German Politics Is Giving Rise to a New Tide of Populism
German chancellor Angela Merkel won an overwhelming victory yesterday and is destined to serve a fourth term as Germany’s head of government. However, her victory looks Pyrrhic, as the two traditional ruling parties continue to hemorrhage voters.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union combination (they are sister parties, with the latter running only in Bavaria) had its worst result since the Federal Republic of Germany’s first poll in 1949, receiving 33.0 percent (according to preliminary returns). Moreover, the CDU/CSU sustained the largest drop of any party from the election four years ago, when it received 41.5 percent and almost gained a majority in the Bundestag on its own. No wonder Merkel said she hoped to win back voters from the Alternative for Germany, which attacked her government from the right.
However, while the SPD lost less in absolute terms, dropping from 25.7 percent to 20.5 percent, it also suffered its worst result since 1949. One of the country’s two major governing parties, it won the allegiance of barely one-fifth of voters. In what once was East Germany the SPD of Germany, heir to the Marxist-oriented working class movement, which famously arose in authoritarian Prussia, came in third, after the AfD.
Four years ago the two main parties accounted for almost two-thirds of the votes. This time they barely gained half. Four other parties will be represented in the Bundestag. Die Linke, the former East German communists, rose from 8.6 percent to 9.2 percent, and the Greens edged up from 8.4 to 8.9 percent.
Moreover, the two parties that failed to meet the five percent threshold for entering parliament in 2013 did substantially better this time. The Free Democratic Party and the AfD together collected nearly a quarter of the vote, meaning nearly one-out-of-four parliamentarians will represent viewpoints absent over the last four years. The FDP, representing European liberalism (generally free market and pro-enterprise), rebounded from its shocking collapse with 10.7 percent of the vote to return to the Bundestag. The Free Democratic Party had been Merkel’s coalition partner from 2009 to 2013.
The AfD did even better, gaining 12.6 percent of the vote. Four years ago the AfD was essentially European-liberal but Eurosceptic, that is, critical of the Euro, the continent’s common currency. The Afd was also opposed to the European Union creating a debt and bail-out union, which forced Germany and other more prosperous states to subsidize perceived wastrals, especially Greece. However, nationalist-populists soon ousted the libertarian-leaning leaders and seized control of the party, which began to win enough votes to enter several state parliaments.
The AfD’s ascent brings to mind France’s National Front, Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party, and other populist groups across the continent. However, while AfD is nationalist, even xenophobic, showing hostility toward immigrants and Muslims, it is not a fascist party or the Nazis reborn. Indeed, 60 percent of its voters based their support on disappointment with the major parties rather than enthusiasm for the AfD. Nevertheless, many of its candidates and leaders espouse unsavory and unsettling views. For the first time since World War II a far-right party has entered the Bundestag.
Until now the CDU/CSU managed to define the acceptable rightward limit of German politics. However, the crisis triggered by mass refugee flows from the Mideast—Germany accepted roughly a million migrants in 2015—created dissension even within Merkel’s own party. And the mass influx energized the AfD; the movement demonstrated continued potency even as the number of migrants fell by three-quarters last year and dropped even more this year. The party’s most popular candidate, Alexander Gauland, a member of the AfD’s more extreme faction, declared of Merkel: “We will hound her. We’ll get our country and our people back.”
The new Bundestag likely will yield a new governing coalition. Even with Die Linke, currently shunned by the other parties, the left cannot reach a majority. Such a coalition would have to include the AfD, which the major parties similarly agreed to ostracize. The CDU/CSU could again join with the Social Democratic Party, for the third time under Merkel, but the latter lost politically from its previous such partnership. She is a political chameleon who shamelessly stole her opponent’s policies, making it hard for the social democrats to criticize the head of a government they had been part of. The party’s leaders appear united in rejecting a new coalition. They buttress their case by insisting that it would be inappropriate to allow the AfD to act as the official opposition—a privilege afforded the largest “out” party—giving it significant advantages within the Bundestag.