the feet of the 'radical, autonomous, extreme-left minorities'.

To untangle this elaborate political web, it must be viewed through the lens of the federal election on 24 September. Some observers have reasoned that the sight of flaming cars, ransacked shops and flying Molotov cocktails may stick to Merkel herself, jeopardising her party's advantage on matters of domestic security. This is a possibility. But ultimately elections are competitions, and thus the risks for Merkel must be weighed in comparison to those of her left-wing challengers. To look at things in this light, the politics of the G20 have three clear implications for the federal election: politicians are looking to refocus attention onto domestic issues as election day nears; the failing SPD campaign is in desperate need of a fight; and the electoral dangers for the Social Democrats are in fact much greater than for Merkel or her party.

The once-surging SPD now looks overwhelmed. It was only four months ago the party anointed Martin Schulz as its candidate for the Chancellery with an unprecedented 100% support. But since then, he has lost momentum and started to show signs of panic. At a party conference last month, Schulz condemned as an 'attack on democracy' Merkel's strategy of neutralising political points of conflict, known as 'asymmetrical demobilisation'. This charge certainly echoes the frustrations of many voters, who look at the Bundestag and see only similar-sounding parties in furious agreement with one another. But Schulz's denunciation belies a basic point – the Chancellor's boundless capacity to confound and defuse her adversaries reflects more poorly on them than her. After all, it is hardly a persuasive criticism that Merkel is good at politics. Hence the attempts to implicate her in the events at Hamburg.

But perhaps more problematic for the SPD is the focus that the G20 has directed toward the radical left. That the political left contains some extreme, anti-democratic elements is well-known, but Hamburg concentrated minds on that fact at a most inconvenient time for the Social Democrats. Trailing well behind the Union in opinion polls, its best hope of forming government is in league with the Greens and the far-left die Linke. As a party, the latter is somewhat unique in Western Europe. It was formed in 2007 from a merger between the Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative and the Party of Democratic Socialism (the latter was the successor of the Socialist Unity Party that ruled the German Democratic Republic, and it is still from the former East that die Linke derives most of its support). It holds 64 seats in the current Bundestag, making it the official opposition to Merkel's Grand Coalition. The formidable personalities of Gregor Gysi and now Sahra Wagenknecht have contributed to a high public profile for the party. Although some of die Linke's leaders have sought to distance their own politics from the G20 riots, it is nevertheless the party with whom the activists and their ideologies are most closely linked in the public mind. While the SPD has no great desire to rely on die Linke to form a government, the CDU has often used the spectre of the far-left to make people uncomfortable with the prospect of a Schulz chancellorship. Hamburg will only nourish these fears.

Moreover, the problems posed by the events of the G20 stand against an already difficult electoral background for the Social Democrats. Having seen off the 'Schulz-effect' and the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Merkel appears unassailable. Barring something extraordinary, she will in all likelihood join the ranks of her Christian Democrat predecessors Konrad Adenauer (1949-63) and Helmut Kohl (1982-98) as a four-term chancellor. Current polls place the conservative alliance at around the 40% mark, close to the 41.5% it gained at the last election in 2013. Schulz's SPD meanwhile has fallen by some 10% over the past few months, and now looks unlikely to improve much on its 2013 result of 25.7%. Just as strikingly, the AfD has haemorrhaged half of the support it attracted following the refugee crisis, and is now faring no better than it was three years ago (indeed, given the party's interminable infighting and organisational troubles, there is even a slim chance that it will fall below the 5% national threshold required to enter the Bundestag). However, perhaps the most consequential polling trend is the resurgence of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – the traditional coalition partner of the CDU and CSU. Routed in 2013, it is now polling as high as 10%. The liberals are gambling on their young and telegenic leader Christian Lindner, around whose personality their entire campaign is built. There are several possible coalition constellations, but should Lindner's energy prove sustainable, a Union-FDP government is the most likely outcome.

The G20 riots have raised a number of pertinent political questions about domestic security and political extremism. But in electoral terms, they should not have a marked impact. Indeed, viewed in the aftermath of elections in the United States, France and Britain, the campaign in Germany looks remarkable for its mundanity and predictability. Schulz might grumble that Merkel has deprived German politics of dynamism and conflict. But in a world where democracies are reliably unpredictable, Merkel can claim it as an asset.

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