It’s been just over two months since Angela Merkel became the third chancellor in German history to win a historic four consecutive national elections, yet these months have not been replete with typical fanfare of such events. For the first time since the fall of the Third Reich and the end of the Second World War, a far-right, Nationalist party in called the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has gained a prominent voice in the German political scene. Populism, and all the “take our country back” rhetoric that comes with it, rears its head again.
As mentioned previously, Merkel is only the third chancellor ever to win four national elections. This is historic in its own right, but holds even more weight when placed in context of all that Europe has endured since her election. From the Euro crisis to energy reform, to refugee policy, to foreign relations with difficult leaders like Putin, Angela Merkel has proved time and again that even in the most difficult challenges her position requires of her, she can handle the burden with tact, strategy, and even grace. These often-controversial successes, however, have not come without consequence, which we see, namely, in Germany’s most recent election results.
Merkel’s own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won a majority in parliament, but in its lowest margins since 1949. In 2013, the CDU along with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) won nearly 42 percent of the vote. This year, however, that number is down, sitting at just one third (32.9 percent) of voters. On the night of the win, Merkel herself said, “No doubt about it, we had hoped for a slightly better result. That’s very clear.” She went on to clarify that this victory was not lackluster solely because of the new lows in votes received, but also because the AfD won as big as they did and now holds a new presence in the German parliament, the Bundestag. “Of course we are facing a huge test, the AfD entering parliament,” she said. “We will carry out a profound analysis, because we want to win back the voters of the AfD by solving problems and listening to their worries, and sometimes their fears, but above all, through good politics.”
And it will be a “huge test” for Merkel and her party to reverse the trend. Public support for the AfD has almost tripled, (4.7 percent of the popular vote in 2013 to 12.6 percent in 2017), an uptick demonstrated by its newfound seats in parliament. Twelve point six percent may not sound like much support, but German parliamentary elections are complex, and for the past four years Merkel’s party has enjoyed a coalition with the Social Democrats Party (SPD) who also lost ground in the September elections. Dropping from a 25.7 percent win in 2013 to 20.8 percent, the SPD has said that it will no longer work in exclusive coalition with the CDU. That means that although the AfD only won 12.6 percent of the vote, they occupy a sufficient amount of parliament such that Merkel and her party won’t be able to simply ignore or steamroll them. The CDU will be forced to make new coalitions if they want to limit the AfD.
The Alternative for Germany was ecstatic about its victory, and in a speech on the night of the election, party leader Alexander Gauland said, “as we are clearly the third strongest party, the German government, whichever way it is formed, should dress warmly! We will hunt them. We will hunt Ms. Merkel or whoever, and we will take our country and our people back again.” This rhetoric is aggressive in its own right, but the insidious nature is reinforced by the policies and beliefs of the AfD. They are explicitly anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-EU. With their new 94 parliamentary seats, this kind of nationalist, populist ideology puts much of what Merkel and her coalition have accomplished over the past 12 years.
So what does all of this political turmoil mean for Merkel, her party, Germany, and by extension, the world? First and foremost, it means that the nature of German parliamentary debate, at least for the foreseeable future, will be very different than it has been in recent years. The CDU still holds more seats than any other party, but not enough to pass legislation alone. In order to stifle the AfD, they will need to start working more with the Green Party or the Free Democratic Party (FDP). This is a change, in part, from past coalitions.
What does this mean for Germany? It means that, for the first time since the Nazis were in power, German parliament has to work with a Nationalist party. With the 2015 German policy change of allowing refugees and asylum-seekers into the country, coupled with the global rise of nationalism, it remains to be seen how long this will last, and what the ramifications will be over time and more specifically how Merkel and her party will hold out. With rising tides of populism in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Scotland, Poland, and now Germany, it remains to be seen how the international community will continue to cooperate and exist as presently constituted.
One thing is for certain; Angela Merkel has become arguably the most recognizable symbol of the international political community. After this German election, she also won her very own international superlative: Most-Precariously Placed Leader of the Free World.
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