The German general election of 22 September 2013 was closely followed in Spain. The degree of media coverage was comparable with that of a United States presidential election, probably because, as one Spanish newspaper put it in its editorial, the German elections “transcend the borders of Germany (…). Millions of people are aware of how much the results of the ballot box will affect their lives” (ABC, 23.09.13).
This brief -and necessarily rough- analysis of Spanish media coverage is based on the articles and editorials published between September 22 and September 30 by the three major printed newspapers in Spain: the –at least until recently- centre-left El País, the right-wing ABC, and the self-defined ‘liberal’ but mostly anti-PSOE -and yellowish- El Mundo. These three newspapers are those with the widest readership among daily, generalist, and nation-wide printed newspapers in Spain, even if that readership has been falling dramatically since 2007.
The Spanish headlines on September 23 highlighted the large mandate that Chancellor Merkel received in the election. Front pages personalized the electoral victory of the CDU-CSU on the figure of Angela Merkel. It was her victory, her results, her mandate. She made it possible. El País spoke of a “personal victory, not a victory of her government” and ABC talked of a “personal triumph”. El Mundo referred to Merkel’s “presidentialist style”. All three dailies noted that she is the only Prime Minister of the EU that has survived the economic crisis and agreed that she now deserves her place beside the historical figures of Adenauer and Kohl. In the pages of ABC we even find statements such as “Germans love Merkel” and “Merkel is Germany”. Other titles in the inside pages continued with this theme: “Angela I of Germany makes History” (El Mundo); “20 fell, Merkel survives” (El País). Whether the editorial of El Mundo was using the old verse of the national anthem provocatively or not is something we may never ascertain. The only explanation given in the text is that “to paraphrase an old verse from the traditional German anthem, according to which Germany is above everything, Angela Merkel’s great electoral victory certainly places her über alles after crushing all her opponents”.
It did not escape the attention of Spanish journalists the fact that Merkel is often addressed with the term Mutti in Germany. The ABC said that the term Mutti inspires affection, confidence, and proximity. According to El Mundo, Mutti brings to mind a housewife that knows how to keep an orderly household, balanced books and that has food for everyone at the table, even if only scraps. For El País, Mutti refers to the simplicity of the housewife that defends a model of national austerity: “Merkel has an accountant’s view of Europe”.
All three newspapers attributed the victory of the CDU-CSU’s candidate Angela Merkel to the fact that Germany has suffered what El País called a “benign crisis”, during which “Germans have not suffered cuts”. Germany’s macroeconomic indicators are the envy of Eurozone peripheral countries, with the second lowest level of unemployment in the EU and with growth returning to the economy. However, there is a difference in interpretation between the right-wing ABC and the other two. According to ABC‘s editorial, Merkel’s landslide victory was explained by the good situation of the German economy but was not necessarily related to Germany’s European policies towards the periphery. ABC claims that we should not read in Merkel’s victory the approval by the German electorate of her European policies. For El País and El Mundo, by contrast, Merkel’s victory was clearly a reward not just for good performance at home but also for the protection of German interests in the European Union. El Mundo stated in its editorial that ““Germans back Merkel’s policies against the crisis (…), among them her European policy”. According to El País, a “deeply conservative Germany” after the “most boring elections in decades” has given Merkel a mandate to complete the Euro project without renouncing to her promises: “‘solange Ich lebe’ there will be no Eurobonds and no pooling of sovereign debts”. El Mundo also pointed out that Merkel’s challenge ahead will be that of resolving “the tension between increasing competitiveness and the deterioration of the labour market”.
The results are unanimously interpreted as creating a before-and-after situation, something short of an earthquake for the German party system. According to these analyses, the German parliament has been divided into two halves; the CDU occupying all the right and centre-right side; the SPD, Greens and Die Linke sharing the left and centre-left, while the traditional coalition partner of either SPD or the CDU-CSU, the liberal FDP, disappears from the Bundestag and who knows if from the German political landscape altogether. Journalists of all three newspapers see in these results the fragmentation of the German left into three parties that eventually will need to come to terms with the fact that a Green-Linke-SPD coalition might be the only way to touch power: “Until when will the Greens and the SPD continue to renounce to power by rejecting the Communist radicalism of Die Linke?” (ABC). Finally, the spectacular growth of AfD, despite not achieving parliamentary representation, is acknowledged as a challenge that Merkel and her party will have to face in the near future. After all, as El País remarked, AfD is the “only party that managed to fish votes in CDU-CSU shoals” and the CDU-CSU has always been true to its motto of not leaving any unoccupied space to its right.
