The outcome of Germany’s federal election on Sunday was unexpected and disturbing, at least by German standards. The two main parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were punished at the ballot box, after having governed as a grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel for the past four years.
The SPD’s performance was its worst in any federal election since the Federal Republic’s first, in 1949. Similarly, the CDU/CSU alliance turned in its second-worst showing since 1949, and the CSU suffered the worst federal-election loss in its history. This is particularly important, given that Bavaria will hold state-level elections next year.
All told, the election was a landslide against Merkel’s grand coalition. And, to a large extent, it can be seen as a protest vote against Merkel herself. Internationally, she is appreciated as an effective stateswoman and the guarantor of stability and moral authority in the West. But at home, that is clearly no longer the case.
Merkel’s greatest mistake in this election was to rely on the same defensive strategy that she used in the last two elections, when she won resoundingly. She seems to have assumed that avoiding controversy and keeping quiet about the key issues confronting Europe would work once again. This showed poor judgment, given the 2015 refugee crisis and its implications for Germany, to say nothing of the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which captured around 13% of the vote.
Many Germans have been wondering what lies ahead for their country, and for German national identity. Merkel did not provide sufficient answers to these questions. And while she remained silent, populists such as AfD Vice Chairman Alexander Gauland filled the airwaves with loud appeals to ethnic and nationalist nostalgia.
Indeed, the big winner in this election was the AfD, whose members include neo-Nazis and other extremists. The party’s success is a disgrace for Germany. After 72 years, the far right is back in the Bundestag – and with the third-strongest bloc. And the AfD is now the second-largest party in the Länder (federal states) comprising the former East Germany.
Germany is not the only European country where right-wing populists have made electoral gains in recent years. But nowhere is the resurgence of the far right more disconcerting than in Germany, owing to its particular history. To prevent the right from doing irreparable damage to German democracy, the parties that still stand for democratic values must take seriously their responsibility to form a new government.
Merkel will almost certainly remain chancellor in the next government. As CDU and CSU members debate the matter in the coming days, they will find no credible or equally popular alternative to her. Electoral losses or not, you can’t overthrow your chancellor without having a convincing replacement waiting in the wings. Merkel is lucky: the knives haven’t come out yet; and even if they do, they probably won’t draw blood – at least for now.
Another unexpected outcome of the election is that the SPD’s leaders are now arguing for joining the opposition – as if participation in the government were a curse to be avoided at all costs. This will make the process of forming the next government long and painstaking, which is unusual in German politics.
With the SPD refusing to participate in a grand coalition, the only mathematically viable option that remains is a “Jamaica” alliance – named for Jamaica’s black, yellow, and green flag – comprising the CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democrats, and the Greens. But getting there will not be easy: while the parties will not have much trouble arriving at the necessary policy compromises, they differ markedly in governing mentality and leadership style.
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Moreover, the domestic political calendar will most likely prolong the coalition talks. Party leaders will posture and try to save face in the eyes of their constituencies, and not much will happen until after the state elections in Lower Saxony on October 15. And even then, a new government will not be formed quickly.
The only alternatives to a Jamaica coalition are a CDU/CSU minority government or a new election next spring, which would probably only strengthen the AfD’s position. Both outcomes would be bad for Germany, which is widely perceived – and relied on – as an anchor of stability in Europe.
That means the future of German democracy and European stability will depend on whether reason prevails among the remaining smaller parties. The Jamaica parties have a responsibility to get behind Merkel, and to compromise as necessary to form a government. Their leaders, one hopes, will be smart enough to work together in good faith, rather than seeking only narrow partisan advantage. They can start by making security, economic reform, and ecological and digital modernization the three pillars of a new kind of coalition.
As for Merkel, failing to form a stable majority government would probably spell the end of her chancellorship. And, more broadly, it could usher in a new period of political chaos. No one should wish that on Germany – or on Europe.
Republication forbidden. Copyright: Project Syndicate 2017 Germany’s Grave New World