They're Here How the AfD Steamrolled Germany's Mainstream Parties

Angela Merkel may have been re-elected to a fourth term in office, but the chancellor faces a tough road ahead: Significant setbacks for her conservatives combined with a strong right-wing populist showing and what promises to be an unwieldy governing coalition will test the country's political resilience. BY DER SPIEGEL Staff

Urban Zintel / DER SPIEGEL

You can generally rely on the youth wing of Germany's conservatives, even in difficult times. As the results of the first exit polls got released at 6 p.m. Sunday and flickered on a screen at the Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) national headquarters in Berlin, the next generation of conservatives practiced the same kind of denial of reality that the chancellor would display only a short time later. The election result for the party is devastating -- with only 33 percent of voters casting ballots for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), this is the second-worst election result in the conservatives' history. Even so, the young men and women celebrated as though Angela Merkel had just enjoyed a landslide victory.

Upstairs on the sixth floor, where there are no cameras present or any need to play things down, a different atmosphere was palpable. By 5 p.m., Merkel and her fellow party members knew that the election result would be catastrophic. Up to that point, pollsters had been predicting the party would garner between 34 and 37 percent of the vote. That wouldn't have been thrilling, but it would have been a result the party could explain to voters. And then came the shock: 33 percent or possibly less -- nobody had predicted such a lousy showing.

At first, no one said anything. The state governors, government ministers and members of the conservatives' national committee who had gathered all waited to see how the chancellor would react.

A Chancellor in Denial

"We are going to hold our line," Merkel said.

She had already decided on the language that would be used that afternoon -- that the CDU had achieved all its strategic goals. That it had scored more votes than any other party and that it had the mandate to form a government. During a TV discussion with heads of all the national parties broadcast live just after the first results came out, Merkel said she was "not disappointed" with her party's showing.

Seldom has Merkel bent the truth so far.

Not disappointed?

At shortly after 6 p.m., Monika Grütters, the federal commissioner for culture and media, could be seen walking around party headquarters with an ashen face. Like many other CDU candidates, she wasn't even sure at that point she would be re-elected to her seat in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Grütters was deeply disappointed, but Merkel wanted to prevent a panicked atmosphere within the party at all costs. She obliged all members of the party's national committee, including Grütters, to reconvene at party headquarters after Merkel's TV round. When Grütters argued that she needed to make an appearance before her constituents, Merkel hissed: "You can still go there at 10 p.m." Merkel wanted to go out of her way to demonstrate that the party was celebrating together with its chair.

Even if there was nothing to celebrate. Because the vote came as a shock to the chancellor, marking a major watershed moment for Germany. Never in the history of postwar Germany have the two big-tent, mainstream political parties been punished as badly by voters. It appears that both parties have lost touch with large parts of the population. Protest parties have popped up in Germany time and again, but there has never been one that has succeeded in landing seats in 13 state parliaments. The greatest novelty is that a party that is in parts openly right-wing radical will now be the third-largest in the federal parliament.

History Repeating?

For Merkel, who decided to run for a fourth term as chancellor last November, the Alternative for Germany's (AfD) rise is no less than a debacle. With her choice to run, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Helmut Kohl, who governed the country for 16 years. Now the obvious question is whether Merkel made the same mistake that Kohl made in 1994 when he decided to try to carry on as chancellor? At the time, any shrewd member of the CDU knew that Kohl had fallen behind the times. But no one dared rebel against the elder politician.

Is history now repeating itself? Merkel's campaign laid bare all the problems with her as a person and with the way she leads. Merkel long seemed to hover above everything as a kind of nonpartisan chancellor -- which helps explain why many Germans didn't have any strong feelings about her. But that has changed fundamentally since the refugee crisis.

There are many voters -- especially those outside the traditional CDU party base, who considered Merkel's decision not to close the border to be a major humanitarian gesture. But her refugee policies nevertheless polarized people like few other previous political decisions. Now that anger is sweeping into the Bundestag in the form of the AfD. Viewed in that light, the party is Merkel's creature.

Graphic: The election results
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: The election results

One of the reasons Merkel managed to stay in office for 12 years was that the CDU kept shifting further and further to the left and, by doing so, continued to attract new voters. But in politics there is no such thing as a vacuum and it was only a question of time before a new party would establish itself to the right of the CDU, which is what has now happened.

