The elections to the German Bundestag on Sunday throw up big surprises. Chancellor Angela Merkel will lead the next coalition government, too – her fourth successive win – but in all other respects, the results signify that Germany’s post-World War II politics is at a turning point.
First and foremost, the two mainstream parties that have dominated German politics have now come to represent only 53% of the electorate. The level of fragmentation is stunning for a country that is synonymous with the ‘middle path’. Second, Merkel’s CDU (Christian democrats) has lost support and her coalition partner SPD (social democrats) suffered a humiliating defeat. Third, the right-wing nationalist AfP – reviled as ‘neo-Nazis’ – won over 13% votes and secured 94 seats in the 709-member Bundestag, the first time such a thing is happening in Germany’s post-World War II political history.
Then, there are the sub-plots. The SPD has vowed to sit in the opposition, which means Merkel may have to form the next government with the rightist CSU (Christian socialists) and leftist Green Party as coalition partners, which makes an improbable alliance of convenience. The CDU-led government’s economic policies are likely to be subjected to pulls and counter-pulls from the two coalition partners CSU and Green Party, which are at loggerheads ideologically.
Interestingly, AfP’s main support base happens to be the former communist East Germany and, thus, an ‘East-West’ divide is surfacing after the German unification a quarter century ago.
Again, CDU lost popular support for the wrong reasons. Under the CDU-led government, the German economy did remarkably well. What cost Merkel heavily has been her refugee policies, which have been perceived as appeasement of Muslims opening the door to an influx of Islam in Germany. Merkel eventually took a tougher line on deportations but it was too little, too late. The issues of asylum, integration and deportation and the perceived ‘Islamisation’ of Germany dogged Merkel’s entire election campaign.
The ultra-nationalist AfD framed its campaign on the provocative platform, “Islam does not belong to Germany.” The party’s program calls for a ban on minarets and considers Islam to be incompatible with German culture.
The AfD leader Alexander Gauland has openly called for Germans to reclaim their history: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.” The outgoing foreign Minister and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel warned voters ahead of the poll against having “real Nazis in the German Reichstag for the first time since the end of World War Two”. Germany’s Central Council of Jews said its worst fears had come true in Sunday’s election.
The German policies are almost certain to be affected. Merkel will be under pressure to step up deportation of refugees. The AfD has tasted blood and sensing the national mood, it will surely intensify the ultra-nationalist campaign. Surely, the German discourse is poised to become much more homophobic, much more anti-migrant, much more-anti-Muslim. This will cast shadows on Germany’s relations with Turkey.
Again, Merkel’s approach to Russia will be keenly watched. The AfD – like most ultra-nationalists in Europe, is, ironically, “pro-Russia”. If the Russian strategy has been to discredit western democracies and break them into shambles, there ought to be quiet satisfaction in Moscow over what is unfolding in Germany.
At any rate, a weakened Merkel is not a bad thing for Moscow. (President Vladimir Putin and Merkel had an uneasy personal relationship.) Merkel will now be more susceptible from pressures from the German industry, where Russia has influential lobbyists, for normalization of business ties with Moscow.
The biggest impact of the German election will be felt on European integration processes. Merkel has been out on the back foot and she was a flag-carrier EU integration. Germany’s influence within the EU weakens in the period ahead. And, without a strong axis with Germany, France alone cannot lead European integration. In sum, coming on top of Brexit, EU will be rudderless without Germany’s leadership under an assertive Merkel.