A widening gap

This weekend’s Bundestag elections are not likely to bring as shocking a result as the UK’s vote to leave the EU or the victory of President Trump in the United States, but much less is required in Germany to illustrate how politics is changing there too. – A guest post from Budapest/Hungary.

By David Szabo*

For the first time since the Second World War, Germany’s centre-right parties face a serious challenge from the right. Most public opinion polls agree that the Christian Democrats led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, will continue to be the major force in a majority federal government.

But no matter how Merkel builds a ruling coalition, political experts will closely study how the election results mirror changing perceptions across the West.

A new high-authority poll finds that in alignment with the rest of the EU, there is a widening gap in Germany between the public and the elites when it comes to inequality, globalization, migration, and terrorism. Most notably, the survey findings are consistent with last year and prove how deep seated public opinion is on the most significant policy matters.

Project28, conducted for the second year in a row in every EU member state, found that 50 percent of respondents in Germany agree that migration is a serious problem for Europe and 84 percent of Germans consider illegal migration as a serious problem.

Even 54 percent of Germans who identify as being on the ‘left’ agree that the EU ‘should protect its outer European borders more effectively’. Throughout the EU, 79 percent of Europeans also agree that the EU’s outer borders require greater protection. There is not much disagreement between traditional political sides on this matter.

The discrepancy of opinion between the public and the elites ranges across the issues that matter most to the public. There are very large variations between member states in terms of trust in government institutions, but half of the European population does not trust their own government.

In Germany, 39 percent do “not at all” trust the German government and 41 percent of Austrians have the same opinion of their government. The difference of opinion among newer member states is especially stark as they tend to be more optimistic about their own future, want less centralized power in Brussels, and more border protections.

What’s more, 51 percent of all of Europe favours individual member states having more power, which is virtually the same as German voters’ share on the matter. Even 24 percent of Germans would vote to leave the EU.

It is not surprising that conservatives in Germany are tyring to distance themselves from their left-wing coalition partners. As the gap separating the public from the elites grows, so does public dissatiscation with the status quo.

Politicians are wise to address the public perceptions that have spread across Europe. If traditional political parties are unwilling to meet the public‘s needs, anti-establishment movements will gain traction in even the most liberal corners.

Instead of considering the Brexit and Trump elections as exceptional, the better question is why do elites get re-elected despite not sharing the views of the publics they purport to represent.

*David Szabo is Director of Foreign Affairs for Szazadveg Foundation, a conservative think tank in Hungary linked to the ruling Fidesz party.