It should come as little surprise, then, that the finger-pointing over the violence at the Hamburg G20 was in full swing even before the ink dried on the summit communiqué. Conservatives blamed Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat (SPD) mayor of Hamburg who predicted there wouldn’t be any major disruptions to the summit, while some on the center left attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel for staging the meeting in a city with a long tradition of leftist violence. Though Scholz, once seen as a possible SPD leader, described the crisis as his “toughest hour,” he said he wouldn’t step down.
“The decision on security was made by the chancellor,” SPD Vice Chairman Ralf Stegner said. “Anyone who tries to push the political responsibility onto the SPD is simply wrong.”
The police, struggling to explain how they failed to bring roughly 1,500 left-wing hooligans under control despite the presence of more than 20,000 officers, blamed politicians across the spectrum.
“What happened is exactly what I and many colleagues predicted,” said Jan Reinecke, a senior Hamburg police union official, suggesting the political class had turned a deaf ear to their concerns.
Security consistently ranks as one of German voters’ central concerns. With Germany’s election campaign heating up, the blame game could get uncomfortable for Merkel & Co., but it is unlikely to present little more than a speed bump on their road to victory.
The chancellor’s Christian Democrats (CDU) sell themselves as the party of law and order, with considerable success. More than 40 percent of Germans trust the CDU more than the SPD when it comes to fighting crime, according to a survey published by public broadcaster ZDF last week.
While recent episodes such as the infamous New Year’s Eve assaults in Cologne and the chaos surrounding the refugee crisis remain fresh, opposition parties on the left are seen as weaker on the issue. In turn, mainstream voters consider the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which advocates a hard-line stance on such violence, as too extreme. Now polling at only 7 percent, the AfD no longer poses a major threat to Merkel’s conservatives.
That’s why the CDU’s post-G20 strategy has been to take the high road. Merkel’s surrogates have been out in force for the past 24 hours, laying the blame for the violence not on the Social Democrats, which govern in Hamburg together with the Greens, but rather on the leftists themselves.
“The people who are responsible are a group of hooligans,” said Peter Altmaier, Merkel’s chief of staff, on Monday.
Meanwhile, Martin Schulz, the SPD’s challenger for the chancellorship in September’s election, defended the choice of Hamburg for the meeting, saying: “It is clear that a G20 summit should be able to be held in an open and tolerant city like Hamburg.”
Regional authorities oversee the police in Germany’s federalist system. Given the magnitude of the G20 summit and the complexity of planning the security, however, federal officials were deeply involved in the preparations. So while some local CDU offiicals have called for Mayor Scholz’s resignation, the party’s leadership has been careful not to cast stones across the aisle, focusing instead on those directly responsible for the violence.
“This marks a turning point in assessing the violent intentions of the leftist scene,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière told reporters Monday, adding that henceforth, authorities would pursue extremists on the left with the same vigor they employ in chasing neo-Nazis. “We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking this could be a legimate protest.”
Critics of the government’s security planning point out that the threat posed by left-wing extremists at such gatherings is well known and it’s disingenuous to suggest the violence couldn’t have been anticipated.
Indeed, similar riots took place in Frankfurt in 2015 during the opening of the European Central Bank’s new headquarters. Several hundred protestors were arrested, while dozens of police officers suffered injuries in the street clashes.
Even if the government’s attempts to deflect the criticism ring hollow, Merkel has proved a master at surviving such political storms. Despite the security lapses associated with refugee influx, she succeeded in winning back Germans’ confidence by tightening asylum rules, accelerating deportations and signaling she was ready to take a harder line.
Merkel also has the advantage that left-wing violence in Germany is more of a problem for the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left party, all of whom have long been accused by some conservatives of, if not encouraging, at least sympathizing with the violent protestors.
The SPD’s Martin Schulz, speaking at a campaign event, tried to make it clear he believed the rioters “cannot claim any political legitimation whatsoever.”
“It has the characteristics of terrorism,” said the former European Parliament president.
With Merkel’s conservative bloc ahead of the SPD by 16 points in the polls at 40 percent and little more than two months until election day, the chancellor probably doesn’t have too much to worry about.
Merkel may be unlikely to take responsibility for the breakdown of public order in Hamburg. But fortunately for the chancellor, most Germans don’t blame her either.
Author Matthew Karnitschnig