Germany’s general elections and the outlook of Tehran-Berlin relations

Iran Review | Behzad Ahmadi: The recent general elections held in Germany sent strong shockwaves through the entire Europe. Although victory of the Christian Democratic Union led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was predictable and the leftist parties were also expected to suffer a major defeat, the rise of far-right candidates, who won about 13 percent of the vote, was an alarm bell not only for Germany, but also for the entire Europe. The far-right parties had recently suffered a major debacle in French presidential elections and had become isolated, but they came back to life following German general elections and the unexpected success of their German peers. Germany’s general elections were not very exciting as Merkel and her party were already expected to win the highest number of votes. Therefore, it seems that Merkel will be able to form the new government without facing any major problem.

The result of these elections, however, was remarkable from a number of viewpoints. Merkel won these elections, but her party’s votes fell by about 8.3 percent compared to previous general elections in 2013 and this has been a drastic fall for election votes of the CDU/CSU coalition. The number of votes won by the Christian Social Union (CSU) in the state of Bayern also showed a decline of about 10 percent. On the other hand, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which had formed a major coalition with Merkel’s CDU, also experienced a major fall in votes. Overall decline in the votes won by the two main parties of Germany in these elections was about 35 percent, and their votes, subsequently, went to far-right and liberal parties. This comes in clear contrast to the fact that the two main German parties accounted for about 80 to 90 percent of election votes not very long ago.

The results of recent German elections show that major parties are somehow losing their sway in Germany and continuation of this trend can face the country with a major problem for forming powerful governments. Germans had passed laws in the past, which aimed to prevent formation of weak governments like the Weimar Republic. However, following recent elections, the German parliament will be made up of six parties and this issue will face Merkel with certain problems. To see why Germany’s recent general elections led to such results, one has to first explore the performance of major parties in important member states of the European Union. The far-right party, known as the Alternative for Germany, has won a clear victory the main reason for which was shortcomings on the part of major political currents and parties both in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Merkel is at the lead of a rightist party, but has always tried to look like a moderate personality. On the opposite, the Social Democratic Party, which is basically a leftist party, is trying to follow suit with the Christian Democratic Union by adopting a moderate approach. This is why those parties, which are basically known to be rightwing or leftwing, have changed their original policies and given up their rightist or leftist slogans in order to be present in the big political coalition of the country for eight more years. As a traditional rightwing politician, Merkel has taken a decision, which is quite the opposite of the traditional policy of her party and has allowed asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa to enter Germany. This measure has stirred serious opposition within the Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Party, because they believe that the chancellor’s measures are against their dominant rightist discourse.

On the other hand, as the leader of the most important and most influential member of the European Union, which is considered as the main engine of convergence for the bloc, Merkel has played a major part in the resolution of the eurozone crisis. This measure by Merkel, like her immigration policy, has been also totally against the rightwing policies of her party. Germany enjoys a trade surplus, which means that its revenues outweigh its costs. Therefore, part of these revenues has been spent on prevention of the eurozone crisis. From the viewpoint of many German citizens, including the supporters of the country’s main rightist party, this measure by Merkel is not understandable.

Germans are thrifty people and are not willing for their tax money to be spent on Greek people, whom they consider to be spendthrift. As a result of these conditions, there has been some sort of discourse-based void in Germany’s politics, which has been the result of big rightist and leftist parties giving up their original slogans and policies. Therefore, this void has been rapidly filled by the Alternative for Germany and the party has been able to take some votes from other parties’ baskets into its own. On the whole, political parties opposing Merkel believe that the original identity of Germany is being lost due to her immigration policy and excessive admittance of asylum seekers. Of course, the rise of far-right parties in Europe during the past two decades has shown that emergence of these parties as powerful currents does not usually take long and when citizens’ concerns are assuaged, these parties restart their downhill trend.

