Yesterday’s elections in Germany have brought a far-right party into the Bundestag for the first time in more than half a century, and raise concerns about Angela Merkel’s ability to cobble together a coalition for her fourth term as chancellor.
Six parties will now enter the Bundestag — the most since 1957. Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its counterpart in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, will once again be in the position of forming a government. But two additional parties won seats, complicating the coalition-building process. And with virtually all the returns having been counted, the CDU/CSU appears to have received just 33 percent of the vote — its worst result since 1949. The Social Democrats, the other traditional “big” party, finished with about 21 percent of the vote, their worst showing since 1890.
With 13 percent of the seats, third place went to the Alternative for Germany (Alternativ für Deutschland, AfD), a radical new right-wing party. (More about them in a moment.) In fourth, the libertarian-ish Free Democrats — think more Rand Paul than Ron — earned just under 11 percent, propelling them back to the Bundestag after their failure to get 5 percent in the last election four years ago. The “democratic socialist” Left Party and the Greens both ended up with about 9 percent each.
The immediate task before Chancellor Merkel is to form a governing coalition out of this dog’s breakfast. Merkel’s work would be easy if the SPD were willing to join again with her CDU/CSU, as it did during the last session. The SPD, led during the 2017 campaign by former E.U. parliamentarian Martin Schultz, has ruled out once again serving as a junior partner to the CDU/CSU, although this may change as negotiations proceed. Other possibilities Merkel might consider include the forming of what commentators call a “Jamaica coalition” because of the colors of the party brands: the “black” CDU/CSU, the “yellow” Free Democrats, and the Greens. However, neither the Free Democrats nor the Greens is a “big-tent” party, one with appeal to a broad cross-section of the German electorate. And while each could probably work well on its own with the CDU, neither would work well with the other; the Bavarian CSU is more conservative and has a far tenser relationship with the Greens than Chancellor Merkel does. The junior partners would also likely pull the coalition in different directions: the FDP is a Bjørn Lomborg-type party on environmental issues, and the Greens, as you might imagine, are not happy with that at all.
In 2013, it ultimately took three months for the CDU/CSU to form a coalition; it would not be surprising to see such a prolonged delay again this time around. Merkel will have to use all her (substantial) political wiles to assemble a coalition for the next four years.
The other big story coming out of the elections involves the AfD, the bull in the china shop. It’s a mashup: The AfD managed to attract support from outsiders, the unemployed, the quietly skeptical who didn’t dare tell anyone about their worries about Merkel’s stances on Europe and immigration, and the outright racists, including Nazis of all stripes. The party has served as a Rorschach test, both for its voters and for its opponents. In exit polls, 91 percent of AfD voters polled said they feared the influence of Islam on Germany and an even higher proportion, 95 percent, said they worried about the loss of German language and culture. The AfD was the strongest party among men in the former East Germany. Nationwide, 60 percent of its voters chalked their decision up to “disappointment” with the other parties.
Merkel pointedly noted in her “victory” speech that Berlin must do a better job of addressing these disaffected voters’ concerns. By contrast, the SPD’s Heiko Maas, who is currently Germany’s minister of justice, argued in the run-up to the election that much of the AfD’s platform was unconstitutional.
In stark contrast to “mainstream” German parties, the AfD came out vehemently against Merkel’s refugee and integration policies, as well as Germany’s multi-party consensus on preserving the Euro. This is in keeping with the party’s short history: The AfD was originally founded in 2013 as an anti-Euro party by an economics professor who was later booted from the party for being insufficiently . . . anti-Europe.
What started as a Euroskeptic party — something between the Tories and UKIP — ultimately found its voice in its co-chairman Alexander Gauland, a fork-tongued lawyer who late in the campaign exasperatedly declared his inability to understand why the efforts of the Wehrmacht soldiers weren’t more celebrated in Germany after World War II the way that Napoleon and Admiral Halsey were celebrated in France and the U.K.
Gauland has sworn to begin to “take our country back.” Back to what, exactly, remains to be seen.