Without a doubt, the CDU/CSU bloc won the German federal elections despite heavy losses and will form a new coalition government under the old and new chancellor Mrs. Merkel for a fourth term. Unpredictably, the bloc suffered its worst election results (33%) since 1949, i.e., in 70 years. However, an even more shattering blow reduced the Social Democratic Party to 20.5%, and ended all hopes of either winning the elections or the chancellorship. On election evening, the chairman of the SPD, Martin Schulz, declared that his party will not enter into a new coalition with the CDU/CSU, but would opt – for the time being – for leadership of the parliamentary opposition. After two terms in a coalition government with the CDU/CSU, the SPD seems to have learnt its lesson, bitterly, that regardless of how effective and loyal the party managed those terms, and regardless of achieved presentable results, the CDU/CSU and Mrs. Merkel harvested the fruits.
The election may well be remarked on in future history books as changing the spectrum of German politics in a drastic way. It is not only that for the first time in post-World War Two history, six parties will be present in the German Bundestag. In addition the political establishment, which has been mainly formed by the two leading parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, and has incorporated the Greens and the Liberals/FDP (the latter not represented in the Bundestag since 2012) into a ruling normative, societal, and political consensus ranging from domestic to foreign and security policies, has come under attack. This is even more surprising because Germany is considered political stable in comparison to other EU member states, and is seen as experiencing favourable economic conditions and resting on consistent social security networks. But the focus has shifted from social and economic terms to normative concerns: the massive entry of refugees since 2015 has split society as well as the EU. Fears of loosing national identity, security concerns, and being overwhelmed by ideologies and values alien to European/German culture suddenly erupted. Even worse: the identification with the European integration process, which is still seen favourably by a majority of the population, suffered a normative set back. Germans still say an overwhelming ‘yes’ to the European Union, but are highly critical of Brussels. And what is even more precarious: the very idea of Europe has functioned from the 1950s on as a successful ideological surrogate for nationalism. This emotional identification has weakened.
For the first time since the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, a national-conservative party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) has entered the Bundestag. Remarkably, the AfD achieved 12.6% of the popular vote and attained the position of the third strongest party in parliament. The party fundamentally rebels against the liberal-green and leftish ruling consensus, which is derived from post-modern postulates of individualism, and universal norms, and rather opts for policy driven by national interests. Such notions and ideas, if they are formulated into politically workable concepts in future, will add a new dimension to parliamentary discourse and will challenge conventional formulas. If the party overcomes its present aggressive mode and clears its ranks of extremist positions, a stage which can be defined as the usual Kinderkrankheit of new political movements, it could hopefully contribute to an open societal dialogue on essential questions concerning the wellbeing of Germany and its position within the European Union and beyond.
Such debates did not happen during the last term of Merkel’s coalition government. The alienation between people and the ruling political establishment had already been felt since 2014, when from election to election the AfD successfully entered the parliaments of the German Länder. On top of this, essential concerns and issues are outstanding: how to manage the Greek financial crisis, which has been lingering without real results since 2009 and amounts to billions of Euros; whether the European Union is being transformed into a transfer Union with German taxpayers having to pay for the irresponsible financial behavior of other member states; whether untamed processes of globalisation and fierce competition from low-wage economies threaten the workplace security of workers in production; and the question of the social security and pension system staying alive, and the ceiling not climbing above 67 years.
Such essential social and economic concerns were barely met by the political establishment. On top of this, since 2015 a game changer has occurred: the refugee and migration crisis, which is not over yet, has allowed distress, apprehensions, and insecurity to run riot, not only among the most vulnerable lower layers of society, but amongst the middle classes as well. Protest and opposition movements have gained force, especially in Eastern Germany. Merkel’s decision of an open-door policy backfired. With the CDU, and especially the Bavarian sister party, the CSU, exposed to an uncontrolled and massive influx of refugees that led to a breakdown of border regimes, resistance against Berlin mounted. Merkel’s basis of support grew thin within her own ranks. Only the interplay or collaboration of Germany’s leading print and electronic media with the government to keep the refugee issue under the carpet allowed some orderly but unsatisfactory retreat. Policy corrections happened, but came too late and were not effective enough. The refugee issue, with all its negative connotations, did not vanish from the perception of the people. During the election campaign the AfD exploited these subjects systematically and successfully, as the results confirm.
The SPD, the junior partner in government, was held responsible for Merkel’s decision as well and could not mount a mobilising campaign attacking the chancellor. There was neither a real alternative nor a specific issue offered by the SPD with which people could identify. The campaign was seen as tepid, focusing of traditional social democratic achievements and values. It became clear after the only TV duel that the SPD had given up achieving victory and had opted for a rerun of the great coalition.
The liberals, the FDP, not being a member of the Bundestag, profited from the situation as well and achieved remarkable 10.6%. Together with the Greens and the CDU/CSU bloc they will probably form a new coalition government: the Jamaica Coalition. However, given the contradictions between Liberal and Green viewpoints, e.g., on energy policy, to some degree in foreign policy, and in regard to social and labour security, such a new coalition will not be easily kept together. There is a real danger that such a coalition cannot deliver the promised proposals proclaimed by both the Greens and the Liberals during the electoral campaign. And the CDU/CSU bloc is in turmoil as well. Merkel’s fourth term will be her last. The task to find a successor will start soon. But it is not only the search for a successor; the programmatic orientation of the CDU/CSU needs to be adjusted to altered political conditions as well. Internal conflicts may obstruct the realisation of political objectives to change, reform, and restructure German politics.
And the new coalition government will be exposed to harsh critique from both oppositional groups, the Left and the AfD. The driving force of opposition to the Jamaica coalition will probably not come from the SPD. The SPD will need time to develop a convincing program and to renovate its leadership as well. Renewal will be the modus of survival for the coming years.
This leaves the AfD as a strong oppositional factor, if the party can manage to free itself from radical rhetoric and exclude extreme elements. However, given the fundamental resistance of all established parties and their defamation of the AfD as a crypto-fascist, extreme, nationalistic organisation that must be isolated and blocked by any means in the Bundestag, the prospects of the AfD launching such an internal cleaning process are rather dim.