Merkel Will Spend the Next Four Years Battling Forces at Home
Those who were hoping for a new wave of German leadership will be left waiting.
If you have attended a transatlantic conference in the past year — on any subject — you’ve no doubt encountered someone who opened his or her prepared remarks with, “Once we get through the German election, Merkel will [fill in the blank].” The second half of the sentence varies. I’ve heard that she will join forces with French President Emmanuel Macron and take the European Union to new heights. I’ve heard she will develop a more assertive and effective stance towards U.S. President Donald Trump. I’ve also heard she will solve climate change, save the Iran nuclear deal, and lead the two sides of the Atlantic towards a new policy on Russia. Admittedly, I’ve used that construct myself on more than one occasion. Whatever the ambition, the general sentiment has been the same: Merkel is and will continue to be the de facto leader of Europe, and she stands to do great things during her fourth term.
Not so fast.
Yes, Merkel will serve a fourth term in office. So her many fans on both sides of the Atlantic can celebrate. But Merkel herself isn’t exactly celebrating. “We expected a better result,” she said on Sunday night. The truth is that her own alliance, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, along with the Social Democrats (her party’s coalition partner in recent years), took a beating. In fact, the Social Democrats did so poorly — the party’s worst outcome since the late 1940s — it announced that it would move to the opposition and not join another grand coalition.
The biggest news of the night and the reason many Germans weren’t feeling particularly upbeat on Monday was the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany. That party secured enough votes with its more than 13 percent showing that it will now, for the first time, be granted proper seats in the German legislature, complete with full-time staff. The party celebrated that victory by announcing that it would “hunt Merkel down” and take the country back. The message was clear: Anyone expecting this this anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-Western, pro-Russia party to temper its views once it gets a real taste of governing should think again.
The other story of the night was the rise of some of the other small parties. The Liberals saw some of their strongest returns in years, coming in at just under 11 percent. And the Greens came in close behind at about nine percent. Those two parties will now work to see if they can form a coalition with Merkel and the Christian Democrats. That won’t be easy — leaving the Christian Democrats aside for a minute, the Liberals and the Greens tend to approach most domestic and foreign policy issues from opposite ends. Will they be able to find common ground and compromise to meet their political ambitions? Merkel will soon find out.
What does this mean for those of us who were hoping for a new wave of German leadership? We’ll be left waiting. Merkel will spend months consumed with negotiations with the Liberals and the Greens. And once that is behind her (hopefully by the end of the year), she will begin the even harder task of protecting German democracy and the pillars of German domestic and foreign policy from an opposition party that stands in contradiction to everything for which Merkel stands. Does this signal Merkel’s exit from the world stage? Absolutely not. But it does mean that, in the coming years, more of her political capital will be spent on battling forces at home than they were in years past.
Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Weizsäcker fellow at the Bosch Academy in Berlin. She served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @Julie_C_Smith