As Americans absorb the latest details of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections — via hundreds of fake Facebook accounts — Germans have been expecting similar interference in their Sept. 24 federal election.
But the fact that no Russian hack attack has occurred so far is only one of the surprises of Germany’s campaign season. Six months ago, a tide of uber-nationalist populism seemed to be sweeping Europe — in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s nationalist surge. Three-term German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on the rocks after permitting a million refugees to enter Germany in 2015.
Fast forward to now, and Merkel is poised to win a fourth term handily, following on the May victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron in French presidential elections. “The fact that Merkel is a shoo-in is amazing,” says Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Germans have turned back to “Mutti” (mother) Merkel as a symbol of stability at a time of global chaos.
But Americans, too, have a vested interest in the resurgence of Mutti (with whom President Trump has a famously tense relationship). At a time when Trump’s version of America First has degraded America’s global standing, Merkel has emerged as the de facto leader of the West.
I’ll get to the German strategy vs. Russian election manipulation in a moment, but first a bit about how Merkel did it. Only a year ago, on a trip to Berlin and Dresden, I visited overloaded centers crammed with Afghan and Syrian refugees, and interviewed nationalist-populist members of the AFD (Alternative for Deutschland) party who hoped to capitalize on the backlash.
But, says Helga Barth, political affairs minister at the German Embassy in Washington, the refugee numbers are now way down. The European Union concluded a pact with Istanbul to halt the refugee flow from Turkey into Greece and onward to Western Europe. Germany (along with France and the European Union) is also funding and training Libyan coast guards to diminish the flow from North Africa.
The refugee problem is far, far from over. But, said Donfried, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, “Merkel has convinced the public she is managing the problem.”
The populist AFD party will indeed enter the national parliament for the first time, probably getting at least 10 percent of the vote, and possibly becoming the third-largest German party. But the leader of Germany will still be a strong woman who stands for openness and tolerance and believes in NATO and a united Europe.
Merkel and Macron — or M&M, as they are often labeled in the European press — is now a new power duo that, at least in theory, could reinvigorate the European Union and European defense efforts. Whether they can succeed, the prospects are far more hopeful than in 2016.
There are many reasons for Americans to hope that M&M make progress. Not least of those is Merkel’s firmness so far in dealing with Vladimir Putin.
Having grown up in communist East Germany, where Putin served as a KGB colonel, Merkel has a full grasp of the Russian leader’s desire to reestablish hegemony over parts of the lost Russian empire. Despite pressure from German businessmen, she has stood firm on maintaining sanctions on Russia until it stops supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.
At a time when Russia is conducting massive war games with tens of thousands of troops alongside the borders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Merkel’s firmness is welcome. It stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s past praise for, and endless refusal to criticize, Putin.
Nowhere is that disparity more evident than in the German, and French, denunciations of Russian cyberhacking of elections — and the determined denials of Trump.
German officials had expected cyber interference in their elections — given that suspected Russian hackers had stolen massive amounts of emails after breaking into the computer networks of the German parliament in 2015. According to Spiegel online, the hack was the work of the same group that attacked the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Macron.
Yet no embarrassing revelations from that lode have emerged — so far — nor has Russian unleashed its propaganda networks and bots to spread fake news.
One reason may be the determined efforts of German authorities to publicize and combat Russian sabotage efforts, and name Russia-linked hacking groups as soon as the attacks happen. Case in point: the aggressive Russian media promotion of a false story in 2016 of the rape of a Russian-German girl by Arab migrants.
But the biggest reason may be that Russians know that Merkel would fight back. Given her East German upbringing, “Mutti” understands Russian “active measures.” Moreover, she has observed how Macron responded to massive attempts at hacking the French election. The French leader confronted Putin in public about the fake news that Russian networks spread about Macron and his campaign.
So a Merkel victory means there will be two leading European heads of state who understand Putin well and will stand up against Russian efforts to disrupt European democracy and elections — in sharp contrast to Trump.