The end of the Merkel era

Last Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced something that was both earth-shattering and also not really a surprise: that she will not seek another term as leader of her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in December and that this is her last term as chancellor.

It’s almost hard to remember a time before Merkel was a dominant figure on the national stage: she’s led the CDU for 18 years and Germany for 13. But her announcement last week set in motion a process that has the potential to reshape Germany: what happens when Merkel isn’t around?

First, for The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan and I looked at how we got here: though Merkel may have survived an extremely politically challenging year in German politics, her downfall truly began last September with her party’s less-than-stellar performance in Germany’s federal elections. Each successive crisis weakened her already waning control over members of her own party, and a state election in Hesse was apparently the final straw. Her departure also sets up what’s sure to be a fierce competition to replace her, one which has already started to take shape; we looked at Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn, the top three contenders for the job.

And second, a few days later, I had a chance to think about what legacy Merkel will leave behind in a piece for NBC News. She’s a paradoxical leader in so many ways, and despite working to cultivate a non-ideological political persona she has become a deeply polarizing figure. Will history remember Merkel for her efforts to combat political chaos and the rise of right-wing populism, or as the leader whose actions helped bring about their success?

I’ll surely be writing on this more on this in the coming weeks and months—stay tuned!

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The Warsaw mayoral race as a metaphor for Polish polarization

Poland has made headlines for the illiberal reforms of its ruling political party, the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS). Just last week, the European Court of Justice pushed back on PiS’s reforms to the Polish judiciary system, which would have allowed the government to force independent (i.e., not specifically government-friendly) judges into early retirement.

Sunday’s local elections across the country were the first electoral test for PiS since they took office in 2015 — and one race in particular, the campaign for Warsaw’s mayor, felt very much like a metaphor for the two competing visions of Poland’s political future. The race pitted Rafal Trzaskowski, of the center-right Civic Platform, against PiS candidate Patryk Jaki. Trzaskowski is a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages and talks about defending liberal democracy; Jaki is a firebrand who speaks in blunt terms about challenging the elites.

Ultimately, exit polls showed Trzaskowski winning the race outright with 54 percent, meaning he was able to avoid continuing to a runoff election against Jaki. Elsewhere in Poland, PiS increased its vote share over the 2014 local elections but hardly made the kind of electoral gains that would have signaled broad support for the government.

With three other major elections coming up here — European elections next May, parliamentary elections next fall and a presidential election in 2020 — many observers had looked to Sunday’s elections as a signal of what’s to come. Ultimately, even if it gave hope to the opposition, they further underscored the deep divisions within the Polish electorate.

Our piece, for The Atlanticwas published yesterday. (Thanks to the International Alumni Center / the Bosch Alumni Network for the “learning exchange grant” that made this possible!)

Warsaw mayoral candidate Rafal Trzaskowski’s campaign bus on his final 24-hour campaign sprint

Sebastian Kurz, one year later

Since last fall’s election in Austria, I’ve been fascinated by now-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as a political character. At the time, his two-pronged campaign strategy—a mix of Macron-style “movement” branding and a sharp turn to the right on immigration—was unique among European center-right parties.

Now, a year later, others have tried to follow in his footsteps—without the same kind of success Kurz had. From the Moderates in Sweden last month to most recently, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), it seems that following the Kurz playbook doesn’t really work for anyone besides Kurz.

Last month, I spent some time in Vienna circling back with the people I talked to during the campaign last fall. One year after the election and ten months into his party’s coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Kurz has managed to create a remarkably stable government. Paradoxically, he’s been able to both keep the peace with his far-right coalition partners while also keeping distance from the more unsavory aspects of their rhetoric.

You can read the piece here, in The Atlantic. Next up: Polish local elections this weekend!

A beautiful September day in the Vienna city center

Sweden, an election with no simple narrative

Swedish voters went to the polls Sunday in an election that had been hyped, particularly by English-language media, as a major coming victory for the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats. Apart from the Bavarian election in mid-October, Sweden is perhaps the biggest remaining test for a far-right party in 2018.

Ultimately, the Sweden Democrats underperformed those sky-high expectations: they won 17.6 percent of the vote, still a significant increase over last time but nowhere near the 24 percent some polls suggested they would win. For my first piece in The Los Angeles Times, I broke down the results and put Sweden’s election into the context of broader European political trends.

