Voters Shatter Germany’s Centrist Politics
But that could actually be a good thing, ending “too much consensus.”
BERLIN — For Germany, this was an election of firsts. In yesterday’s federal elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel won another term, clinching her continuance as the leader of Germany after 12 years in power. But Merkel’s expected victory was overshadowed by disappointing numbers for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and by a surge for the insurgent and xenophobic far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which carried 13.5 percent of the vote.
The election’s surprising outcome ensures that, although it will be Merkel’s fourth term, it will hardly be politics as usual. It’s the first time since 1949 that a far-right party has entered the parliament. And it’s the first time the Bundestag will have six parties jockeying for power, up from five, making coalition-building more difficult and less stable.
And since Germany’s two major parties hemorrhaged votes to the four smaller parties — both the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) gave their worst performances since World War II — Merkel will be the first chancellor forced to seek a three-party coalition in order to form a majority government, likely with the pro-business FDP and the Greens.
That’s bad news for those who were hoping a post-election Germany could play a stronger role in leading the way toward a more integrated Europe. With the challenge of forming a government — and the rise of the far-right AfD — Merkel and company will be preoccupied at home.
While the big parties bemoan their drop in support, the outcome could actually rejuvenate German politics, which had over the past decade ossified around a centrism dominated by the CDU and the SDP, leaving many voters feeling left out.
“The U.S. and Germany have opposite problems in terms of how their democracies function,” said Hans Kundnani, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The U.S. has an incredibly polarized democracy, and it threatens to tear itself apart. And Germany has the opposite problem, which is too much consensus over the past 10 years.”
The election was certainly a blow to the country’s historically centrist post-war politics. In 2013, the AfD received 4.7 percent of the vote, just missing the 5 percent threshold to required to enter parliament. But since the migrant crisis crescendoed in 2015, spurring the rise of anti-immigrant far-right parties across Europe, the AfD transformed into an undeniable force, winning local elections across the country in 2016. (Though this year AfD did best where immigrants are fewest.)
Yesterday’s result was only slightly above expectations — the AfD was expected to receive somewhere between 8 and 12 percent of the vote — but it marks a hard reality that can no longer be dismissed. That the AfD clocked in at over 10 percent is a “stunning blow” to the centrists, one campaign official from the SPD told FP. The AfD is expected to gain 87 parliamentary seats out of around 600.
“The AfD presence in the Bundestag shatters any illusions that some people had before the election that Germany was somehow an exception, that it was immune to the rise of populism,” said Kundnani.
At the SPD’s Berlin election party, the mood was grim as the results came in. The SPD came in second place with 20.7 percent of the votes — its lowest performance of the post-war order. Solemn faces and muted applause greeted SPD leader and Merkel’s primary opponent Martin Schulz when he came to the stage to make a speech after the results. “It’s a difficult and bitter day for social democrats in Germany,” Schulz told a crowd of supporters and reporters. “We haven’t reached our objective.”
One senior SPD official lamented his party simply couldn’t mobilize their base, which has hemorrhaged support in recent months as they struggled to rally around a common vision. When asked to rank the election results for his party after Schulz’s speech, he told FP: “On a scale of one to ten, this was a negative ten.”
While Merkel coasted into victory, the mood for her party wasn’t victorious. The CDU dropped from 41.5 percent in her 2013 victory to 32.5 percent. “Of course we would have preferred a better result,” she told her supporters. It was the CDU’s worst result since 1949.
Yet the electoral rebuke could hide a silver lining.
Schulz said the SPD would not take part in any new coalition with Merkel, meaning that the grand coalition is no more. Many Germans are likely to see that as a step in the right direction. The grand coalition became a centrist lodestone on mainstream German politics, pulling its two largest forces and traditionally ideological competitors into a single undifferentiated block.
That means voters have increasingly felt they had no real options to choose from, contributing to the sense of widespread voter disenfranchisement. The rise of the AfD, and the exodus of voters from the grand coalition to the smaller parties, is thus in part due to the grand coalition. Its demise may revive diversity and debate within German politics, Kundani said.
It may also, ironically, revive the SPD in the years to come. In the coalition, the SPD could only play second fiddle to the CDU and, since it was governing alongside a traditional rival, it was unable to articulate a platform meaningfully different than Merkel’s. Martin Schulz was essentially running as an incumbent — but a less prominent and less successful one.
In addition, an SPD in opposition, rather than government, ensures that the AfD won’t be leader of the opposition — for months a very real possibility that had Germans and indeed the Bundestag itself worried sick. The party that leads the opposition has the right to speak second after the chancellor speaks in parliament, granting it significant influence on setting the tone and agenda for parliamentary dialogue. The leader of the opposition traditionally also chairs the powerful budget committee. Many in the Bundestag are breathing a sigh of relief that it is the SPD, not the AfD, that will wield these powers.
Even without that mantle, the AfD was jubilant.
“This is a great night. We did it. We are in parliament,” AfD leader Alexander Gauland told supporters. “We will change this country…. We will hunt Merkel, and reclaim our country and our people,” he said.
Frauke Petry, co-chair of AfD and its one-time star, shocked her far-right friends on Monday by announcing she would not be joining the AfD in parliament. Frauke butted heads with other party leaders in April, when she was accused of trying to move the party “mainstream” after suggesting AfD should reject “racist, anti-Semitic … and nationalist ideologies.”
Meanwhile, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) will enter the parliament once again, after being shut out in an upset in 2013. It nearly doubled its numbers from the 2013 elections, gaining 10.5 percent of the vote. The Green Party was happy with the results as well. Set to get 9.4 percent share of seats in the Bundestag, that marks about a half-percent improvement over 2013. During their election party yesterday evening, they cheered and whistled several times throughout the night as they saw their numbers exceeding their expectations.
With the SPD declaring itself out of the running, Merkel will likely turn to the FDP and the Greens to form a new government in a so-called Jamaica coalition, referring to the black, yellow, and green that represent each of the constituent parties. That’s more cause for celebration for the two smaller parties who have been shut out of governing coalitions in recent elections.
While the AfD won’t have any direct affect on law-making, it will likely make political rhetoric more adversarial, as when Gauland swore last night to “hunt” Merkel. But that may not be all bad. Kundnani thinks that may help bring real debate back to German politics.
“In that way, I kind of welcome the entry of the AfD into the Bundestag, although I disagree with their policies,” said Kundnani. “The fact that they have brought non-voters back into the German democracy is a good thing.”
Still, Germany must come to terms with a far-right party taking root in its politics. Even for those who expected an AfD surge, the mood was bleak. As one CDU official told FP, “I’m not surprised by their strength but much more by our weakness.”
Photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr