Sunday night’s instant conventional wisdom on the German election results was that Chancellor Merkel had been “wounded” but had nonetheless won a substantial victory and was safe for the next four years. To be sure, she would have some transitional difficulties in assembling a new coalition without the Social Democratic Party (negotiations on it might even go into the New Year) but its broad shape was clear: the so-called Jamaica Coalition of the Christian Democratic Union–Christian Social Union conservatives, the pro-business Free Democrats, and the Greens. This grouping would provide the continuing stability that Germany, Europe, and pro-German politicians such as France’s Emmanuel Macron need. The surge of the populist-nationalist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) from nowhere to third-largest party, with 13 per cent of the vote, was an embarrassment but no more than that. AfD would be shunned and impotent.
Only a few hours later, almost none of that looked quite so certain. Bild newspaper headlined its report this morning “Nightmare Victory,” because the real significance of the election is that German politics is increasingly so fragmented that a genuine lasting majority for necessary but controversial policies will be hard to construct. Mainstream Right and Left parties both had heavy vote losses, and between them they now account for only 53 percent of the electorate compared with around 90 percent for most of the post-war period. Indeed, the two “extreme” parties (the AfD and the not-very-post-Communist Die Linke) won more votes together — 22 percent, than the social democrat SPD which shrank to its worst post-war performance at 20 per cent. But the upshot is that the Centre has not held and will not hold in future. The Christian Democratic Union—Social Democratic Party “grand coalition” is yesterday’s consensus. Other parties now represent 47 percent of German voters. (Creditably, the SDP is now retreating into opposition to rethink its philosophy.) Can Merkel use the Jamaica Coalition to fill this centrist vacuum?
The Jamaica problem is that even if the coalition is formed, it will probably be more than usually unstable. The pro-business Free Democrats and the left-environmentalist Greens are situated ideologically next to different wings of the CDU and will try to pull their major coalition partner in different directions. This is so on a range of major issues: On taxes, the Greens want wealth taxes and redistribution while the Free Democrats want low and stable taxes, especially on business; on climate change, the Greens want the phasing out of fossil fuels and a massive switch to “renewables” whereas the Free Democrats oppose loading ever-higher energy prices on German industry; on Russia, the Greens (somewhat surprisingly) want to tighten sanctions until Putin agrees to stop the war in Ukraine whereas the Free Democrats seem willing to accept a quiet surrender of Crimea in order to revive Russo–German trade; even on policy toward Europe, on which all three parties are outspokenly “pro-European,” the Free Democrats are likely to resist any willingness on the part of Angela Merkel to spend German taxpayers’ money on sweetening Emmanuel Macron’s wildly ambitious campaign to make the European Union a centralized fiscal government. All of these potential divisions, moreover, concern the major policies of any government.
That doesn’t always turn out to matter. Coalitions by their nature mean that the different parties in them have to make some concessions to make other gains. What will make the coalition negotiations more intractable this time, however, is that both the Greens and the Free Democrats feel that Merkel owes them — the Greens because they are making the bigger ideological sacrifice to be a partner to the CDU, the Free Democrats because they feel, not wrongly, that they lost all their seats in the Bundestag last time after Merkel, in an earlier coalition, had ignored their political interests and alienated their constituency. Neither party will yield its interests this time without a serious fight. Policymaking will become contentious, lively, and subject to accidents and rebellions by disappointed individual Green and FDP parliamentarians.
One final confirmation of that is that in the serious post-election discussions on German television, several pundits suggested that the most important task facing the new Jamaica Coalition would be discovering a new philosophy of governing that would hold it together and justify its policies. It’s a revealing hope. One can say of the likely new Coalition what Churchill famously said of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”
Nor does that spiritual absence exhaust Merkel’s problems. Her own conservative coalition will inevitably be restive at this loss. Not only did the CDU lose one in six of its voters, going from 41 to 33 percent of the electorate, but its Bavarian regional ally, the Christian Social Union, lost a slightly larger share — and it blames not itself but Merkel. That complaint is more than merely self-justification. The CSU is a more robustly conservative party than the CDU, which under Merkel has gradually shed its earlier social conservatism (and, economically, the CDU was always a less free-market party than either the CSU or the FDP). Its leader was vocally hostile to Merkel’s policy of inviting Syrian refugees into Germany without theoretical limit — and his party now thinks he was right politically. (Hungary’s Victor Orban was greeted as a popular hero at a CSU convention at the time.) And there is a feeling on the Right that if the CSU had been a national conservative party rather than merely a regional one, it would have picked up many of the votes outside Bavaria that went to the “radical populist” newcomer, the AfD, which will have little direct political influence until the next election because all the other parties are refusing to deal with it.
It is not only CSU supporters who are thinking these things. One of the AfD’s own leaders, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not sit in the Bundestag with the AfD group because, as she sees it, the party has recently behaved in such a way as to show itself incapable of governing. That is true enough, and it was true also when Petry helped take over the party and transform it from a respectable anti-Euro cabal of bankers into a party of angry populists — assisted by the mainstream parties’ declaring that criticism of the euro as an optimal currency was plainly the first step to fascism. (It’s almost a rule of recent European politics that the more extreme the criticisms levelled at a populist party, the more extreme the populist party will become — Germany and Sweden being the classic cases.) That said, Petry has a point: AfD is simply implausible as a contender for power, which means that its 13 percent of the electorate are simply lying in the gutter waiting for someone to come along, pick them up, and make them the basis of a new and slightly more moderate conservative-populist party, or what Orban in Hungary calls a national-conservatism.
That party, however, need not be a new one. It could be an extension of the CSU outside Bavaria. Or it could be a party that breaks away from the CDU to form a new parliamentary faction, perhaps with Petry and other defectors from the AfD. Or it could be the CDU under a new leader. Or it could be something else entirely. The stability of the last two decades has been broken, and there’s no reason to suppose that the fragmentation seen in these election results has suddenly stopped.
That’s why Merkel is not safe for the next four years. Almost everyone in politics, including those who support her strongly, accept that the CDU saw its vote collapse at a time of prosperity and stability — almost entirely because of her policy of inviting the migrants into Germany. It was a policy she decided personally and imposed on Europe, and it failed. Quietly she tried to row back from it without quite admitting the fact. Last year I predicted she would lose Sunday’s election because of that policy; I was wrong; but I wasn’t quite as wrong as I expected on Saturday. Though the blow did not kill, it showed she was mortal. And it is hard for a mere mortal to craft a new governing philosophy that will hold together a fractious coalition if some of her own followers are dusting down the older discarded philosophies that turn out to have a lasting appeal to the voters.
Not only is Merkel seriously wounded today, therefore, but the sense that Germany is the solid reliable rock on which European unity can rest securely is shaken, too. As Cas Mudde pointed out yesterday in a superb analysis of the results in the Guardian, the election has reversed the impact of Macron’s presidential success. Where Macron’s victory was hailed (by, among others, Jean-Claude Junker) as the defeat of populism, the German results show that populism has now spread to regions thought immune to the virus. Though the populist parties in both countries are very far from winning office, they are still around and their rise is shaping (or reflecting) massive changes in political structures and party loyalties. And it’s not over.