Democracy at Stake Germany's Slide to the Right

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats lost massive support in Sunday's parliamentary election while the right-wing populist performed better than expected. What happens now?

A vandalized AfD campaign poster in Berlin
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A vandalized AfD campaign poster in Berlin

A DER SPIEGEL Editorial by


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.

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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.

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Photo Gallery: A Turning Point for 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.

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