German Voters Shake Up the Elites

Angela Merkel in Berlin, Germany, September 24, 2017 (Reuters photo: Kai Pfaffenbach)
Will Angela Merkel respond to voters’ concerns or keep ignoring them?

German chancellor Angela Merkel has paid a steep price for her controversial 2015 decision to let in millions of people fleeing Middle Eastern and African countries.

Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, came in first in Sunday’s elections, but its 33 percent haul was its worst result since the party’s founding in 1945, at the end of WWII. (The opposition Social Democrats also turned in their worst post-war result.)

Merkel’s policies on refugees and, in particular, her poor record on assimilation of migrants led 1.1 million of her party’s 2013 voters to flee to the nationalist Alternative for Germany, which won a stunning 13 percent of the vote. Merkel’s failure to stand up for free-market policies caused an additional 1.3 million of her party’s previous voters to plump for the pro-market Free Democrats, who doubled their 2013 vote and reentered parliament.

The big news out of the election is that Merkel is now weakened and will probably have to take on the odd couple of the Free Democrats and the left-wing Greens to form a government. She has ruled out having any alliance with Alternative for Germany, which polite society in Germany brands as anti-democratic, racist, and xenophobic. Its political opponents tar it with even worse names. Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Cem Özdemir, co-leaders of the Green party, used their post-election speeches to tell supporters that there were “again Nazis in parliament.”

That sort of name-calling obscures the real reasons for the rise of the Alternative for Germany party. More than 80 percent of Germans are satisfied with their economic condition, but in the formerly Communist eastern states that reunited with Germany in 1990, life has been tough and employment prospects limited. In those areas, the Alternative party won 22 percent of the vote (it placed first with male voters at 27 percent). Similarly, many Germans believed that the “grand coalition” of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the left-wing Social Democrats had suffocated political debate in Germany, closing out real discussion over the migrant problem, crime, bailouts of countries hurt by the faltering euro, and the loss of German sovereignty.

Everyone who voted for the Alternative knew they wouldn’t enter government, but many wanted them to have a voice. Groups that have felt behind by economic and cultural change were especially attracted by its promise to upset the cozy political culture of the capital in Berlin.

Consider that the Alternative party won support across the political spectrum. While 1,070,000 voters left Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union to vote for them, almost as many voters (970,000) abandoned the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left party (which has it roots in the old Communist regime of East Germany) to vote for a nationalist party that combines hostility to radical Islam with opposition to bigger government. After the votes were in, Left-party leader Katja Kipping mourned that “the progressive Left has fallen below 40 percent of the vote” for the first time in any modern German election.

How to explain these head-spinning developments? Henry Olsen, the editor of the Flyover Country blog at the current-affairs website UnHerd, explained to me that the German elections bear a resemblance to the Brexit results in Britain and to the Trump victory in the U.S. “For the same reason you had Labour-party voters going for Brexit and Obama voters abandoning Hillary, politics in Western countries is increasingly not about Left v. Right but about Ins v. Outs. If you are part of the elite, you have likely backed policies that the working class thinks hurt them.”

Olsen isn’t sure how Merkel and her chastened conservatives will handle their slap from the voters. He thinks that if an unwieldy coalition of Conservatives, Free Democrats, and Greens is cobbled together but doesn’t deliver fundamental change, the forces fueling the Alternative for Germany will only accelerate. “Merkel might be unable to stomach the moves toward economic liberalism and cultural conservatism the election results show Germans want,” Olsen says. “But if she can’t handle it, the Christian Democrats will have only one choice: Find someone who can.”


    The Results of Germany’s Election

    Is Angela Merkel a Bellwether Threatening Populism?

    Germany’s Strange Relationship with the EU


The Latest