All politics may be local, but the German national election reflected major trends in the political culture of a country at the center of both the European Project and the Transatlantic relationship. These trends need to be understood by Americans who casually assume that Angela Merkel won again. In fact, her party received one vote in three, hardly a mandate. More broadly, the election demonstrated the continuing fragmentation of political power in unified Germany, the sustained alienation of its eastern population from the political cultures of both Germany and Europe, and the increasing delegitimization of German political and economic elites.
The postwar Federal Republic was built around strong political parties on the center-right and center-left. The Christian Democrats, with the Bavarian-Christian Socialists, (CDU/CSU) were the tories of the new Germany, its natural governing party. The Social Democrats (SPD) challenged the conservatives from a position that was genuinely leftist but strongly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet. German workers and voters lived within a structure of power in which government, banks, corporations, labor unions and the media were intertwined (to put it mildly). The system fostered prosperity, security and stability. It also reinforced relations with the United States and European partners.
The integrity of this postwar consensus eroded even before unification, but it was the shift eastward of the political center of gravity with the absorption of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) that altered everything. The Cold War consensus in western Germany had reflected the realities of a divided Germany and a divided Europe. With Germany no longer a front-line bastion of the Cold War, acceptance of the status quo by younger voters eroded. Germany’s mission in Europe (to foster a “European Germany rather than a German Europe”) looked increasingly expensive to taxpayers, as western Germany undertook to subsidize the new eastern states for a generation. Unification incorporated into the German political demographic people who had no experience with the western system and considerable doubts about it. Most families in eastern Germany had had no practical contact with democratic politics since the Weimar Republic. Their expectations from unification were high, but their lack of sophistication opened eastern Germany to a wave of carpetbaggers from the West, while the most talented young people often found opportunity by moving to the West or beyond.
These were huge societal, economic and political dynamics. Many books have been and will be written about this dramatic (albeit peaceful) episode in redrawing Germany on the European map yet again. The institutions fashioned for postwar realities tried to maintain themselves largely unchanged into a new century for new citizens for whom names like Adenauer and Brandt are musty relics. It could not last. The first political schism came from the decision of an SPD government under Gerhardt Schroeder to adopt neoliberal principles into a party once steeped in Marxism. This led to the separation of the left wing of the SPD to join in 2007 with former East German communists into a new Left Party. This rendered the SPD too small to lead a national coalition and fit only for a subordinate role in a Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU. The consequence was a loss of voter appeal to the point the SPD won only one vote in five last month. It has retreated into opposition, on the long road to restore its stature with disillusioned Germans on the left, if it can.
The CDU/CSU under Angela Merkel used many years in power to solidify its dominance of an expanded political center and to co-opt policies from the left. In doing so, Merkel left her right flank wide open, on issues ranging from Greek bailouts, to welcoming Middle Eastern refugees without much forethought, to adopting social innovations distasteful to the traditional CDU/CSU electorate such as same-sex marriage. As the world now knows, that exposed right flank is now occupied by an inchoate but dynamic new political force, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
It is difficult to exaggerate how striking is the swift capture of democratic legitimacy by the AfD. It holds legislative seats in thirteen of Germany’s sixteen states (and will likely win in a couple more) and will occupy ninety-five seats in the national legislature, the Bundestag. The size of the AfD parliamentary victory reflects in part the nature of the German electoral system, as the AfD now has more seats in Berlin than the politically stronger National Front in France has ever managed to deploy in the Assemblée National in Paris. How this disparate group will behave strikes concern into the more traditional parties (and, doubtless, joy into journalistic hearts), for the AfD has no reason at all to cooperate with Merkel on either coalition formation or governing. The AfD was elected to oppose, and it will. Indeed, adding the 13 percent of the vote gained by the AfD with the 9 percent for the Left Party (plus votes for smaller radical parties), nearly one German voter in four opted to oppose their country’s basic constitutional consensus.