The grand coalition between CDU-CSU and SDP is unanimously seen as the most likely outcome of the election, despite the alleged risks that the SPD takes by entering such coalition. There are, however, differences in interpretation that can be attributed to the left-right split separating El País from ABC and El Mundo. Whereas El País was “relieved that the CDU did not get an absolute majority”, ABC declared that “the best option would have been an absolute majority of the CDU”. In its editorial, ABC justifies this preference arguing that the real austerity hard-liners, those that pushed Merkel to her pro-austerity excesses towards the European periphery, were her coalition partners, the FDP ministers, particularly the finance liberal minister Rösler, whose radical attitude towards the “countries with problems” “has ended up being punished by voters”. The ABC was not completely alone in this interpretation. In its editorial, El Mundo also hinted at the idea that Merkel’s attitude towards the Eurozone periphery was conditioned by her FDP coalition partners: “it may be the case that her victory will offer her some room for manoeuvre to make her position more flexible…”.
ABC and El Mundo support the Popular Party’s government in Spain as well as the main ideological tenets behind austerity. Even if it may be surprising to a German reader, the editorials of ABC and El Mundo transpire admiration for Merkel and her policies at home. The problem is that in Spain austerity is widely felt as being imposed from outside by Germany and the Troika and, in these circumstances, it is hard to defend Germany’s rigidity when it is causing so much pain among common Spaniards. This is possibly the reason why ABC and El Mundo suggested that Merkel would have been softer had it not been in coalition with the FDP. To take the point even further, ABC‘s editorial hoped that a “stable and strong” grand coalition with a large mandate and legitimacy would be better able than its predecessor to take necessary decisions, such as the banking union and the fiscal union. Self-serving wishful thinking?
The analytical articles inside the pages of ABC and El Mundo offer alternative readings to those presented in the editorials. One such article in ABC stated that “[t]he SPD is much closer to Luther than to Keynes”(A. Sotillo, 23.09.2013) and that, therefore, Spaniards should not expect any change with the SPD in government. Another ABC article talked about the pressure on the CDU-CSU coming from Alternative für Deutschland, a pressure which is expected to grow in the months previous to the European elections of 2014 and which, according to this analysis, will not allow a CDU/CSU-led executive to reduce pressure on the Eurozone periphery (H. Tertsch, 24.09.2013). The pages of El País made reference to the fact that the SPD had supported Merkel’s Euro policies while in the opposition and that, for this reason, there was not much hope that it would change its stance in a grand coalition with Merkel (editorial, 23.09.2014).
ABC reproaches Angela Merkel the growing German nationalism in her management of the Euro crisis: “where Merkel has erred the most is letting the public debate over the crisis generate a current of nationalism (…). This was a mistake, as was postponing the Greek recue package in 2010 until some Land election that was very important for Merkel had taken place” (ABC’s editorial). The blame for this increasing nationalism is to be found, according to ABC, on the attitude of Merkel’s coalition partner, the FDP, which has lost so many votes to the openly anti-European AfD. Although ABC is the only newspaper in the sample under analysis that makes explicit references to German nationalism, El País also reproaches Angela Merkel her pursue of German national interests and her protection of German national sovereignty at the European level, with disregard for EU institutions and other member-states. According to this newspaper, whether Merkel has done so as a tactical move to prevent AfD entering parliament or whether she truly feels it is yet to be seen.
To sum up, there were some coincidences in the interpretations of the results made by the three newspapers but, on the whole, there was a left-right split in the way Germany and Merkel’s leadership was seen by the Spanish media. The centre-left El País was more critical of Merkel’s policy of austerity, both at home and in Europe, and showed satisfaction with the fact that Merkel did not get an absolute majority in parliament. The right-wing ABC would have preferred Merkel alone at the wheel of the European project and justified the rigidity of Merkel’s European policies by putting the blame on the FDP, whose electoral punishment it celebrated as a well deserved consequence of this party’s nationalist and unsupportive attitude towards the European south. The pages in El Mundo showed both criticism and admiration and it is difficult to know where the journal really stands.