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German Politics Is Giving Rise to a New Tide of Populism
The preferred result for the right would be a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition, but the two parties don’t have enough seats and refuse to include the AfD. That leaves the so-called “Jamaica” coalition with the Greens. (The party colors of black, yellow and green are the same as Jamaica’s flag.) The numbers work, but the Greens are split between ideological lefties and moderates with a special passion for the environment. Forging a common government program that satisfies them as well as the pro-business FDP won’t be easy, especially since the latter blames its collapse in 2013—when the party fell from 14.6 percent the previous election to 4.8 percent—on failing to achieve much of its economic agenda. Thus, the Free Democratic Party won’t sell its participation cheaply.
Four years ago it took roughly three months for the CDU/CSU and SPD to reach a coalition agreement and take office. This time it could take even longer. There’s at least a possibility that the SDP might ultimately be drafted as the only option. Merkel has already urged the party to reconsider its opposition, though its members don’t want to consider the possibility today.
The specific coalition will have ramifications throughout Europe. French president Emmanuel Macron had hoped to win Merkel’s support for a stronger consolidated government in Brussels, with a continental budget and finance minister. That approach would face opposition within the CDU/CSU, many of whose members have tired of writing checks to Greece in violation of EU rules. But the SPD and Greens might go along. The FDP, however, says it would agree to no such change. For this reason Macron bewailed the prospect of the Jamaica coalition.
In contrast, the latter coalition likely would boost Merkel’s promise to almost double military outlays by 2024. Any sustained increase will be difficult, since the German public perceives few foreign threats. However, the SPD actively campaigned against a military build-up. The Greens and Free Democratic Party might be more willing to compromise as part of coalition negotiations.
The latest election results offer the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the FDP’s return to national politics. It is the only Germany party with even a nominal commitment to individual liberty. The CDU/CSU is largely indistinguishable from the SPD as a proponent of an expansive and expensive welfare state.
The bad is the rise of the AfD. Although the party doesn’t look like a modern variant of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, it will add a new, hostile dimension to German politics. The original AfD backed a more restrained—and thus more realistic—vision of European integration. The current iteration has tainted controversial though legitimate popular concerns by turning them into weapons of intolerance.
The ugly is the growing polarization of politics and shrinking mainstream in the Federal Republic. EU leaders convinced themselves that the bad times were behind them after Macron’s victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. But his popularity is tanking. And Germany’s election continues the trend, broken only by last June’s British poll, of major parties losing support to a multiplicity of smaller groupings. Governing is becoming ever more difficult.
Of course, the establishment parties have earned their problems. Little separates the major parties in Europe, either in terms of domestic programs or continental policies. And the results have not been pretty. With respectable figures unwilling to challenge the status quo, no matter how flawed, voters naturally turned elsewhere. The problem in Germany is not that the CDU/CSU and SPD have shed so many supporters. It is that so many ended up with the AfD. Between Die Linke and the AfD, more than one-fifth of the German electorate opted for extremist parties with ugly pedigrees. These parties are unlikely to provide the serious, responsible debate warranted on a number of tough issues.
After yesterday’s vote Europe’s most populous and prosperous nation looks slightly less stable. The immediate changes are likely to be small. But if Germany’s mainstream politicians don’t start offering better solutions, the established political order will continue to fracture. And the populist tide will continue to rise.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.