“Wir schaffen das.”
Or, in the most frequent translation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous phrase at the height of the Mediterranean migration crisis in 2015, “We can do this.”
“Basically,” said Céline-Agathe Caro, a senior policy analyst at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation, “it means: Don’t worry, we will get the situation under control.”
“We can do this” isn’t the campaign slogan for Merkel’s political party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), heading into Sunday’s federal election. Rather, some posters promise “A Germany where we live well and gladly.”
Germans — and the world — seem to agree with the sunny assessment of success since reunification, according to opinion polls.
For instance, the BBC’s global Country Ratings Poll puts Germany just behind placid Canada in a worldwide favorability rating, which is extraordinary considering Germany’s decidedly nonplacid past.
And within Germany, there’s generally an admiration of achievements, too, especially regarding the economy, which merits the approval of 86 percent of its citizens, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.
Pleasing economic conditions contribute to high approval ratings for the parties in the “grand coalition” currently governing Germany. But it’s the junior partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party, that comes out on top, with a 68 percent “favorable”to 25 percent “unfavorable” rating. (Merkel’s CDU is close, but lower, at 58/37.) Both poll strikingly higher than Democrats and Republicans in America, and nearly any other Western party in this politically, socially and economically turbulent era.
There is a German party, however, with that kind of negative rating — the right-wing, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has a 12 percent approval and 83 percent disapproval rating in the Pew poll. And yet, depending on how the political puzzle pieces are put together in the post-vote jockeying, the AfD could become the official opposition party in the Bundestag.
While grafting onto an anti-immigrant sentiment latent in every Western society, the AfD was actually formed at the height of the eurozone crisis, reflecting the frustration of some that southern European nations such as Greece needed serial rescues from the more prosperous, and prudent, north.
Should AfD perform up to pre-election polls — or beyond, if there is undetected support despite, or because of, the party’s toxic rhetoric — it would be the first time since World War II that such a party would be represented in Germany’s parliament, which might mar an otherwise successful election.
“While this party started out four years ago as an anti-euro party specifically concerned about the currency issue and how it is managed in the European Union, it is really morphed into a much more far-right-wing populist party with Nazi overtones, and I think this is a big concern for people,” said Christa Tiefenbacher-Hudson, director of the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of the American Council on Germany.
Yet parliamentary exposure may only further expose the AfD.
“We will see if it legitimizes them or is a way of discrediting them,” said Caro.
Merkel, for her part, benefits from global exposure, leading many to urge her, and Germany, to take a more geopolitically leading posture.
To some degree that’s already happening.
“There’s been an important change in the way Germans perceive themselves over this last decade, overlapping with Merkel’s time in office,” said Prof. Charlotte Melin, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch studies. “And in the way they perceive others looking at them as leaders in the area of the environment, as leaders for human rights and tolerance in relationship to the migration crisis, so I think they justifiably take pride in the accomplishments of the last several years.”
And yet, Melin added, when surveyed, “there’s a risk aversion; and that is derived from their experience in the 20th century, and it’s derived from an awareness of what the role of Germany has been in the past. And so there is a hemming-in of wanting to go in the direction of making a radical change, and at the same time there is a perception that things do need to be different and more progressive moving into the 21st century.”
Merkel’s maneuvering reflects this reticence.
“That has been a question for some time, certainly since Angela Merkel became chancellor and Europe and the world were seemingly embroiled in one crisis after another,” said Tiefenbacher-Hudson, a former honorary consul of Germany in Minneapolis. Merkel “is a very strong leader and I think she convinced people by her tremendous knowledge, her ability to analyze problems and then look for solutions that maybe offer themselves as a consensus.”
“I wouldn’t say that Germany is reticent to embrace an important role and, as a matter of fact, they are already doing a lot,” said Caro, citing Merkel and the German government assuming more responsibility in Europe and even globally. For instance, Caro added, Merkel has volunteered to veer into the intractable North Korean crisis.
“If I were asked to join talks, I would say yes immediately,” Merkel told a German journalist earlier this month. Later, after hearing President Donald Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatened the U.S., Merkel calmly commented that “I am against such threats” and that “we consider any form of military solution as totally inappropriate and we insist on a diplomatic solution.”
Merkel’s political persona may make her uniquely suited to cool the nuclear rhetoric.
“From a personality point of view,” Tiefenbacher-Hudson said, “she has not a bombastic fiber in her.”
Whether “We can do this” will be translated into Korean is unknown. But barring a jarring electoral upset Sunday, Merkel may be called upon to lead both the West and the world toward some semblance of order.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.