Merkel's election campaign -- conflict-free and with its infamous asymmetrical demobilization -- once again prevented the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) from gaining in votes. Instead, the party fared worse at the ballot box than it did in the last two elections. With 20.5 percent of the vote, it performed more poorly on Sunday than in any other national election in postwar Germany. But AfD voters didn't allow themselves to be coaxed into a slumber. To the contrary. They viewed Merkel's relaxed election campaign, largely free of any substance, as being further evidence of the arrogance shown by a Merkel with her hands securely on the reins of power.

The Beginning of the End for Merkel Era

Now a fierce debate is looming within the CDU and CSU over the conservatives' future strategy. The election indeed marks the beginning of the end of the Merkel era. There are already forces within the CDU who are pushing for a shift in policies. They include Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Thomas Strobl, who heads the party's state chapter in Baden-Württemberg, but above all Jens Spahn, the party's parliamentary state secretary, who many believe will rise to become the most powerful man in the CDU in the post-Merkel era.

So far, at least, nobody is openly questioning Merkel's authority. But her term in office now has a burden that has never been imposed on any other CDU chancellor. The rise of the Alternative for Germany would be unthinkable were it not for Merkel -- even its name is a reference to the chancellor, playing as it does on her policies for saving the European common currency that she described as being "without alternative." The consequence of those euro rescue policies was the establishment of AfD in February 2013.

Once the crisis in Greece eased, AfD nearly disappeared. But then came Merkel's autumn 2015 decision not to close the borders. The refugee crisis marked AfD's rebirth -- and it simultaneously energized and radicalized the party. The refugees, as the AfD's co-lead candidate Alexander Gauland cynically put it, a were "gift from heaven" for the party.

Now Germany faces what will most likely be the most difficult effort to create a new coalition government it has ever faced. One the one side, it has a CSU that has dramatically plunged in its home state of Bavaria to under 40 percent of the vote. It is now likely to veer sharply to the right in order to fight off its AfD competitors in the Bavarian state elections slated for the fall of 2018. "We had an open flank on the right," says CSU party boss Horst Seehofer. The party now intends to close it. At the same time, the Green Party will not want to be in a government with the Christian Democrats if the CSU has too much power. Seehofer's calls for an upper ceiling on the number of refugees allowed into Germany each year is anathema to them, and their surprisingly strong result will provide the Greens with the courage to resist. "The most difficult partner will be the CSU and not the Greens," says Günther Oettinger, a member of the CDU and also Germany's commissioner on the European Commission in Brussels.

Merkel Also 'Without Alternative'

To make matters worse, Merkel also lacks an alternative she can use as a threat in the event coalition negotiations stall. Following their disastrous showing, SPD leaders have categorically ruled out the possibility of continuing the current grand coalition government that pairs Merkel's center-right conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats. Party leader Martin Schulz is worried about the transition to the opposition, but if he were to pursue the grand coalition option, it is likely he would be pushed out of his leadership role before he even had the chance to utter the words "deputy chancellor." Many within the SPD already believe he is on his way out as the party's leader.

Schulz's problem during the campaign was that voters never took him seriously as a challenger to Merkel. Throughout the campaign, it was never really clear in what ways he was truly critical of Merkel. There was a desire among voters for change, but Schulz proved unable to provide it.

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That part fell to the AfD, which celebrated its victory at a nightclub at Berlin's Alexanderplatz, a central square in the capital. Hundreds of police officers cordoned off the skyscraper where the event was held early on Sunday evening, and triumphant members of the party mocked protesters behind the barriers from a terrace on the first floor.

At 6 p.m., as data from the first exit polls could be seen on the television screens, the crowd at the party sang the national anthem and shouted, "AfD! AfD!"

Alexander Gauland, one of the party's two lead candidates, then quickly made clear the kind of tone that could be expected of the party once it is in parliament. "We will hunt Ms. Merkel and we will get back our country and our people." The word "hunt" previously didn't belong to the typical repertoire of democratic customs of politicians in postwar Germany.

Merkel's Period of Reckoning

For the AfD, Merkel is both an object of hatred and their raison d'être. The chancellor has systematically steered her party toward the center over the past 12 years. Together with her current defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, she has ensured that the image of women within the CDU has been changed in enduring ways. They have ensured that party's image of women is no longer of the stay-at-home mom raising her children, but of the career woman concerned with having good child care options. With that shift, Merkel struck a chord with young women. But she also frightened many conservatives. The fact that Merkel also freed the way for a vote on gay marriage in parliament also fits with that image.

A period of reckoning will now begin for Merkel. "Of course, the strategy debate will start again now," says Elmar Brok, a prominent member of the CDU who serves as a member of the European Parliament. But the truth is that this debate never really ended. It simply went dormant because no one wanted to be held responsible for a poor election showing. The first voices of dissent could already be heard on election night. "Of course, you can talk about marriage rights for everyone, but I do not believe this is an issue that is most important to people," says Stanislaw Tillich, the CDU governor of Saxony, the eastern state where AfD is now the leading party, with a slight edge over the CDU.