However, there are differences between the rise of the far-right in Germany and other European countries, including France and Italy. Germany has the past experience of the rule of Adolf Hitler and is much more sensitive about the rise of far-right parties both in political and social terms. The Alternative for Germany has won most of its votes in the eastern part of Germany, where due to economic problems the dynamism of those political currents that oppose multiculturalism is much more powerful than other parts of Germany. Interestingly enough, the eastern part of Germany was previously a hotbed for leftist parties, which generally enjoyed wide welcome of the general public there. However, the coalition formed by the moderate left and right, or even between far-left and other major political parties in Germany, has provided conditions under which far-right parties have been able to thrive.

Once in parliament, the Alternative for Germany is sure to oppose further entry of asylum seekers to the country and pursue more austere laws in this regard. Now, the question is can the far-right politicians be able to put this policy in practice? There is no doubt that practical realization of election slogans of the Alternative for Germany will be very difficult for the country. At the present time, a major campaign has been launched against this party both inside and outside Germany and the country’s rightist parties, in particular, will try to take back those votes, which have been shifted into the basket of the Alternative for Germany.

What has happened in Germany is a political earthquake and its aftershocks will continue to affect the country’s foreign policy as a result of the election win of the Alternative for Germany. At the present time, the most important question is “in what direction will these elections and their results take Germany?” The Alternative for Germany has a series of clear-cut preferences for the country.

First of all, it is Eurosceptic, which means that it does not believe in the European convergence and will try to obstruct this path. This party may even try to turn the European Union into a purely economic union. They have never tried to hide their interest in the fall of euro and return of the German mark. When it comes to defense sector, leaders of this party believe in independence of Germany in the field of defense and this view can negatively affect Germany’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) of the European Union.

On the other hand, far-right parties have usually a positive stance on Russia. Therefore, one can expect reduction of tensions between Germany and Russia. On the other hand, they have a negative attitude toward Turkey and strongly oppose Turkey’s membership in the European Union. Expelling Turkey from NATO has been another point of interest for the leaders of the Alternative for Germany. If these developments take place in reality, then we will not be faced with a federal Germany anymore and will see a fundamental change in the pillars of Germany’s foreign policy, though the possibility for these changes to take place does not seem to be high.

There are a few points, which must be taken into account with regard to the effect that Merkel’s election win will have on Germany’s foreign policy orientations. First of all, these elections cannot bring about a major change in Germany’s foreign policy. A closer look at election debates will show that almost all political groups have been somehow unanimous about the framework of Germany’s foreign policy and its priorities and no hot debate took place in this regard. Basically speaking, the country’s foreign policy has never been a hot topic for election debates.

Secondly, Merkel, as the person who stands at the helm of Germany’s foreign policy, will not allow a major turnabout in Berlin’s foreign policy orientations. Ministries of foreign affairs and defense as well as security institutions are among the most important government bodies about which Merkel is particularly sensitive. Therefore, regardless of what coalition Merkel is a member of, she will not allow any change of policy against her will. During recent years and despite many challenges with which Germany has been faced, Merkel has been able to take the country through those challenges unscathed. She is a logical leader and has shown time and again that she is capable of making rational decisions at difficult times.

The migration crisis, the crisis in relations with Syria and Russia, the situation in Ukraine, relations with Turkey as well as the eurozone crisis were major examples of those challenges through which Markel has been able to take Germany without much damage. Of course, after the Alternative for Germany enters the parliament, it is sure to insist on changing the foreign policy priorities of Berlin. However, due to the consensus that already exists among major political parties in Germany on the country’s foreign policy principles and orientations, it is not probable that this party would achieve any gains in this regard.

Therefore, one can predict that the new coalition government of Germany, which will take form through participation of the Christian Democrat Union, the Christian Social Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany and probably the Green party, will continue to pursue the policies of the former German government. However, Germany’s officials have made certain policy changes toward the United States in recent months. They have decided to reduce the status of the United States from a reliable partner to a trustworthy friend under the administration of US President Donald Trump. However, the United States and trans-Atlantic relations will continue to remain as one of the main pillars of Germany’s foreign policy.

