Next Sunday, Germany will decide whether to re-elect its first female head of government. Until recently, however, the campaign has not just been lacklustre, it’s been non-existent. Chancellor Angela Merkel believes that her supporters are turned off by conflict, especially if it is a woman who is seen to be acting aggressively.
Foreign minister and vice chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the candidate for the rival Social Democrats, has also seemed uneasy about going into attack mode (Steinmeier is a splendid diplomat but has no experience of populist agitation). The German media watched Steinmeier’s attempts to win over the hearts of big crowds in market squares and at beer fests and, like German judges on a political equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent, they concluded that he just didn’t have what was needed to be chancellor.
And the public? Despite the alarming state of the economy, they just seemed to be enjoying the Indian summer. That was until 4 September, when US pilots attacked two hijacked fuel trucks in Afghanistan on the request, it turned out, of a German colonel who believed the vehicles, taken by the Taliban, were on their way to blast a nearby German camp. The pre-emptive bombing killed and wounded more than 100 people, half of them civilians who were apparently trying to steal fuel from the trucks.
So now in the final days of this sleepy campaign it is suddenly Germany’s new international role that has become the hot debate. And it’s about time too. The country’s military mission in Afghanistan is a war that just has not been explained to Germans, who are now seeing their soldiers coming home in coffins.
“How to get out of Afghanistan” is the title of Stern magazine this week. It’s a great piece of journalism and a devastating read. The bottom line: German soldiers are supporting a corrupt regime and, after so many strategic blunders by US diplomats and troops, the case for staying is lost.
Now Steinmeier, who ranks far behind Merkel in the polls, has swiftly published a programme to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and his approval ratings are edging higher. And Richard von Weizsäcker, the respected former president of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has declared that Germany needs to set a timetable to put Afghans in charge of their security. Given the fact that after the Second World War, the last Allied forces only left German territory in 1994, that seems a little hopeful.