A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Costly Victory

Angela Merkel won the elections, but right-wing populists are spoiling the party.
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Angela Merkel has won a fourth term as chancellor. Yet her grand coalition got badly drubbed. Most worryingly, the huge success of the right-wing AfD reveals a country deeply split.

© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

It’s still the same country, with Angela Merkel confirmed as chancellor for another four years – a stable, liberal, prosperous place. And yet, so much has changed overnight.

For the first time since the early years of the then West German republic, a far-right party has entered the Bundestag, and in force. With its support particularly strong in the eastern parts of the country, Germany seems more divided between the old West and the old East that at any time since reunification in 1990.

On a grand scale, voters repudiated Merkel’s policy on refugees. More than a million of her voters shifted to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), not because they particularly believe in its program, but in protest against a government that they see as too generous to refugees and not firm enough on law and order.

As a result, Merkel’s bloc – composed of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) – slipped to 33 percent of the vote, nearly nine percentage points fewer than four years ago and the worst result since 1949.

“We had expected a somewhat better result,” Merkel said with a mocking smile – an understatement if there ever was one. Still, she added, her party did win the elections, and that wasn’t something to be taken for granted after twelve years in power. The CDU had won a mandate to form the next German government, and no government could be formed without it. “I am glad that we reached our strategic goals.”

Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), were hit even harder, losing another five percentage points compared to its already miserable result four years ago. They ended up with only 20.5 percent of the vote, the worst result since the Weimar Republic.

New to the Bundestag with a whopping 12.6 percent, the AfD will hold 94 seats and form the third-largest group. A majority of the new MPs belong to the party’s radical wing, prone to harsh anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric, and a desire to erase the Nazi period from Germany’s history books.

They now have access not just to federal funds and considerable staffing resources, but also to a bully pulpit. “The government has it coming,” the AfD’s top candidate Alexander Gauland shouted out in a triumphant reaction on election night. “We are going to hound them… We will take back possession of our country and our people.”

Deep Schisms

What makes the AfD’s success even more significant is the deep schism it revealed between East and West Germany, pointing to deep disillusionment and huge anger among East Germans. There, the AfD scored twice as high as in the West. In Saxony, it even beat the CDU to first place, winning 27 percent of the vote.

Yet the party is riven by divisions. At the first joint press conference after the elections, party leader Frauke Petry walked out on her colleagues, announcing that she would not be part of the new group.  More defections could follow as the more moderate AfD politicians lose influence.

In any case, none of the five other parties in the Bundestag is willing to consider any kind of cooperation with the AfD. This leaves few options for a governing coalition, especially as SPD leader Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament and the bright hope of the center-left party back in February, immediately declared that he would not join another grand coalition.

That was unwelcome news for Merkel, who will now have to build a “Jamaika” coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) – so-called because the party’s colors correspondent with Jamaica’s national flag – in order to secure a stable majority in the new Bundestag. But that will be difficult: not only are the Greens and the FDP difficult to reconcile on central issues like climate change, both are also far more liberal on immigration and refugees than the more conservative members of Merkel’s own bloc.

In fact, Horst Seehofer, head of the CSU in Bavaria, who is facing a difficult regional election next year, immediately announced a shift to the right to re-absorb AfD voters. “We have made a mistake in leaving our right flank somewhat open where refugees and security are concerned,” Seehofer said. “People are afraid of losing their cultural identity. (…) We must make sure that Germany remains Germany.”

Ground for Relief

How will Merkel reconcile such widely diverging interests and opinions? Given her stature, experience, and convictions, it is difficult to see her compromising on her fundamental liberal values. Merkel is also very good at waiting to see where a compromise could emerge. She knows that none of her reluctant partners-to-be can expect to benefit from early new elections.

Nor will there be a rebellion within her own CDU, despite the miserable election results. The debate over who will one day succeed Merkel will possibly intensify. Yet even her skeptics know that for now, the chancellor remains their ticket to power.

A changed landscape, but still the same woman at the top: for Germany’s neighbors, alarmed by the rise of the far-right, there is also some ground for relief.