Russia can benefit from a completely new alignment of political forces in Germany. Even if Angela Merkel gets re-elected she will be forced to make significant concessions, especially in her Russia policy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and Minister of Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) speaking during the household week of the German Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 8 September 2016. Photo: AP

The political system of post-war Germany has been characterized by a certain amount of stability: at the federal level, power has been divided between the Social Democrats (SPD), the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Free Democrats in different constellations. However, this stability ahead of the elections to the Bundestag in 2017 has been threatened. The reason for that is the refugee policy of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The recent elections to the regional parliaments, which were held in five out of 16 German states, are naturally seen as a rehearsal for the federal elections in 2017. As a result, the trends are disappointing. The position of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) was significantly weakened, while the newly established anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) won seats in all five legislatures, gaining a record 20 percent in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. The Social Democrats also lost votes compared to the previous elections.

The results of the regional elections present an opportunity to come to certain conclusions. Obviously, the “open door” refugee policy pursued by Merkel has led to growing right-wing sentiment in Germany, not only in “new” states, e.g. states of the former East Germany, but also in the “old” ones of West Germany, which are considered more tolerant and democratic. Despite the fact that the influx of refugees is subsiding, Germans are still concerned about the integration of new arrivals into society as well as about security, especially after the recent terrorist attacks in Nice and Munich in summer 2016.

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Both parties that currently comprise the ruling coalition will unlikely get the support of more than 50 percent of the voters. Moreover, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is not interested in re-establishing the same coalition with the CDU in the future. Being part of the coalition with the CDU, the SPD is losing its political image as it is lacking its own campaign platform that is clear to their electorate.

Besides, Merkel often borrows slogans and political program proposals from other parties, which casts a shadow on the SPD as well. As a consequence, it may make Germans see no difference between the SPD and the CDU in terms of their political agenda.

Even though the AfD is likely to show good results in the elections to the Bundestag in 2017, it will still remain an outcast as the other parties mindful of the German historical experience would not want to forge a coalition with right-wing populists. In this scenario, it is most likely that the so-called "red-red-green" coalition, also known as the alliance between the SPD, the Left and the Greens, will be formed. The combination would be something new in the history of German parliamentary activity at the federal level, but there is a precedent at the regional one such a coalition has been successfully functioning in Thuringia since 2014.

However, it would be quite premature to write off Merkel’s party. After the parliamentary elections in Berlin, where the CDU suffered heavy losses, Merkel will possibly toughen the party’s refugee policy. Putting aside the refugee crisis, Germans are predominantly satisfied with the work of the government, and the “Iron Lady” (the popular German reference to Angela Merkel) is still regarded as the main candidate for the post of the chancellor in 2017.

Paradoxically, the greatest threat to the political future of Merkel is lurking in her own ranks. The CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and its leader Horst Seehofer are extremely critical of the position of the chancellor on the refugee crisis. Seehofer and Merkel have been exchanging verbal attacks on each other in public without concealing their differences. The Bavarian politician demands the immediate introduction of a quota for refugees, whereas Merkel categorically refuses to do it.

The CSU, which is considered to be more conservative than its partner in the bloc, normally does not put forward its own candidate for the post of chancellor in federal elections, being voted for only in Bavaria. Yet, against the background of the refugee crisis and the demand for a more conservative course, the charismatic politician Seehofer finds it difficult to resist the temptation to build up his own political capital.

In fact, preconditions have emerged to realize the old dream of some Bavarian Christian Democrats to make the regional CSU a federation-wide party. Fearing the unexpected rise of Alternative for Germany and being tired of Merkel’s course, German citizens would rather vote for a familiar conservative establishment party than for right-wing populists.

Implications for Russia

These truly tectonic shifts in the German political landscape hold certain consequences for Russia. It goes without saying that the Kremlin is not interested in Merkel becoming chancellor for the fourth consecutive time. It is no secret that she is viewed as the main obstacle to the lifting of the EU’s sanctions on Russia no matter what she is guided by high moral standards and respect for international law or the desire to put up a united front with the U.S. White House.

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The most positive scenario for Russia would be formation of the "red-red-green" coalition in the new Bundestag. While in power, the Social Democrats have shown a friendlier and more pragmatic attitude towards Russia; at the same time, they are ready to carry out a more independent foreign policy.

