Federal elections in Germany on Sunday did not grab the world’s attention for their unexpected result. Angela Merkel has ensured her fourth term in office, but has found her party diminished and will face difficult coalition negotiations. However, what they did mark is a historic change of German politics with far-right AfD earning seats in the federal parliament.
On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU/CSU block lost support, while her current coalition partner, the Social Democrats party, had its poorest result since WW2. In an attempt to recuperate after a chastening defeat and to avoid becoming obsolete by enabling Merkel’s politics, the SPD has ruled out a renewed coalition with the CDU.
The fourth win for Merkel is still an amazing achievement, which can attributed to her personally. In 2015, her popularity had taken a heavy hit amid the refuge crisis and no one at that time believed that she could make a comeback.
This success is however clouded by the difficulties that lie ahead.
The AfD’s presence in the parliament should not be major political obstacle. Its result, however troubling, is in line with the rise of hard liners elsewhere, and should be easily be contained since the party itself is divided and its electoral base is extremely heterogeneous.
And despite the fear mongering and the shouts of “Nazis are back,” the AfD cannot be classified as a neo-nazi party. Far-right, yes, anti-EU, anti-immigration, yes and yes. But Nationalist Socialist, no.
It does mark, however a significant change. In its post-unification history, Germany’s political life has been decisively centrist. In the unique position of having experienced both extremes of the political spectrum, German voters have been reluctant to sway too far in either side. In earlier years, it was political suicide to make public statements that could be perceived as extremist, so the fact that the AfD has made it to the parliament indicates a turn of the tide in Germany.
Of course by no means does this mean that we can expect guys goose-stepping in Berlin in five years time. But it does indicate that the former prudence of the German voters is fading.
Nor does it mean that all AfD voters are far-right. Part of its electorate consists of protest voters, conservatives who have been disappointed with the CDU/CSU government policies.
Die Linke, the far left party of Germany and the ideological child of Eric Honecker, lost four hundred thousand voters to AfD, probably because they have a pro-immigration stance and this highlights what is the biggest issue in the mind of the German voters. Germany has had its share of terrorist attacks in the last years and people are afraid.
With SPD out of the picture for a coalition, Merkel must rely on the Greens and FDP in what is called the Jamaica coalition, given the colors of the three parties. The negotiations have started but it could take months before a government is formed. The Greens, as the name implies, focus on environmental issues and that will be their agenda. They are also pro-EU and have adopted a pro-market stance. The FDP is what spells trouble for further European intergration.
As a red line for cooperation, the party has demanded the finance ministry, where Merkel’s closest ally and Germany’s most popular politician, Wolfgang Schauble, has traditionally served. The Free Democrats are also against any plans of fiscal union, or what is now known as the Macron proposal, with the French President supporting an EU budget and finance minister. The FDP does not identify as a eurosceptic party, as it supports closer cooperation in security and defence areas. What it strongly opposes is any kind of fiscal transfers of German taxpayers money to the weakest EU members.
Thus, what German’s elections affect the most is the future of the EU. An organization with flaws and sometimes overbearing policies, but also one with positive effect on the lives of the people who live in Europe. If the whole thing is to succeed, there is no other way than more integration, but with the fears and concerns of the common people taken seriously and not being dismissed as overreactions, which is exactly what fuels the populism machine.
After Donald Trump’s election in the US, many turned to Angela Merkel looking for the next leader of the free world. Though she herself denied such a role, she did assert that Europe needs to adopt a more independent and leading stance in the global scene. These elections make her job even more difficult and it remains to be seen how the far-right presence will affect her country’s traditional post-war reluctance to lead.
Featured image of Reichstag building courtesy of Wikipedia.