The consensus throughout the German election campaign was that this vote was boring — in the best possible way. In a Europe roiled by a high unemployment rate, stagnating growth and unpredictable politics, Germany was viewed as a bastion of stability. It was prosperous and unemployment was low. All the polls predicted that it would elect the same chancellor — Angela Merkel — who has governed the country for 12 years. Merkel’s popularity, moreover, lies largely in the calmness, pragmatism and stability she exudes. If elected, she promised Germans more of the same.
The results are in. Merkel and her party, the CDU/CSU, won as expected. However, beneath this seeming continuity, there have been seismic tremors that will affect not just Germany but the rest of Europe.
The CDU won — but it still did really poorly
The CDU/CSU received only 33 percent of the vote — its worst result since 1949. Until fairly recently, the CDU/CSU and Germany’s other main party, the SPD, received together about 70 percent of the vote. This meant that one of them could always form a majority government with a smaller party with which it had significant overlap. Indeed, Merkel had hoped to form a coalition with the Liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the CDU/CSU’s “traditional” coalition partner. However, these parties together received less than 45 percent of the vote. The only viable majority coalition now seems to be among the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens.
However, such a coalition would be at best unwieldy and at worst unworkable. These parties differ greatly on many key issues. The conservative faction of Merkel’s party views the Greens as anathema. Indeed, some commentators are wondering whether another election may have to be called.
But at least it did better than the SDP
The second disturbing trend highlighted by the election was the decline of Germany’s other historically potential governing party, the SPD, which managed to get just over 20 percent of the vote. This was its worst result since World War II. The SPD’s decline mirrors that of other European center-left parties — an immensely worrying trend. Historically like other social democratic and labor parties, the SPD has acted as the champion of workers, the poor, the disenfranchised and the disaffected. As it has lost that role, members of these groups have flocked to extremist parties on the left and right.
As in the rest of Europe, the decline of the SPD has undermined political stability more generally. Historically German and other European voters were offered some version of center-left or center-right governments, anchored by a party large enough to set a fairly coherent policy agenda and pass it through parliament. That option no longer exists in Germany or many other European countries. (This is even more true on the center-left than right: Even if the SPD were to ally with the two other left parties represented in the German parliament — the Greens and the far-left Die Linke — it still would still lack a majority.)
The decline of the center-left in Germany and elsewhere has thus made it more difficult to form stable, coherent governments — which makes it more difficult to deal with problems, which makes voters more alienated from traditional parties and more frustrated with democratic institutions. The SPD’s electoral decline also means that it cannot enter into a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU because it cannot afford to water down its profile or weaken its voter base; it needs to regroup outside of power and figure out what, if anything, it stands for. Furthermore, if the SPD were to end up in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU, this would make the far-right AfD Germany’s main opposition party — which would give it an immense amount of publicity and power and enable it to present itself as the only real alternative to “politics as usual.”
The extreme right did very well
The third worrying trend seen in the election was the rise of the AfD. The party’s 13 percent of the vote may seem relatively meager in comparison to what National Front received in France or Donald Trump’s victory in the United States. However, in Germany — with its history of right-wing extremism under Adolf Hitler, and its postwar repudiation of the Nazi era — this is a seismic shock. A far-right party will be represented in the German Parliament for the first time in 50 years (it is already represented in 13 state governments).
The AfD is also now Germany’s third-largest party — behind the CDU/CSU and the SPD. In Eastern Germany, it is larger than the SPD and thus the main opposition party in the region. Entering Parliament will not only provide the AfD with a larger platform and more publicity; it will also receive the funding and other resources all parliamentary parties are entitled to. And make no mistake: The AfD is a far-right party, whose leaders regularly make openly racist and Islamophobic statements and minimize Nazi crimes and who continually claim they will “take their country back” from its purported enemies.
Here is the problem: A far-right party has achieved substantial support even in Germany, a country with a history that serves as a warning of what the far right can do in power, and a political establishment that has long paid attention to confronting the right. Germany furthermore lacks many of the characteristics commonly associated with far-right populism — the economy is in good shape, the unemployment rate is low, and Germany’s power and prestige are at a historic high. All this says that citizens are more disaffected and populism has greater appeal than many analysts have recognized.
This has wide-reaching consequences
The most worrying trend of all is that beneath the continuity seemingly offered by Merkel’s unprecedented fourth electoral victory, deeply destabilizing forces are reshaping Germany and the rest of Europe. Many within Merkel’s party dislike her pragmatic centrism but lack the power to topple her or move the party to the right. If the election results or an ineffectual post-election coalition weaken Merkel or she decides at some point to step down (she is on track to become Germany’s longest-serving chancellor since Bismarck), divisions between centrists and conservatives in the CDU/CSU might very well explode. This is especially true because she has not cultivated a successor, let alone one with the political skills necessary to keep the CDU/CSU united around a center-right line.
However, it is not just divisions within the CDU/CSU that Merkel’s personal power and popularity might be masking. Distressing attitudinal shifts also have occurred within German society. During the campaign, surveys revealed that up to 40 percent of German voters agreed with the AfD on issues such as immigration and how to deal with Germany’s past. The AfD is really Germany’s only opposition party on these issues, because all the other parties — the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the FDP, the Greens and even Die Linke — agree (with relatively minor variations) on these questions. Many voters who disagree with the CDU/CSU on these issues have stuck with the party anyway because they trust Merkel to safeguard stability and security. But if her popularity diminishes or she should step down, many of these voters might go for far-right (or left) parties, and political instability in the most powerful country in Europe would have immense consequences for the European Union, other European countries and other liberal democracies.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College