The somber re-election of Angela Merkel

Results of exit polls released on German television after polls close

The headlines of American newspapers today will read, “German Chancellor Angela Merkel decidedly wins fourth term.” I saw tweets boasting the re-election of the “leader of the free world” from liberals in the United States.

While that accurately depicts the results of the election, it doesn’t convey the undertone of that win. To give you an idea, when the results of exit polls were released at 6 p.m. Sunday night, the Social Democrats watch party I attended went silent.

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Germany Decides: An American view of the German election

In my cab on the way home the other night, my cabbie and I started talking about the upcoming German election. It’s quite unusual for the normally private Germans to speak frankly about politics — so it was incredibly interesting to hear his view.

Martin Schulz speaking at an SPD rally Friday night in Berlin

“They’re all the same,” he told me. “They’ve promised so many things and broken their promises. Like pensions. I’ve worked for 30 years and I should have a good pension, but they’ve not raised the pension amount.”

The tone he used felt rather familiar — he just wanted a way to say to the “elite” that they needed to stop ignoring the problems facing him.

Tomorrow, Germans will head to the polls to cast their vote. I’ve been attending some of the debates and political rallies and, thus, thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve seen so far.

CDU exhibit in Berlin

For instance, check out this crazy exhibit that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has in Berlin. You go from room to room learning more about the party’s platforms… like this giant beating heart attached to statistics about what Merkel has achieved over her time as chancellor.

I’m not sure how something like this would go over in America, but as one friend said, Merkel’s party can afford to take risks. Pundits have called the election season “boring” as Mrs. Merkel is widely expected to remain chancellor because the CDU/CSU is significantly ahead in the polls.

Yet, there’s still a lot to watch here in my opinion, but it might not be exclusively on election night. The German election system is fascinating because the voters get two votes. On one ballot, they decide which party they want. On the second, they vote for specific candidates. It’s kind of complicated to explain but the number of seats a party gets in the Bundestag is dependent on their percentage of the vote. The first seats are filled by those directly elected and then the party decides who fills in the other spots up to the amount of seats determined by the percentage won during the party ballot.

A party needs 50% of the vote in order to form a government. If they don’t get that amount, they must form a coalition with other parties until they get 50% to form a government.

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz at a campaign event in Berlin Friday

For the past few years, Angela Merkel’s center-right party, the CDU, has formed what’s called the “grand coalition” with the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD. These are the two most popular parties in Germany.

From a distance, as an American, it feels refreshing to see two opposing parties getting along to do the will of the people.

But many believe it has caused a weakening of the mainstream parties — especially SPD — because people generally think the two parties are the same and hold both responsible for decisions made by the government. In addition, it’s hard for the SPD to criticize Merkel’s policies because their party was part of the decision process and thus, if the decision is so bad, why didn’t they stop it?

That has led to an opportunity for fringe parties to recruit voters as people look for ways to voice their displeasure with the status quo.

Deutsche-Welle debate between the parties last week

As you’re watching the results, I think there are two important things to observe. First, the percentage of the vote the fringe parties receive — notably the Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD. The AfD is the nationalistic/populist and far-right party. They’ve had some pretty offensive, sexist and Islamophobic campaign ads and when I was at the Deutsche-Welle debate a few weeks ago, the representative’s rhetoric sounded very Trump-like. (The debate is in English if you care to watch.)

They’ve also had a fair amount of Russian bots and trolls pushing their message through social media, though Germans don’t use social media as prolifically as Americans and generally are more skeptical of news reports. (One German suggested to me that is the legacy of East Germany propaganda media.)

Couple guys taking an AfD sign that was on the ground to the trash

AfD needs 5% of the vote to be allowed in the Bundestag (German Parliament) and they’ve failed to get that in the past, yet, now they’re polling at 10%. I think it is possible that number could be higher as you see a “Trump effect” of people not admitting to how they’re planning to vote as well as those who will want to use their vote to send a message the main parties that they are unhappy.

The second thing to watch is which party Merkel’s CDU/CSU, which will likely get a large percentage of the vote but not 50%, will choose to form a coalition government. SPD has said there is no chance of another “grand coalition,” so which fringe party will CDU team with to form a government? The Economist had a great explainer about the several options.

Finally, it’s impossible to compare the political parties here to the political parties in the U.S. But if you want to see which party your views would align with there is a “Wahl-o-mat” where you can answer questions and see which parties represent you. “Wahl” in German means “choice” or “election.” (Tip: Put it into a Google chrome browser so you can get it to translate the questions. Some questions may not make sense because they deal with internal German politics.)

I’ll be watching the results with one of the parties tomorrow and heading out to a polling place. If I get some time, I’ll post here again after the results.

