Rise of right makes it tough for Merkel

Björn Höcke © Getty images
Björn Höcke: hardliners take the podium

Chancellor Angela Merkel won her fourth term in the German election on Sunday, but the big winner was the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which emerged as the country’s third-largest political force with 12.6% of the vote (which translates to around 90 seats in the Bundestag). Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU party won 33% of the vote, down from 41% in 2013, while the Social Democrats (SPD) crashed to just over 20%, their worst result since 1949.

The SDP immediately ruled out a coalition with Merkel, leaving just one coalition option left, between the “business-oriented” Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, says William Galston in The Wall Street Journal. Both parties, however, will make formidable demands. The FDP is sceptical of greater EU integration and its leader, Christian Lindner, says a rejection of French president Emmanuel Macron’s plans for a common eurozone budget is a red line in coalition talks. The Greens, meanwhile, want to phase out the internal combustion engine, to the “consternation” of Germany’s automobile industry.

Of more interest to most observers, of course, was the significance or otherwise of the rise of the AfD. The party, founded in 2013 to protest the EU bailout of Greece, gained a “new lease of life” in 2015-16 following Merkel’s decision to let in more than a million refugees, says Melissa Eddy in The New York Times. It is the first nationalist, right-wing party to gain seats in the German parliament since World War II. In the words of Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, their victory means that “real Nazis will be standing at the speakers’ podium”. But if the party has no shortage of hardline nationalists – such as Björn Höcke, who has said Germany should stop atoning for its Nazi past, and Jens Maier, who has condemned the creation of “mixed races” – many members are merely conservatives who are “disenchanted with the leftward shift of the CDU” under Merkel, says Guy Chazan in the Financial Times.

Moreover, the AfD has been beset by internal power struggles and scandal. On Monday, it “suffered a dramatic split” when its leader, Frauke Petry, said she would not sit with the party in the Bundestag and would serve instead as an independent. That’s just one of “many reasons to doubt that the AfD is going to be the third force in German politics”, says Cas Mudde in The Guardian. Popular radical parties find it particularly hard to form a “big, coherent faction” in the Bundestag. The AfD faction will “house several ideological and regional subfactions, from a few ‘bourgeois conservatives’ to a majority of populist radical rightwingers, and a few extremists”.

In addition, only 34% of AfD voters voted out of conviction; 60% were voting “against all other parties”. Indeed, the surge of populism in Germany echoes what has happened in elections in the Netherlands and France, says Steven Erlanger in The New York Times. Many votes cast for AfD were “cast in protest” at 12 years of Merkel’s “pragmatism” on issues such as globalisation, immigration, globalisation, and the “burdens” of the EU.

Merkel will, however, struggle to achieve much now, says Wolfgang Munchau in the FT. Having three terms of “stable and loyal coalitions”, she now faces the possible collapse of coalition talks, or a collapse of the coalition itself. Germany will become “more inward-looking”. Internal battles within all the large parties and an “era of confrontation with the AfD” will distract from efforts at economic reform. Germany suffers from under-investment, is dragging its heels in the digital economy, and has “no idea” what to do with the influx of migrants. “Difficult years lie ahead… Merkel has joined the “long list of political leaders who have missed their ideal moment to depart the stage.”