Democracy at Stake
Germany's Slide to the Right
A vandalized AfD campaign poster in Berlin
Monday, 9/25/2017 03:28 PM
The one side says things like: "We will hunt them down. We will hunt down Ms. Merkel or whoever else and we will take back our country and our people." That is what Alexander Gauland, the self-proclaimed guardian of the German people, said shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday evening when the first exit polls were made public.
The other side strikes a different tone: "We had hoped for a slightly better result." That is what Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday evening. She also said she "wasn't disappointed." It was a unique display of exceedingly unsuccessful political dissembling.
This year's general election in Germany has been heralded as an epochal shift. Merkel's "grand coalition," pairing her conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), was voted out of office and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) became Germany's third-strongest party. In the search for reasons for the shift, the language of politics is a good place to start. The AfD professed to be clear and decisive, their language was explicit -- and voters rewarded them for it. The chancellor, by contrast, sought to avoid discussions and to completely ignore major issues focused on by the populists: foreign migrants and German uneasiness. Merkel's political style, which is characterized by avoiding clashes, was punished to the greatest possible degree.
And the center-left Social Democrats were unable to settle on a strategy early on -- or at least they were unable to stick to the tactics they found late in the campaign. It was only after the election, at 6:05 p.m. on Sunday evening, that the disappointed SPD, no longer bound by the discipline of the campaign, finally managed to define what differentiates it from Merkel's Christian Democrats -- which was touchingly awkward. Because in democracies, after the election is too late.
No Substantive Foundation
It seems clear what will now happen: a coalition matching Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party -- almost certainly under the leadership of a Merkel who suddenly seems shrunk and fainthearted, and whose days as her party's leader no longer seem infinite. The only alternative would be new elections or -- in a few weeks -- a reversal on the part of the SPD. The party pledged on Sunday night that it would not be part of a coalition with Merkel going forward, and an about-face would be extremely damaging.
BRUNA/ EPA-EFE/ REX/ Shutterstock
First: The right-wing populists with the AfD will now enter the Bundestag as the third-strongest party, with not a few far-right extremists among their ranks. The AfD will do all it can to re-enter parliament in four years' time -- and for that to happen, German society must remain divided. Pictured here is Alexander Gauland, the AfD's co-lead candidate in Sunday's election.
Second: Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have lost a significant number of voters. That won't prevent Merkel from a fourth term in office, but it will make forming a government coalition that much more complicated.
Third: Germany's big-tent parties -- the CDU led by Angela Merkel and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by Martin Schulz -- have recorded their weakest combined result in six decades. Germany's party system is fragmenting further.
Fourth: The SPD has collapsed, or rather: It has collapsed even further after an already poor showing in 2009 (23 percent) and 2013 (25.7 percent) elections. Its years in government as junior partner to the CDU has reduced this once proud party to being Merkel's minions in parliament.
Fifth: The Free Democratic Party (FDP) is back. Its success is a token of voter faith: The pro-business party must not allow itself to be dominated by the CDU as it did when it was Merkel's junior coalition partner during her second term, from 2009 to 2013.
Sixth: The Left Party has remained stable, but it still has no prospect of entering into government -- and the rise of the right-wing populist AfD means that it can no longer claim to be the only haven for Germany's protest voters.
Seven: The strong showing by the right-wing populist AfD is a particular headache for the Bavarian conservatives, the Christian Social Union, led by Horst Seehofer, which saw support fall to 38.5 percent -- it's worst result since the first postwar German election in 1949.
Eight: A new polarization in parliament, a potential new coalition model in government and an SPD that is likely to lead the opposition? Put together, all this might provide an opportunity for a political renewal in Germany.
As such, Germany is heading for a "Jamaica coalition," so named because the colors associated with the parties in question -- black for the conservatives, yellow for the FDP and green -- match up with the colors of the Jamaican flag. Germany has never seen that type of coalition at the national level, which makes such a government per-se interesting, and it also sounds rather romantic, like reggae, sun and rum. But the political coalition Jamaica doesn't even rise to the level of a project and has no substantive foundation. It only has a common enemy, the AfD, and the fact that the parties involved can only achieve power in such a constellation. How will the FDP and the Greens find common ground on climate change policies? And how will the immigration-skeptics from the CSU agree with the Greens on a migration strategy for Germany and the European Union?
That is hardly a promising starting point for good governance, and yet the coming four years will be important. Liberal democracy, in Germany as elsewhere, is neither secure nor self-evident. We are seeing in the United Kingdom and in France how tiny cracks can grow with time into significant societal schisms. We have seen in the United States, Poland, Hungary and Turkey how ruthless and antagonistic political life can become and how rapidly judicial independence, press freedoms and democracy can be undermined.
Turbulent and Heated Times
Whether the AfD, whether its intolerance and xenophobia, whether the return of Nazi notions it represents, will remain an uncomfortable fringe phenomenon in the long term or whether Gauland and his ilk end up with 20 percent in the next election will depend on how the new government and the new parliament approach the challenges of the coming years.
Angela Merkel enjoys admiration from abroad. Barack Obama handed her the mantle of the leader of the West while young leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau have said they learn from Merkel.
But the view from up close is usually more precise. In crises, Merkel seems neutral and ambiguous -- she waits to see how things play out. Migration in Africa, for example, has been developing for several years, but Merkel was uninterested in addressing the issue. The fact that Germany lost control of its borders for around two months in 2015 had less to do with a noble decision to allow in refugees than it was the consequence of lousy management. Merkel's climate policies are hypocritical -- she occasionally goes on the offensive rhetorically, but the concrete steps she actually takes have consistently been timid. Those are just too examples, but globalization presents myriad challenges. The chancellor will have to find her way to determination and learn to adequately explain the steps she takes (and also facilitate identification -- real, bold emotion) if she wants to prevent the right-wing populists, who she helped create, from sticking around and from growing.
The same holds true for parliament: The Bundestag also wasn't good enough in recent years. There were few debates deserving of the name and as a consequence, the government didn't feel beholden to parliament. It won't be easy to embark on a more constructive, more serious political path in these increasingly turbulent and heated times. But that is precisely what German democracy needs.