Things to watch out for at September's G20 highlight

What can we expect?

On 1 January 2013, the presidency of the Group of 20 (G20) developed and developing countries passed from Mexico to Russia. After a series of uninspiring and largely overlooked G20 finance ministers’ meeting, the highlight of the year will be the gathering of the leaders in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. But what can we expect of this eighth summit of G20 leaders?

The G20’s decision to meet in St Petersburg this year is part of a longer process by which Russia has become a central member of the various alphanumeric configurations that have come to characterize global governance. Rewind to the end of the Cold War and it was the Group of 7 (G7) that provided the mechanism by which moral support and financial assistance was extended to the former Soviet Union. Since then, Russia went through a series of different statuses within the G7 from invited observer via full member, thereby creating a Group of 8 (G8) in 1998, to host of the 2006 St Petersburg Summit (famed for the "Yo Blair!" incident when President George W. Bush was caught on microphone hailing Prime Minister Tony Blair). Despite numerous calls along the way for Russia’s membership of the G8 to be rescinded for its poor record on human rights, it was a natural and original member of the first G20 leaders’ summit and its presidency this year can be seen as a culmination of a process by which it has become an integral and recognized member of international society.

At the same time, Russia’s hosting of the G20 will also play out domestically. Leaders of all political shades have attempted to enhance their reputation and standing at home, often with elections in mind, by exploiting the tailwind that hosting a successful summit provides (pace Gordon Brown "saving the world" at the 2009 G20 London Summit). Considering that Russia will host both the Winter Olympics and G8 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, Vladimir Putin will be blessed in the near future with numerous opportunities to showboat both internationally and domestically.

Then there is the actual agenda. The exact focus of the summit’s agenda has been developed over the year and will be a mixture of legacy issues from previous summits and new issues that the Russians hope to add. No doubt the leaders will continue their efforts to stimulate economic growth, as well as combat tax evasion. However, this is an agenda that differs only slightly from that of the G8 leaders when they met by Loch Erne, Northern Ireland earlier this year. Since the first summit of the G20 leaders in November 2008, there have been repeated claims of the G8’s irrelevance and predictions of its ultimate demise. However, it appears as if reports of the G8’s death have been greatly exaggerated, and in fact the G8 may in fact be functioning as a caucus of the "developed" nations within the larger forum of the G20.

Looking beyond St Petersburg, Australia will host the G20 in 2014 and Turkey in 2015. Thereafter, the presidency will rotate on a regional basis with the Asian grouping (China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea) set to host in 2016. South Korea welcomed the G20 to Seoul in 2010 so is unlikely to host again so soon. Both China (seeking to increase its voice in international affairs) and Japan (scheduled to chair the G8 in 2016) have declared their interest in hosting the summit. Indonesia, as a rising middle power, might be the compromise figure everyone can agree to. Whatever the outcome, the process of confirming a host will require a degree of cooperation. Although seemingly minor, this development could provide some optimism in terms of regional cooperation within a group of Asian countries that have historically and recently shown little interest in cooperating unless strategically required to do so.

Imagining Asian regional cooperation in the future inevitably requires a shift in thinking beyond a single-country perspective, which is exactly the approach that the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield of which I am proud to currently be Head has sought to develop since its establishment as a Centre of Japanese Studies fifty years ago this year. Next month our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, will open the Kyoto Science and Technology Forum, as part of a delegation from the university forging links with science and industry in a country uniquely poised to tackle the big issues facing the world – energy, health and sustainability. Engaging with countries like Japan has never been more important.

The East Asia region of 1963 and that of today are barely recognizable as a result of Japan and China’s rise. However, some important issues remain unresolved whether they be the divided Korean Peninsula or the continued American military presence. These changes and continuities inevitably cut across a single country’s concerns and make the region not only one of the most dynamic in the world today but also one necessary to understand for all our futures, not just the G20’s.

Leaders will gather in St Petersburg from 5 to 6 September. Photograph: Getty Images

Hugo Dobson is Professor of Japan’s International Relations and Head of the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. He has attended a number of G8 and G20 summits since 2008 and has written widely on the subject of global summitry and Asia’s role.

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.