What Now For Germany?
For weeks we have been told by every media outlet reporting on the German election that this was the most boring election in history. Angela Merkel and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) was going to win and poll after poll showed that she would retain the chancellorship, albeit with a diminished majority. The only excitement that could be mustered was directed at the anticipated emergence of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) who were predicted to exceed the 5% margin required for entry in the Bundestag. Granted the last two years have made many sceptical of pre election polls, this time it turned out that they were essentially accurate. Merkel won, the AfD are now the third largest party and despite his best attempts, Martin Schulz failed to convince the public that the SPD (Social Democratic Party) were more than just junior partners in the grand coalition with CDU that has governed the country for the last four years.
Despite the clear signs of the end result, German media and many of my friends were still shocked. I was well prepared for the arrival of the AfD, having seen Brexit and Trump previously beat the odds and had girded myself for imminent arrival of the far-right party, yet it did not lessen the impact on Germans. Seeing the first far-right party since 1933 enter the national parliament is still a shocking result, although perhaps the pearl clutching of the media, who had been predicting this for the last six months, is slightly disingenuous.
What does this all mean for the next four years? It is always dangerous to predict the future, but it is perhaps worth looking at the next steps for Germany’s three largest parties.
Merkel has a lot to do in the coming weeks in order to form a government, given that the SPD seem to no longer wish to continue the grand coalition. Talk seems to centre on the need to form a coalition with the FDP (Free Democratic Party) and Green parties, with the former coming back from election devastation in 2013 with 10.7% of the vote. Merkel may have her work cut out, due to the ideological differences between her own party and those of her potential coalition partners, but given the fact that the much celebrated chancellor has essentially been on pause for the last four years, at least she is well rested. Friction between the CDU, FDP and Green parties might actually be a blessing in disguise for Germany and could actually see some real progress made thanks to pressure from the two junior partners. Liberal British media outlets continue to celebrate Merkel as a liberal stalwart, a safe pair of hands in a world of Brexit and Trump. Her humane approach to Asylum seekers is certainly a sign of her liberal leanings, but it must be remembered that she has faced severe criticism for her 2015 decision. She is first and foremost a pragmatist. The British media tend to ignore the fact that Merkel is no liberal, her vote against same sex marriage was typical of the weather vain style of leadership that she epitomises. Germany has far from stagnated under her leadership, but they have hardly made great progressive strides. In a new coalition, perhaps “Mutti” can solve the myriad problems of financial inequality, industrial decline, the environment and pension reform that she has essentially ignored for the last four years.
Despite a strong start to his leadership, Martin Schulz failed to overcome the problem of the perception that the SPD were simply junior partners of government. For four years the SPD along with the CDU have governed the country, yet failed to really explain what they do to the voting public. We know what the SPD is against, but what are they actually for? Some time spent in opposition might also be of benefit to the country as a whole, given that the other parties of the Bundestag have not managed to step up to the plate of opposition during the period of the grand collation. Pressure from an organised opposition is one of the reasons given for Merkel’s decision to allow a vote of conscious on the topic of same sex marriage, which was finally passed earlier this year. Germany has been crying out for a different perspective, one that does not force voters to seek the right-wing bile of the AfD simply because they are different. Germany’s future success could be guaranteed by having a viable alternative to the CDU’s slow and steady approach, hopefully the SPD can provide this in the coming years.
No sooner had the right-wingers finished popping open bottles of champagne following their electoral “success” of 12.6% than they were already embroiled in a fiasco. Frauke Petry, AfD chair and one of the most prominent figures in the party opted to sit as an independent for her constituency. The right wing moderate Petry has been in continual conflict in recent months with her more extreme leadership colleagues, mostly notably Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel. Although this only slightly dents the AfD, it does speak to the major issues the party faces over the next four years, namely how they can hold a party of such diverse positions together. The AfD is not wholly extreme right and Petry’s decision to leave underlines the feud that will surely continue to spill over between right moderates and the frothing reactionaries represented by Gauland. The AfD has been vocal while outside of the Bundestag, but there is more than a chance that once they get their feet under the table, they will find their aggressive tactics more difficult to maintain. Open debate is not an AfD strong point and faced with seasoned politicians willing to challenge their positions and demand to hear their alternatives, Gauland, Weidel and co may find the seats of the Bundestag hotter than they had expected.