Angela Merkel won a fourth term at the helm of Germany ensuing the German federal parliamentary election. In postwar Germany, she is now one of the longest serving Chancellors after Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Despite winning her fourth mandate and maintaining her status of most seasoned European politician, she is facing some serious challenges at home. Her conservative party, the CDU, scored one of the lowest results in recent memory and lost almost 1 million voters to the extreme-right anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Time will tell, but this general election sends a signal to Germany, Europe and the world: traditional postwar german politics appear to be changing. This election marks very well a substantial political shift.
Data and Political Landscape
The big story of this election is the rise of the AfD as the third largest bloc in the parliament with over 88 deputies, as it received 12.6% of the vote. As argued by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, “Germany now looks more like a ‘normal’ western country. And that, ironically, is not something to be welcomed.” The normality implies a Western country with a relatively strong presence by a extreme-right anti-immigrant party. Germany is not immune anymore.
The AfD was founded in 2013 in response to the bailout of the Eurozone economies. It was an eurosceptic party created by conservative intellectuals six months prior to the 2013 elections, led by a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, Bernd Lucke, opposed to the bailouts by Germany of other eurozone economies. At that time, the party failed to make it into the Bundestag receiving only 4.6% of the vote, or 0.4 percentage points below the 5% cutoff. The 2015-16 refugee crisis leading to an open-door policy by Chancellor Merkel, welcoming over 1 million refugees, was used by the AfD leadership in order to shift the party ideology from eurosceptism to anti-immigration. The three figureheads of the party being Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel, and Frauke Petry have used incendiary rhetorics and not shied away from addressing Germany’s nazi past.
With 32.9% of the vote, Merkel’s CDU won the night and a significant share of the Bundestag. However, it is a half-tone victory considering one of the worst results for the CDU losing over 8.6% of the votes compared with the 2013 general election. Furthermore, Merkel’s CDU saw the migration of roughly 1 million voters towards the AfD (see chart below). Merkel’s agenda throughout the campaign was mainly based on the concept of continuity. But the migration towards the AfD may not be only about immigration policies. Chancellor Merkel played a considerable role on making Germany one of the strongest world economies and the economic power of the European bloc. The reforms began in the 1990s, continued by Merkel, implementing neoliberal economic programs permitting to grow the economy, lower unemployment and averse the debt. For instance, four of the world largest companies are German and the country has one of the lowest unemployment level at 5.7%. But these policies came at a cost as the trade-off allowed a huge wealth to companies and low wages. Over the 12 years under Merkel, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor has widened and 16% of the population is at risk of poverty.
Arguable one of the major losers of the 2017 election is the SPD receiving its worst defeat since postwar with 20.5% of voters. In a four year period, the party led by Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, lost over 5% of voters. One of the major problems for Schulz, whom lacked strong domestic presence, was his inability to articulate a clear alternative to Merkel’s CDU. In addition, traditional SPD voters, its blue-collars base, is declining and represents roughly 19% of the electorate. This number almost mirrors the final results of the SPD at this election. In addition, almost half a million of SPD voters migrated towards the AfD during this election cycle. Schulz’s call to bring the party into the opposition, meaning it won’t join the coalition with the CDU, is no surprise. During his announcement, the SPD leader declared that “in a democracy the opposition is perhaps a more decisive force than the government.” The hope and strategy is to redefine the values, policies and ultimately ideology of the SPD for the next general election in order to attract more voters.
This illustration below provides a substantial and brief analysis of the Bundestag since the end of the World War two. As one can observe, the SPD-CDU have historically held a substantial majority until the 2017 elections. Last, as illustrated at the bottom of the illustration, a extreme-right party, the AfD, makes his first appearance in the Bundestag since postwar Germany.
In order to govern, Chancellor Merkel will need to form a coalition. The evening of results, SPD leader, Martin Schulz, called for the party to stand as the opposition and not forming a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU. This leaves Merkel with the possibility to join forces with the pro-business Free-Democrats, or FDP, and Green party. This triumvirat is known as the Jamaica Coalition, considering that the colors of each party mirror the colors of the flag of the Caribbean island (Black, Green and Yellow).
The development of the coalition is a priority for Merkel, which will be a major challenge for the Chancellor. For starter, candidates of the FDP and Green party disagree on substantial issues and won’t be easily brought together. A “deal to form a coalition” writes Stefan Wagstyl “could take months to put together, given stark policy differences between the parties on several issues including environmental protection.”
The Jamaica coalition will affect the ability of Merkel to work with French president, Emmanuel Macron. The FDP agenda, as advanced during the campaign, goes in opposition with Macron’s proposals, as it opposes the French proposition to reform the Eurozone (i.e. creation of a European budget). On this point, President Macron will be announcing his vision for the reform of the Eurozone on Tuesday, September 26, as he was waiting for the official results of the German election. Ensuing his speech, FDP reactions will be critical for Merkel in order to define the terms of the coalition and therefore her future line with regards to European reforms.
Finally, Chancellor Merkel will need to deal with a growing opposition within her own party. For instance, Merkel is starting to see some opposition coming from Klaus-Peter Willsch, a conservative CDU, opposed to Merkel’s immigration policy. The dealing with the FDP and Green party will be challenging, but keeping in check her own party will be major dilemma.
German Political Realities and Beyond
Despite winning a fourth term and a clear mandate, the outcomes of this election cycle respond to Merkel’s most critical policy-choices: the bailouts of some of Germany’s Eurozone partners and open-door policies vis-à-vis refugees. Both decisions taken by Chancellor Merkel were the right one at the time (for the bailouts avoiding a collapse of the Eurozone) and morally justified and politically courageous (welcoming over 1 millions refugees). Unfortunately, she is now confronting the reality of a changing German electorate.
The strong result by the AfD to the 2017 federal election sends a significant signal that German politics is changing. Populism, which has been present and rising all around Germany and across the pond, finally arrived in Germany. AfD will be a force to reckon with in the legislative process, but could be the necessary evil in order for mainstream parties to craft more substantial social and integration policies.
However, the day ensuing the results, co-chair of the AfD, Frauke Petry, surprised her colleagues by announcing that she will not be part of the AfD group, but will be present as an independent. This announcement illustrates a reality regarding extreme-right parties in Europe. Winning elections has become easier for these parties, like the Front National (FN) of France and even the UKIP party in the UK, able to attract a substantial
share of the electorate. But they are unable to maintain unity once elected and even less able to govern. The most striking case is exemplified by the FN arriving, as expected, to the second round of the French elections in front of two mainstream parties, Les Républicains (right) and the Socialist Party (left). Marine le Pen, president of the party and presidential candidate, was correct when claiming that the FN was the largest party of France. However, after losing the second round with a high percentage (33.6%), the party has been dealing with major internal crises and is now almost irrelevant in shaping the debate and agenda. Petry’s announcement seems to prove the point that extreme-right parties grow strong as an opposition force using identity politics and deeply inconsistent policies in order to get elected. But their lack of political consistency and leadership tension affect their abilities to survive, despite stronger results at elections, and therefor to govern.
This elections mark a turning point in German politics and may bode some major difficulties ahead for Merkel. Furthermore, ensuing the election of Macron in May and its legislative majority, the world expected France and Germany to be finally on the same political page in order to advance and reform the EU. Hopefully, Europe will not be the big looser of this election.