The German election is dull, boring even – that’s the verdict of much of the national and international media coverage of the political contest ahead of voting on September 24. Whether you find that a problem depends on your perspective. Many commentators have welcomed a more sober campaign after the recent heated elections in the US, France, and the UK.
But dullness is no excuse for complacency over the critical issues facing Germany’s next government. Take Germany’s relations with two key international interlocutors – Russia and Turkey. In both cases chancellor Angela Merkel has in many ways taken the right approach on human rights. Yet there are significant challenges ahead that will test the next government’s resolve.
Human Rights Watch recently documented systematic interference in preparation of the 2018 presidential campaign of leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny; in July we published findings on new restrictions on freedom of speech online and reported on mass arbitrary arrests and police abuse against peaceful anti-corruption protesters; earlier in the year, authorities in Chechnya launched a viscous purge against people seen as gay.
It is clear from these examples that Russia’s severe crackdown on human rights – the worst since the fall of the Soviet Union – continues unabated. Germany needs to engage with Russia on many bilateral and global issues, but its vital Berlin makes clear it expects Moscow to live up to its international human rights commitments. Berlin also needs to focus on human rights issues in its dealings with Russia on eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
On Turkey, relations between Berlin and Ankara are at a new low following the arrests in Turkey of a number of German nationals – including two journalists and a human rights activist – on politically motivated charges. As Berlin has acknowledged, the severe curtailing of basic rights goes far beyond German nationals. Among the many concerns are the hundreds of reporters put on trial and around 170 behind bars for simply doing their work; the nine members of the parliamentary opposition held in prison while on trial on spurious terrorism charges, and even a spate of cases of men facing terrorism investigations who have been abducted and forcibly disappeared.
Germany’s relations with Turkey are complex: the large Turkish community in Germany, and Turkey’s role in preventing refugees and asylum seekers reaching Europe under the EU-Turkey refugee deal, are just two issues among many Berlin has to weigh. But Berlin’s insistence that Turkey must return to full respect for the rule of law before normal relations can resume is key in signalling to Ankara the seriousness of Germany’s concerns.
Dull or not, there is much at stake on human rights as Germans go to the polls.