BERLIN — The 2017 German election fits at least three bigger trends. There was Merkel who convinced Germans to grant her a fourth term in office, reaffirming her position as the preferred choice in the center. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) joined a number of other far-right parties across Europe in gaining seats in parliament for the first time, becoming the most likely choice of those drawn to the political sidelines on the right.
Then there was the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which suffered a humiliating defeat in yet another indication of the challenges some traditional left-wing groups across the continent are facing.
Denmark’s Social Democrats were ousted by a center-right coalition headed by the mainstream Venstre party in 2015. In Austria, the Social Democrats are similarly facing record-losses in upcoming elections, and France’s Socialist Party remains in a deep crisis following its defeat earlier this year.
The decline of Europe’s social democrats is closely associated with the rise of the far-right, experts said.
In Germany, core issues usually believed to play into the hands of the Social Democrats, such as social justice and fair wages, have become less of a concern over the last four years. Instead, immigration and security are now some of the most dominating topics.
“The core competencies of the Social Democrats currently don't really play a big role,” said Timo Lochocki, a political researcher with the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank.
“The last year really did mark a collapse of the social democrats across Europe, as the immigration debate gained momentum,” agreed Tarik Abou-Chadi, a researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin. “Many European social democratic parties are quite divided on the issue of immigration, which is why they are refraining from discussing it,” he said.
As the social democrats mostly remained silent, many voters shifted either to right-wing populist parties or to more outspoken parties on the left.
Other trends, such as a growing number of higher education graduates and a shift away from traditional industries, have further eroded social democrats’ support base. Despite that process having dragged on for decades, the social democrats were still able to win elections in the past, however. Before the Merkel era, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder achieved victories with record margins over the conservatives only a little more than a decade ago.
In Great Britain, the Labour Party still appears to be able to make significant gains even today, as it showed during general elections in June. Its unexpected rise in the polls may not be a sign of a social democratic revival more generally, however.
“The momentum created by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union makes Britain a special case which is hard to compare. The U.K.’s electoral system also clearly favors the biggest parties — which makes it distinct from many other European nations,” researcher Abou-Chadi said.
“It also probably has to do with the fact that Theresa May is so deeply unpopular among many in Britain. Of course, Germany’s Merkel is in a far different position,” he said. In a recent Gallup poll conducted before Sunday's vote, 68 percent of Germans said they were satisfied with Merkel’s leadership.
Yet, only a little more than 30 percent of the population ended up voting for her party, the CDU, and Bavaria’s CSU.
Instead of voting for the mainstream alternative, the SPD, some of them chose the far-right instead.
At a leftist protest against the far-right on Sunday evening, hundreds encircled the AfD’s election party location near the Alexanderplatz in central Berlin. “All of Berlin hates the AfD,” some protesters were shouting, as others held up posters with slogans such as “Not my party.”
Responses by protesters here reflected the dilemma the Social Democrats are now in. “I just hope that the response of mainstream politicians to today’s result won’t be a shift toward the right. Simply adopting the same policy positions won’t solve the problem,” said 29-year old designer Henrik Dagedorn. Elsewhere in Europe, some social democratic parties have experimented with adopting more anti-immigration positions but faced a backlash by its urban and young supporters.
There was uncertainty among the protesters about how to stop the rise of the far-right instead, however.
“I fear that they might stay in parliament longer than we expect, because there won’t be any imminent solution for the problems that got them elected in the first place,” said Martina Schnepka, 51, a nurse.
For Germany's Social Democrats, there does not appear be any imminent solution, either.