"Mother knows best" seems to be Germany's current motto. Angela Merkel, who won a third term as chancellor on Sunday, is known as "Mutti," or mommy in Germany. In a time of economic prosperity and psychic unease over Europe, Germans clung to her skirt. She easily persuaded what amounts to an infantilized electorate that she can keep it swaddled in prosperity and comfort. But the greatest test of her political skills is before her.
In traveling across Germany over the past week on a trip sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, it quickly became clear to me that Germans have rarely been more skittish about losing what they have earned over the past decades. At a rally in Frankfurt the Left party's fiery leader Sarah Wagenknecht, who apparently emulates Rosa Luxemberg's hairstyle, delivered a tirade against capitalism and social injustice, but that doesn't really make a huge dent with the electorate. It's too old school. The Left party's share of the vote dropped, from 11.9 percent in 2009 to 8.3 percent. The Green party didn't score very well in this federal election, either. It dropped from 10.7 percent in 2009 to 8.1 percent. It became enmeshed in a pedophilia scandal, dating back to its founding years in the early 1980s when party leader Juergen Trittin apparently signed off on some flyers touting the virtues of taking an agnostic stance about "uncoerced" sex between adults and children. Meanwhile, the Free Democratic Party suffered a cataclysmic loss, dropping to 4.8 percent, below the minimum 5 percent barrier for entry into the Bundestag.
So the small parties, more or less took it on the chin. One didn't. It was the Alternative For Germany, which scored 4.9 percent, coming within a whisker of entering parliament. This was a more than respectable result for a party that barely existed a few months ago. The AFD consists of disaffected Germans who view the Euro with grave msigivings. Until now, Germany had been something of an anomaly in Europe, the only major country where an anti-Euro party had not taken flight. No longer. The AFD mirrors the Austrian Freedom Party, which also espouses classical liberal economics, coupled with an anti-immigrant stance. In American terms, the AFD represents Germany's version of a Tea Party movement—a grass roots movement that detests elites. In Germany's case, the elites have, by and large, uniformly backed the Euro. Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wryly referred to those skeptical about Europe, both in the economics section of his newspaper and at the Bundesbank, as "Euro-Taliban."
The AFD will likely achieve its greatest success in the upcoming European elections. It can campaign against Brussels in Brussels. For now, Germans chose consolidation in this election. A grand coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats looms. Or, if the socialists balk, or, if Merkel proves somewhat more adventurous, one with the Green party, which would allow the Christian Democrats to present themselves as progressive and openminded, key themes in modern Germany. But the Christian Democratic base might revolt. It is the grand coalition that appears to be what many Germans want—consensus, reassurance, "no experiments," as Konrad Adeanuer once put it. But in decapitating the liberal Free Democrats, who espouse lower taxes and civil liberties, perhaps Merkel succeeded all to well. Germans have two votes in the election. Traditionally, they have split their votes, giving one to a candidate and another to a party. But this time the Christian Democrats urged their followers not to split the ticket. Whether the Free Democrats, plagued by factionalism and a weak leadership, can ever recover is an open question. The best that the elderly Rainer Bruderele, one of the party's leaders, could do in a commercial was to complacently smear a thick dollop of butter on a slice of bread to suggest that the party would safeguard bourgeois comforts and prosperity. The voters, as Lorentz Maroldt observed in Der Tagesspiegel, responded by snatching away the butter from the Free Democrats in the election. It is disconsolatory to think that the liberal tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, and embodied in the twentieth by figures such as Theodor Heuss, Walter Scheel, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has reached its terminus. Only an honest look by the party at its failures, which must include a purge of the inept leaders that brought it to its current impasse, can open a new path for future success for the Free Democrats.
Now the Alternative For Germany may form a true conservative opposition to Merkel's party, lambasting it for kowtowing to Europe. Still, it is Merkel's hour. She has persistently been underestimated by many in her own party—and it is very much her party now. She has polished off one rival after another and reinvented the Christian Democrats in her own image, much to the distress of the more conservative party wing. It continued with her latest campaign for office. Her campaign manager Lutz Meyer explained at a dinner on Friday that she had hired him, a former Social Democratic campaign adviser, to renew her brand and to emphasize her feminine qualities. Her entire campaign consisted of softening her message and image, of suggesting to Germans that she could provide the security and comfort they desire. Now Merkel is at the zenith of her power. Not only Germany, but also the rest of Europe will be watching to see how she approaches the monetary crisis that continues to plague the continent. She will have to prove that mother really does know best.