Graphic: AfD party vote results
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: AfD party vote results

The debate is likely to be a lot tougher than it was in the legislature period that just ended. And after this election result, no one within the leadership ranks of the CDU and CSU still believes that Merkel will seek yet another term after this. The focus now will be on determining the direction the conservatives will take after Merkel leaves office -- and, of course, who her successor will be.

Both sides -- the conservatives and those who support Merkel -- already began delineating their positions on the night of the election. Even during the election campaign, criticism of the close relationship between CSU party chief Seehofer and Merkel had already grown loud in Bavaria. Now, for reasons of sheer self-preservation, Seehofer will be forced to steer a course to the right again. "We will be very, very adamant in asserting our positions," he says. Meanwhile, Helge Braun, a senior CDU official in the chancellery, says with a sigh, "Dealing with the CSU is not going to get any easier."

At the moment, Merkel herself is not in danger of being deposed. The CDU isn't the kind of party that would topple its chancellor during negotiations to create a coalition government. Besides, who is supposed to replace her? Particularly when it comes to the prospects of the "Jamaica coalition" that is currently the most, or indeed only, scenario, there is no other person in question to lead the party. This is at least true of the right wing of the party. The coalition is so named because the colors associated with the parties in question -- the conservatives (Black), the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP, yellow) and the Green Party -- also happen to match those on the Jamaican national flag.

The Shadow Hanging over Merkel

But Merkel's leadership during the next legislature period is likely to be overshadowed by the question of who will succeed the chancellor. Within the right wing of the party, Jens Spahn, who is also a senior official in the Finance Ministry, is positioning himself. But Merkel herself would prefer to see Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen one day become the guardian of her political legacy.

One reason that it had been difficult to challenge Merkel for so long was that the conservatives' leftward turn had also attracted many new voters to the party. But that changed dramatically with Sunday's vote. The conservatives failed to attract any significant votes from the left camp. Meanwhile, the CDU and CSU lost around 1.3 million votes to the FDP, who now return to parliament after a four-year absence, and around 1.1 million votes to the AfD. But this wasn't a vote in favor of the AfD -- it was a vote against Angela Merkel. Sixty percent of AfD voters stated that they did not cast their ballots for the party out of conviction -- it was out of disappointment. Over 90 percent said they worried about the loss of German culture.

Merkel, to be sure, spent much of 2016 walking back many of her refugee policies, but in the campaign, she acted as though she had never actually changed her approach. "I don't totally understand why you would change your policies to correct errors you have identified but then communicate the impression that nothing has changed," Bundestag President Norbert Lammert of the CDU recently told a small group.

Initially, it looked as though Merkel's strategy would be successful. The CDU surprisingly won state elections in Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig Holstein earlier this year. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber tied the voter mobilization largely to the door-to-door campaign he had organized. A handful of skeptics pointed out that SPD mistakes were primarily to thank for the CDU's victory in all three states, but they were discounted as bellyachers.

It was only three weeks before the general election that CDU campaign strategists realized they had misread the national mood. In the televised debate with her challenger, the differences between the chancellor and the SPD were insufficiently clear. And the AfD was profiting handsomely from the perception held by many that all signs pointed toward a repeat of the grand coalition.

Merkel recognized the danger, but she didn't know how to respond. The plans developed by CDU party headquarters envisioned a smooth path to victory for the chancellor and they weren't prepared for surprises. Making matters worse, Seehofer lost his cool.

In mid-September, Bavaria's state interior minister, CSU-member Joachim Herrmann, presented select figures from a set of preliminary crime statistics to the Bavarian state government cabinet. He had intended to go before the press afterward to remark on the reduction in apartment break-ins. But CSU party chief and Governor Seehofer's attention was grabbed by other numbers in the report: an apparent 48 percent rise in the number of rapes in the state, and a seeming 90 percent increase in the number of rapes thought to have been committed by foreigners. Seehofer ordered Herrmann to prioritize those statistics. The problem, though, was that the numbers were quickly criticized by experts as being misleading.

A few days later, Herrmann revisited the statistics, saying the number of "assault-style rapes by single perpetrators" had only risen by a total of 4.4 percent, or three cases. But his correction came too late to eliminate the impression that refugees were responsible for a wave of rapes crashing across Bavaria. Seehofer had unwittingly boosted the AfD's campaign.

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