For the first time in more than half a century, a far-right political party is entering the Bundestag. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, tripled its performance in elections in 2013 — when it was founded — to cross the parliamentary threshold and vault into Germany's lower house with some 13 percent of the vote and an estimated 89 or 90 seats, according to local network projections. Both Merkel's CDU and her main rivals, the Social Democrats, or SPD, who came a distant second, saw voters abandon the establishment for the AfD and a number of other smaller parties.
“The apparent groundswell of support for the far right,” noted my colleague Griff Witte, “reflected the lingering resentment among a substantial portion of the electorate toward Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome more than a million asylum seekers amid the European refugee crisis.” It also was a reflection of a German voter apathy toward the “grand coalition” of the previous government — an alliance between Merkel's center-right party and the Social Democrats that both critics and analysts say suffocated political discourse in the country and created a vacuum on the right filled by the anti-establishment AfD.
“There was no real debate between the SPD and the CDU during this campaign,” Heike Otten, a 26-year-old designer in Berlin, told my colleague Rick Noack at a leftist protest outside the AfD party headquarters. “Hence, the lines between both parties were too blurred.”
“We’re not going to beat around the bush. We were hoping for a better result,” a deflated Merkel told supporters at CDU election night headquarters in central Berlin.
Stung by his party's showing, Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats, declared that they would not countenance another alliance with Merkel and would rather take the role as leaders of the opposition in the next government. Should he change his mind — Merkel has asked Schulz to reconsider — that would leave the AfD as the largest party opposing Merkel, an elevated role that would in itself be a shock to the German political system. But with the SPD out and an alliance with the AfD a toxic non-starter, Merkel will likely have to look elsewhere in order to build a “stable government,” as she reiterated Sunday evening.
That's where the prospect of a “Jamaica” coalition comes in. It's a play on the three colors of the political parties in consideration, which happen to be stitched together in the Jamaican flag: The black of Merkel's CDU and their more right-wing sister faction in Bavaria; the yellow of the libertarian Free Democrats, who return to Parliament after a spell in the wilderness; and the green of, well, the Greens, a progressive party. The tripartite arrangement has worked at state-level, but has never been tried on a national level.
The problem for Merkel is that building this coalition will be no easy feat. Already, there are signs of trouble ahead: The Greens' views on issues such as energy, climate and refugee policy will almost certainly clash with the right-wing of Merkel's party as well as the neoliberal Free Democrats, whose leader on Sunday confirmed separately his opposition to proposed reforms to the euro zone that French President Emmanuel Macron wants to push through with Merkel's help.
Merkel will have to summon all her political savvy as a master of centrist, consensus governance to make the “Jamaica” coalition work. But, in the meantime, she faces a euphoric far right that's made a historic breakthrough in German politics, following in the path of other ultranationalist, populist parties in Europe, like France's National Front, and is vowing to “hunt” her in the coming years.
“Once a party gains access to parliament, chances become much lower that it will simply disappear again,” said Tarik Abou-Chadi, a comparative politics researcher at Humboldt University in Berlin, to my colleagues. “The election could remove the social stigma which has hampered other far-right parties in the past.”
There are still doubts over how far-reaching their impact may be, and how deep voter disaffection actually is. “AfD’s chances to expand its appeal further appear to be limited, however,” noted Noack. “A vast majority — about 67 percent of Germans — said in a Gallup poll conducted before Sunday’s vote that they were satisfied with their nationally elected officials.”
Instead, the AfD's rise and the new clout of the Greens and Free Democrats are a sign of an increasing fragmentation of the German political landscape, of a type that's becoming more and more familiar in other European national parliaments. “This means that party systems become more and more fragmented, slightly dominated by one or two medium-sized rather than big parties,” wrote Cas Mudde, an expert on European populist movements, suggesting the AfD's influence will always have its limits. “In such a fragmented structure populist radical-right parties can become highly influential, although they tend to be more obstructive than constructive, even if they have 'only' 10 percent or 15 percent of the vote.”
“Our idealism brought us here,” Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s co-leader, told cheering supporters, before trumpeting a phrase that would sound familiar to readers on both sides of the Atlantic. “We’re going to get Germany back.”
Outside the AfD's party headquarters in Berlin, hundreds of leftist demonstrators gathered and chanted against “Nazis” — a jab at the AfD's pronounced anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim politics, as well as the belief among its leadership, including Gauland, that Germans should no longer have to feel guilty about their role in executing the horrors of World War II.
“They will go home tonight,” said Lisa Hoffmann, a Berlin-based artist speaking to Noack from the sidelines of the protest. “And what happens then?”
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