25 September 2017

Is this the end of the centrist road for Germany?

By Leopold Traugott

As expected, Angela Merkel enters her fourth term in parliament with a clear majority. But there is little reason for her party to celebrate. With a combined result of just 33 per cent, her union of CDU and Bavarian CSU clocks in its second worst result in history. The fact that more than one million CDU voters are thought to have shifted allegiance to the far-right anti-Merkel AfD exacerbates the disaster.

For her current coalition partner, the Social Democratic SPD, things were even worse. The party was all but annihilated. It’s 20.51 per cent of the vote was the worst ever result for a party that once dominated German politics. This comes afer a long period of decline during which the former workers’ party lost its traditional voter base on Germany’s Left, becoming nearly indistinguishable from Merkel’s CDU, in coalition.

Even the injection of new blood through the selection of former European Parliament president Martin Schulz as leader failed to turn the tide, despite a brief surge in the polls earlier this year. Following the result – which Schulz described as “a bitter hour in the party’s history” –  the leadership announced it was moving into parliamentary opposition and would not be forming another “Grand Coalition” with CDU/CSU. This, doubtless ,was an attempt to claw back some of its lost supporters.

It would seem that Germany’s period of centrist, Merkel-esque consensus politics is drawing to a close. After the last parliament was populated by a mere four parties, with the governing “Grand Coalition” owning a pressing majority of around 80 per cent of seats, there will be more debate and fights in the next one. As the combined vote share for CDU/CSU and SPD falls below 65 per cent, the small parties have all made gains. The Free Democrats (FDP) move from 4.8 per cent to 10.7 per cent; Greens from 8.4 per cent to 8.9 per cent; the Left Party from 8.6 per cent to 9.2 per cent Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) from 4.7 per cent to 12.6 per cent.

The rise of the AfD has already alarmed much of Germany, with thousands taking to the streets at election night to protest against the first entry of a far-right party to the German parliament since the 1960s. On social media, the hashtag “87%” (combined votes for all parties but the AfD) is being used to signal that the majority of Germans do, in fact, oppose the party’s nationalist ideas. Still, the party’s strong showing – AfD was the second largest party overall in Germany’s east and first in Saxony – is something that policy-makers and the public are going to have to come to terms with.

But in the meantime, Merkel has to form a government. And that might not happen before Christmas. Post-election negotiations usually take about a month; this time it will be longer. If the SPD sticks to its decision to join the opposition, the only possible coalition Merkel can form is the so-called “Jamaica coalition” with Free Democrats and the Greens.

This will be difficult, however, as it means bringing together what are essentially four parties (don’t forget the CDU and CSU are de facto two separate parties which often clash on key issues such as migration). While all parties are likely to agree to negotiations, none will compromise easily. Expect the FDP and the Green Party to fight hard over Germany’s car industry (#Dieselgate) and energy subsidies, and Greens and CSU over migration.

Merkel will have to hand out key ministerial posts to the FDP and the Greens if she wants to get them on board, with the Greens aiming for the foreign ministry (Cem Ozdemir is poised to take it) and the FDP for the finance ministry. The CDU’s poor showing probably spells the end for Wolfgang Schaeuble as finance minister, but she may keep him close as president of the German Parliament.

It’s not particularly good news for Brexit or Eurozone reform either, because Merkel’s focus will necessarily be on matters domestic. But it’s going to be messy. The SPD’s strident move into the opposition, punctuated by vocal attacks towards Angela Merkel on election night, and the arrival of the AfD will lead to significantly more belligerent public and parliamentary debate.

Meanwhile, what of Merkel? She is safe for now, though seriously tarnished and will leave the chancellorship in 2021 at the latest (some are already speculating that she will hand over power midterm, but, I wouldn’t hold my breath). There is no queue of plotting princelings waiting and sharpening their knives behind her back (not yet, anyway). But after months of headlines that heralded Merkel as “defender of the free world”, yesterday’s results show she is not invincible.

Merkel has paid a high price for her liberal stance during the refugee crisis, with the AfD succeeding on a platform built nearly exclusively in opposition to her policies. The percentage of Germans who voted against the country’s liberal consensus is now above 20 per cent, if you include the far-left party, Die Linke. For a country that expects to lead Europe, this is troublesome news. For those abroad looking to Germany for increased leadership, it is even worse.

Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at Open Europe (@LeopoldTraugott)