For The Atlantic, I looked at Swedish social democracy as a beacon of hope for other center-left parties across Europe—and this sense among Social Democrats leaders and staffers that they need to modernize the movement’s aims and messaging for the post-2008 era. I traveled to Enköping, a city about 40 miles outside of Stockholm, to watch Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez campaign with Sweden’s Stefan Löfven.

And while the pre-election hype for the Sweden Democrats was clearly overblown, I wrote for Foreign Policy that in a way, the party still did win the election. It posted the biggest gains of any party, it set the agenda for campaign-trail topics of discussion and its vote share will likely frustrate efforts of either major coalition to build a government.

Now that I’ve finished up in Sweden, I’m spending six days in Bosnia to learn about the (very complicated) system of government ahead of Oct. 7 elections here. After that, I’ll spend a few days in Vienna reporting on the state of Sebastian Kurz’s government nearly a year after the Austrian election. Quite the busy fall here!

Campaign posters in downtown Stockholm

How to interview the far right

What happens when you do a primetime interview with a far-right politician … but don’t actually ask them about refugee issues?

For The Atlantic yesterday, I looked at one such interview: German broadcaster ZDF sat down with Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and asked him about everything but immigration. On retirement, climate change and digitalization, among others, Gauland struggled to explain his party’s positions—often stating that he had no actual answer to give.

That interview, which aired Sunday evening in Germany, is a study in contrasts with the way the American media handled the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington the same day: news organizations sent a collective horde of journalists down to cover what ultimately ended up being just a few dozen rally-goers.

We as an industry—on both sides of the Atlantic—have struggled to figure out how to cover the far right. When they get into parliaments or governments, their actions and issues are inherently newsworthy; however, overemphasizing or sensationalizing such news also runs the risk of tacitly helping such parties reinforce their rhetoric.

ZDF’s Gauland interview falls into one school of thought on dealing with the far right: treat them the same as you would any other politician, and if they fail to produce substantive answers it’s on them. “These should be questions that should be easy to answer for any political leader, because they are so important for the future of Germany,” University of Kiel political scientist Marcel Dirsus told me. “The AfD wants to talk about refugees because this is where they can score points, but they clearly don’t have answers on any of the other topics.”

Cambodia and the state of press freedom in southeast Asia

Sunday is election day in Cambodia, but it didn’t really feel like campaign season when I spent a week there earlier this month. That’s in large part because there is next to no independent media remaining in the country to cover the election.

But the descent was rapid: beginning last August, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government shut down more than 30 radio stations, delivered a tax bill to one of the English-language dailies that forced it to shut down, and dissolved the main opposition party. The other major English-language newspaper was bought earlier this year by a Malaysian businessman with ties to the Cambodian government, and now reporters’ stories get spiked or edited to toe the company line.

Reporting across southeast Asia for a month showed me how lucky I am to live and report in Germany; though reporters face challenges across the globe these days, journalists in southeast Asia have it especially tough.

My piece from Phnom Penh, which also includes reporting from my time in Malaysia and the Philippines, is up with The Atlantic today. Read it here.

A billboard for Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) in Phnom Penh, one of many on display across the country

The aftermath of Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘stupid God’ comments

A few weeks ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte — known for his outspoken and often offensive rhetoric — made waves when he publicly referred to God as “stupid” and a “son of a bitch.”

This would have been indelicate for any country’s leader to do, but it was walking into a minefield in the Philippines, a deeply religious country in which more than 80 percent of the population of 100 million is Catholic.

Though Duterte’s approval ratings have remained sky-high throughout his first two years in office, the “God” snafu was the first comment of his that seemed to truly resonate among the electorate — and could ultimately have a broader effect on the political atmosphere in the Philippines ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

As part of my Jefferson Fellowship, I and 10 other journalists spent five days reporting in Manila, meeting with everyone from government officials to human rights advocates to university students. These “God” comments were the jumping-off point for two of my stories: the first one on the relationship between Duterte and the Catholic Church for Foreign Policy, which you can read here. The second was on the Philippine vice president, Leni Robredo, and how Duterte’s recent scandals have given her an opening to step up and more vocally oppose Duterte’s policies; you can read that, for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, here.

I’ve been back in Berlin for about a week now, and the rest of my stories from the trip will go online shortly. The rest of my stories from Asia should be publishing this week and next week, and then I’ll turn my attention back to German and European politics (which have not exactly been quiet in my absence).

The Manila Cathedral, in the city’s historic Intramuros district