A short walk through history

Nearly every minute of my walk to the grocery store I encounter a reminder of Germany’s dark past.

Not long after I leave my home, I pass these three “Stolpersteines” (German for stumbling stones) memorializing a family deported to separate concentration camps under the Nazi regime.

For the past 20 years, artist Gunter Demnig has crafted and placed these small memorials outside the last known address for victims of the Nazis reign.

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Seven weeks until the German Elections!

Willkommen von Deutschland! So, it’s been a little harder to keep up with this blog than I anticipated — as well as with what is happening politically in the United States. Seems I wake up every morning to a dozen push alerts and messages from friends. (Though, I’m glad I might have health insurance when I return home! It was weird to watch that vote over breakfast.)

Plus, I’m in language school eight hours a day. Which is fun… but… a lot.

I want this blog to be a “value add” so I think I’m going to just post here when I see something that I think might be of interest. That said — the German Parliamentary Election (or Bundeswahl 2017) season officially kicked off this weekend and I thought people might enjoy hearing how quaint it is. It lasts seven weeks.

Yes. Seven weeks.

Over the weekend, campaign posters popped up around Germany and in my neighborhood.

They’re so… tame…. and issue-focused.

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Paris Agreement: Changing what we can

As I’ve aged, I’ve really started to love hiking. There’s something about wandering through nature with a friend, cut off from technology and surrounded by all of Mother Nature’s glory that just centers you.

It seems fitting that a year ago today I was spending a carefree June day hiking to the Kjenndal Glacier in Norway. I can still feel the crisp air that surrounded me as the sun shone in such a way that every drop of water and blade of grass seemed in technicolor.

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What to think about the airstrikes in Syria

Just more than 12 hours after I published my post about WWI and Syria, President Trump launched an air strike against the Shayrat Airfield in Syria. There is certainly no shortage of hot or bad takes on social media right now about whether that was a logical decision.

I’m not an expert, nor am I confident in what the right decision is regarding Syria. I’m a little unsettled that this administration changed course in a 12-hour period. However, the Syrian people have been waiting for years for someone, anyone, to help end the conflict.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head right now so here’s a rundown of them by hot take topics on social media:

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Reflecting on Syria on the anniversary of WWI

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I. To Europe, this is a significant day because it marks when the U.S. abandoned its longstanding isolationist position and began what Europe perceives as the United States’ modern transatlantic relationship with European nations.

Liberty Memorial-The National WWI Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.

While I was traveling in Brussels last week, I constantly heard about the anniversary and its importance to the relationship. There will be an anniversary celebration in my hometown of Kansas City at the National World War I monument today. You can watch it live here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reflecting on that history, the Trump administration’s current foreign policy (especially in light of recent events in Syria), and my travel experiences in Brussels.

It’s always interesting to travel abroad and hear another perspective about your country. We had a lot of conversations about why American audiences don’t keep up with foreign current events until it actually affects America.

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Brussels: One year later

Memorial at the entrance of the Brussels Airport

My trip to Brussels ended over the weekend and I am back in D.C. now. It was quite an experience and I am so grateful for the chance to learn more about the EU, as well as get so many foreign policy briefings and observe the historic exercise.

Along with being in Brussels during British Prime Minister Theresa May’s historic triggering of Article 50 to begin Britain’s exit from the European Union, I was also in Brussels during the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro.

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Welcome to Brussels: An introduction to the European Union

Hello and Greetings from Brussels, Belgium, the home of the European Union!

I’m here on a tour sponsored by the European Union Delegation to the United States for graduate students in journalism to learn more about what it does and its relations with the United States. It has already been a fascinating trip and we’re only on day one. I would like to share with you some of my reflections from this trip so far. (Note: I want to point out these thoughts that I share are my personal reflections and not necessarily those of the EU.)

American and EU flag pin

It’s an interesting time to be visiting the EU as Britain is trying to exit the European Union. Meanwhile, Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Romewhich established an economic community between six member countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. This economic partnership set the ground work for what developed into the European Union which now consists of 28 member countries — soon to be 27 when the UK “Brexits” (British exit).

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has left many pundits speculating about the future of the organization. But it seems European Council President Donald Tusk’s speech in Rome this weekend commemorating the anniversary has helped calm some nerves.

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The unexpected gift

When the box showed up at my desk with a return address from Mexico, I was nervous. Should I open this? Just a month earlier, the floor above ours was shut down after someone sent an anthrax threat to a group with ties to a certain presidential candidate’s family charity.

Would it be safe to open it?

I hesitated. I didn’t recognize the name on the return address for the rather large box. It wasn’t suspicious in any way—just was unexpected. I think I told my coworkers to call 911 if anything went wrong as I cut open the box.

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