Commentary 26 September 2017

The German Shake-Up: Rocky Road Ahead for Angela Merkel

by Thorsten Benner                 Al Jazeera

It would seem that German voters reserved the big bang for the ballot box, as if to counteract what many observers had decried as a "boring election". In a major shake-up, a record number of seven parties secured seats in the Bundestag following Sunday's election, including the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). 

As expected, Angela Merkel managed to secure a fourth term as German chancellor. But the result is a far cry from her triumph four years ago. Merkel’s CDU/CSU lost 8.5 points, bringing its share of the vote down to 33 percent, its worst showing since 1949. Yet the party is still standing tall as the country’s second major political party, the Social Democrats (SPD), also had a disastrous showing with just 20.5 percent - their worst result ever.

Merkel prevailed, but she did not win. Her "grand coalition" with the SPD ended up turning both large German parties into losers. Together, the two major parties have just above 53 percent of the vote, the lowest combined share ever. This is also a result of diminishing party allegiance among German voters, who are now more inclined to change the political party they support or vote for smaller parties.  

The winners from this are the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the AfD. The FDP re-entered parliament after securing 10.7 percent of the vote. The pro-business party’s reemergence is a stunning success for its youthful leader, Christian Lindner, who made the campaign all about himself.

The FDP’s return to parliament was not shocking, as it is a well-known actor in German politics, and they have been part of most coalition governments over the past 60 years. To the contrary, the AfD, which entered the parliament with 12.6 percent, is the first party to the right of the CDU/CSU to secure seats in the Bundestag since the late 1950s. In former East Germany, the party secured more than 20 percent of the vote, making it the second strongest. And in Saxony, it managed to come out as the strongest political party.

The AfD mobilised more than 1.2 million non-voters and gained 1 million votes from Merkel’s CDU/CSU. It also took almost 500,000 votes each from SPD and the Left Party. Many of these voters chose to vote for the AfD because they feel alienated by cultural changes that have taken place in Germany over the past years, including the arrival of mostly Muslim refugees and what some see as the increasing role of Islam in public life.

According to polls, more than 60 percent of AfD supporters cast a protest vote, rather than expressing commitment to the AfD’s party programme. Also, more than 50 percent of AfD voters say they are critical of the party for not doing enough to distance itself from the far right.

In a sense, the success of the AfD makes Germany a normal European country. All of Germany’s neighbours have recently seen the rise of right-wing populism at the ballot box. But for most Germans the entry of the AfD to the Bundestag with its "let us take our country back" rhetoric is anything but normal. Its lead candidate Alexander Gauland promised to "hunt the government". The AfD will certainly use parliament as a staging ground for its serial provocations that often further racist and anti-Islam stereotypes or attack the "cult of guilt" Germany supposedly should finally do away with.

Given the extreme divisions within the AfD and the intensive backstabbing among its leadership, the party may well self-destruct over the coming four years. That party leader Frauke Petry already announced that she would not join the AfD parliamentary group and rather be an independent MP. Petry’s decision is an early sign of the turmoil ahead. But established parties cannot bank on the AfD to self-destruct. They need to smarten up in terms of dealing with this new force and stop stereotyping the AfD and its voters as neo-Nazis, as this is counterproductive.

While it is important to call out the AfD on its extremist statements, it is wrong to let the party’s deliberate provocations and mono-dimensional focus on the supposed dangers of immigration and Islam shape the overall political discussion in Germany. Rather, other parties and the media should turn the discussion back to the topics that will actually determine Germany’s future: economic innovation, public investment, the digital revolution, education and the social system.

Germany needs a vibrant debate on all of these issues and on political alternatives within its democratic spectrum. The SPD’s decision to play an opposition role in the new Bundestag will make the differences between Germany’s two major parties more visible again.

The Chancellor faces a rocky road ahead in her fourth term after what German newspaper BILD called a "nightmare win". Merkel has not revealed what her vision for her fourth and final term is. She campaigned "for a Germany in which we enjoy a good life". She has warned that Germany needs to change in order to secure a prosperous future and not end up as a "technological museum". But she has not spelled out exactly what these changes are and how they would translate into a new coalition government. 

At the moment the so-called "Jamaica coalition", an unruly four-party alliance involving the CDU, the Bavarian CSU, the FDP and the Greens is the only governing option with a stable majority for the chancellor after the SPD ruled out serving in a Merkel government.

In the next four years, Angela Merkel will be pulled in all directions by her partners while having to deal with talk about who her successor will be within her own party. She will find governing much harder than during the years with the Social Democrats.

Over the years, Merkel has turned the CDU into a second Social Democratic party. Additionally, because of her refugee policy and her statement that "Islam is a part of Germany", Merkel herself became a symbol for the cultural change that many AfD supporters are angry about. There will be intense debates within Merkel’s party on whether, how far and how the CDU should move towards the right to regain AfD voters.

While Merkel will remain a key figure on the international stage, do not expect much leadership from Germany in the coming months. Germany will be more introspective dealing with the emergence of the AfD in parliament and the identity politics challenges that come with that. Negotiations over a new government will be protracted. 

If a Jamaica coalition comes into being, it will generally be pro-European. However, there will be fierce debates on Eurozone reform where the leader of the FDP has strongly positioned himself against French President Macron’s proposals of an expansive Eurozone budget. Macron is supposed to unveil the blueprint for his ambitious Eurozone plan this Tuesday. Given the FDP’s opposition and Merkel’s at best lukewarm stance, the outlook for Macron’s plans becoming a reality looks much bleaker after yesterday’s election. For all those still harbouring illusions about Merkel and Germany as the supposed leader of the free world, it is now time to bury those for good.

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This commentary was originally published by Al Jazeera on September 26, 2017. 

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