Or with regard to Russia, the two countries will continue to have challenging relations over the crisis in Ukraine, especially now that management of this crisis has been largely left to Germany. If the new foreign minister comes out of the Christian Democratic Union or the Green party, relations with Moscow can be expected to become tenser. The Liberal Democratic Party of Germany has found its way into the parliament after four years and most of its members follow the logic of mercantilism. Therefore, under their leadership, relations between Germany and Russia will not undergo much of a change. With regard to such issues as relations with West Asia and North Africa, the foreign policy of Germany is not expected to change much and will continue within framework of the European Union. As for the European convergence, if Germany wants to remain the leader of the European Union, it must get along with Spain, France and Italy more than before.

One of the main questions raised following the parliamentary elections in Germany is about the country’s policies toward Iran. Under the former government, the Social Democratic Party had adopted a more balanced approach to Iran and this is why the country’s former foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, visited Iran several times. The German government will continue to defend the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because it believes that the JCPOA is the greatest achievement of the European Union’s foreign policy.

This means that if the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the bloc’s foreign policy apparatus had any achievements in foreign policy area, the JCPOA is without a doubt one of their greatest, and basically speaking, the European Union’s foreign policy apparatus has had no other major achievement following the conclusion of the JCPOA with Iran. The European Union failed to prevent the flood of asylum seekers and has not been able to play a successful role with regard to the Middle East peace process. The bloc has also played no part in the Syria crisis. Therefore, the JCPOA is one of the greatest achievements of its member states in the field of foreign policy. In the meantime, Germany’s foreign policy with regard to Iran is, to a large extent, under the control of Merkel and her office and the chancellor herself is not an Iranophile personality and does not have a positive attitude or political preference toward Iran. Merkel is a supporter of the Zionist regime of Israel and considerations that she has with regard to Israel in Germany’s relations with Iran have practically barred her from having any meetings with Iranian officials. Perhaps the Israeli regime is a good excuse for the German chancellor to justify her lack of interest in improving political relations with Iran at the same pace that the two countries’ economic and trade relations have been picking up. Therefore, while some European countries have so far extended invitations to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani or have held meetings with senior Iranian diplomats, Merkel has never held a meeting even with Iran’s foreign minister.

If the new German foreign minister comes from the Liberal Democratic Party, which has just found its way into the German parliament, they will be more willing to maintain trade and economic relations with Iran. Of course, on the other hand, they will try to mount pressures on Tehran over human rights and environmental issues. This means that with them in power, Iran must be ready to hear louder criticism from Germany over human rights matters. In the meantime, the important development is that under the new coalition government, Merkel is possible to choose the foreign minister from within her own party. If this happens, we would see a person with a harsher tone on Iran at the helm at Germany’s foreign ministry. It is also possible that the Green party would take control of the foreign ministry in which case, in addition to supporting the JCPOA, they will take a more critical approach to bilateral relations, especially when it come to human rights issues.

On the whole, the pace at which Berlin’s approach to Tehran becomes harsher and more critical will be proportionate to increased regional role of the Islamic Republic and the influence that it sways across the region. Generally speaking, Germans are expected to continue expanding relations with Iran, especially in the fields of economy and trade, on the basis of their own specific conservatism and cool manner. However, they have allies in this region, whose list is topped by Saudi Arabia and the Zionist regime of Israel and Iran must expect the new government in Berlin to take more positions in line with the interests of those regional allies than any time before. On the same basis, Iran should not expect Germany to turn into a trustworthy partner for the Islamic Republic. This comes despite the fact that in view of many historical, economic, political, normative, geopolitical and other reasons, Germany cannot have a better friend and partner in this region than Iran and must not lose the opportunity that has been offered to it to define its relations with Iran at a new level and for a longer period of time.