The news that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting German emails, online chats and phone calls and shared some of it with the country’s intelligence services has reinvigorated what looked like a relatively secure election race for Merkel.
As the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) ratchet up the rhetoric, Germany’s press is wondering whether the backlash could crack Merkel’s armour and damage the seemingly untouchable poll lead of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
The Chancellor’s initial attempts to deny all prior knowledge of the NSA Prism spying program, have met with scepticism from almost all commentators.
In a recent interview with broadcaster ARD Merkel tried to reassure voters with the promise that Germany would take a “strict position” in calling for international agreements regulating US surveillance.
“It’s all good, I’m dealing with it, I’m full of drive for action, that’s Merkel’s message. And also: you don’t have to vote for the other guys because of that,” commented the left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung.
But for many, Merkel seems for once to be on very shaky ground. The Chancellor, “who so often appears to be master of the situation, seems to be undecided as to the spying scandal and how to deal with the USA,” wrote Der Spiegel.
Her government’s “awkward humming and hawing” in the hope that “the scales will right themselves” before the country goes to the ballot boxes in September is only making people more angry, wrote the regional Emder Zeitung in Lower Saxony.
“It’s annoying that so many politicians are pretending they didn’t know how the secret services function. Noble agents fighting against evil only exist in James Bond.”
The outrage is showing no signs of dying down as the elections loom large.
“The Cold War is long over,” wrote the central Germany regional Mannheimer Morgen. “Germany is not an occupied country anymore, in which the USA can spy at its own discretion, while the government knows nothing or doesn’t want to know and consciously allows the secret services to operate in the dark.”
“Protecting citizens justifies a lot, but not everything, especially not the systematic infringements of basic rights by a foreign power,” wrote the Karlsruhe-based Badische Neueste Nachrichten. “Angela Merkel’s demand that the USA should observe German laws on German soil reveals complete helplessness, just as much as the call for a international data protection agreement.”
Meanwhile Merkel’s rival for the top job Peer Steinbrück has finally geared up into full-scale attack mode, accusing Merkel of abuse of office and demanding a full explanation of German co-operation with the US secret service.
But many have dismissed this too as hypocritical pre-election posturing, questioning what US spying he tolerated as Merkel’s Finance Minister in the 2005-2009 coalition government made up of his Social Democrats and her conservatives.
Steinbrück’s “new aggressiveness in the spying scandal is not without risk,” wrote Der Spiegel. “First of all it was only a few years ago that the Social Democrat was himself in government … And second, many will interpret loud attacks from a candidate who is behind [in the polls] as an act of desperation.”
But even if it is just electioneering, maybe Steinbrück has a point about Merkel, the Baden-Württemberg Ludwigsburger Kreiszeitung suggested.
When she was sworn in as Chancellor, the paper said, “Merkel pledged to ‘safeguard and defend the constitution and the laws of the nation.’ To secretly tolerate [spies on German soil] means countenancing an onslaught by foreign secret services on Germany’s national integrity.”
Others had only scorn for both sides:
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the government or the opposition – there’s so much insincerity at play its enough to make anyone furious,” wrote the Nürnberger Nachrichten in Bavaria.
“Of course the USA’s assurances brought back by [German Interior Minister Hans-Peter] Friedrich from Washington are just as laughable. But it’s dishonest when the opposition accuse him of “transatlantic moral cowardice,” while [SPD head and former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] … Steinmeier keeps conspicuously silent.”