An illustrative example of this is the policy of the Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. During his term, Germany refused to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and Russian-German trade grew manifold. In addition, the Social Democrats, especially the left wing of the party, are opposed to the creation of an advanced free trade area between the EU and the U.S. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement (TTIP) does not serve the interests of Russia, which is not willing to have a closed trade regime on its doorstep.

It is also noteworthy that the Social Democrats are currently acting as a mediator in relations with Russia, representing the German businessmen discontented with anti-Russian sanctions. A study of German economists shows that, due to the drop in German exports to Russia, German manufacturers lost about $54 billion in 2014-2015. The number of German companies operating in Russia fell from 6,000 to over 5,500. German businessmen are rightly concerned that they may come up as losers in a competitive and promising Russian market, giving way to the Chinese.

Finally, the Social Democrats may benefit from the Russia topic in their election campaign. Indeed, owing to anti-Russian sanctions, the German economy lost 60,000 jobs, with more than 70 percent of Germans being in favor of a full or at least partial lifting of the sanctions. The presence in a potential coalition of the Left would only strengthen the pro-Russian tone of the German government. It would be balanced, though, by the position of the Greens on Russia, which is hardly different from that of Merkel’s party.

The leader of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, would probably become chancellor in the event this new coalition becomes a reality. At the recent congress of his party, he enlisted support of his "comrades." He has also travelled to Moscow for talks with the Russian president twice within the last two years. Understandably, the talks were devoted to the interests of German business in Russia.

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Understanding that Gabriel is not such an appealing and charismatic politician, with opinion polls rating him behind Merkel as a potential chancellor, the Social Democrats may decide to nominate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the most popular politician in Germany at the moment. In case the current minister of foreign affairs becomes chancellor, it would also match up with Russian interests. Steinmeier has repeatedly spoken out against the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions, designating them as ineffective. As a skilled and professional diplomat, he is also trying to take as balanced a position as possible on the Ukrainian crisis.

One cannot, however, rule out the possibility of Angela Merkel retaining the post of chancellor. The candidate of the CDU-CSU bloc will allegedly be announced at a party congress in December 2016. Even now it is virtually certain that it will be Angela Merkel, who enjoys the unconditional support of her own party.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the CDU will not be able to repeat its success of the previous federal elections. Given the reluctance of the Social Democrats to form a new government with the Christian Democrats, Merkel is likely to have to enter into a coalition with two parties at once to get a majority in the Bundestag the Free Democrats and the Greens. It will be extremely difficult though, as the Greens are more inclined to forge a coalition with their partners in the political spectrum, the Left and the Left-Centrists.

Realizing this, the CDU could strengthen its position by overcoming its differences with the CSU. This might be achieved, for example, by offering Horst Seehofer the post of vice-chancellor or any key ministerial role the option is already being considered in Berlin. As a result, potential voters of the anti-immigrant AfD would probably cast their votes for the Christian Democrats and the CSU position in the bloc would be considerably strengthened. It is known that the CSU, like the Social Democrats, holds a softer position towards Moscow.

Seehofer, like Gabriel, has visited the Kremlin for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in February this year. Economic issues dominated the talks: German car manufacturers, many of whom have their headquarters in Bavaria, are among the main losers from the imposition of anti-Russian sanctions. The raised status of the CSU in the bloc would lead to Merkel being forced to yield to Seehofer’s demands, including the issue of anti-Russian sanctions, if she wants to further pursue her refugee policy. In the very unlikely case of the formation of a "grand coalition" between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, political bargaining will be inescapable as well.

Due to a completely new alignment of political forces in Germany it is very difficult to guess which of them will manage to form the ruling coalition next year and who will be the next chancellor. The only evident thing now is that in case of re-election, Angela Merkel will be forced to make significant concessions. Anti-Russian sanctions of the EU are going to be lifted or eased significantly in the economic sphere.

Anyway, Russia's priority in its relations with Germany is not the lifting of the sanctions per se, but the creation of a technological alliance with its European neighbor to modernize the Russian economy. Russia’s pivot to the East cannot provide this opportunity. If the “red-red-green” coalition is forged in the Bundestag, a new stage in bilateral relations is more than possible.