The road ahead for Angela Merkel

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 08, 2018

No longer the poster girl? Merkel’s struggles with popularity REUTERS   -  REUTERS

The federal poll results in which far-right AfD has bettered numbers presents the German Chancellor with complex challenges

Disentangling the German federal election of September 24 is a complex task, aimed at a moving target. Not only did the poll — which saw levels of voter engagement not seen since the 2005 election that first brought Chancellor Angela Merkel to power — involve sizeable and larger than expected gains for the right, the shape of the next government is yet to emerge.

The centre-left SPD, headed by Martin Schulz, whose ascent in the early part of this year was swiftly eroded, saw its share of the vote fall to a historic low of 20.5 per cent, and it has declined to be part of the Grand Coalition it had been part of for the past eight years, leaving the so-called Jamaica Coalition — involving Merkel’s CDU, the sister CSU and the liberal democrat FDP and Greens as the most likely answer to government. Heated negotiations continue, with differences remaining on issues such as immigration, the European project and environmental policy. Fears that one of Europe’s more stable nations could no longer be relied upon to be that force that led to a weakening of the euro.

The threat of the right

It would be wrong to underestimate the significance of the gains by the right wing AfD, which were particularly strong in East Germany, where they gained the second largest share of the vote (they held fourth position in the West and were the third largest party in the country more widely). For the first time in recent decades, a far-right party will gain seats in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, as the party’s 13 per cent share of the vote well exceeded the 5 per cent threshold needed to get it there. The party is expected to be hold around 19 seats, though thanks to the SPD’s decision to stay out of government, it won’t be the official opposition party.

The threat posed by the right in Germany has been clear for a while now, as the AfD fed off domestic concerns about Merkel’s refugee policy, which enabled hundreds of thousands to enter the country, in a move that won her plaudits from across the world but divided the nation. An increasingly emboldened AfD paid little heed to history that had once made far-right rhetoric a no-go area, adopting a strongly Islamophobic and anti-immigrant stance, with one even criticising a memorial to the Holocaust and insisting the country needed to stop feeling the need to atone for the past.

Yet, the extent to which the anti-immigration message drove voters to the AfD remains unclear, says Henning Hoff, editor of the Berlin Policy Journal. “The surge of the right was in part a protest vote — and the protest voters did so in the absolute certainty that Merkel did win anyway,” he said, adding that the FDP, which gained more voters from the CDU/CSU than the AfD did, was also part of this shift, which had taken place. Protest voting in Germany while well established had to date been largely confined to regional elections, he said. The election marked a revival of the FDP’s fortunes after losing all its seats in 2013. “Centrist parties lost because they refused to offer a clear alternative to Merkel’s open doors policy. The two winners, the pro-business FDP and far right AfD, in contrast, had visibly distanced themselves from the centrist migration consensus,” wrote Teneo Intelligence’s Carsten Nickel in a briefing following the election.

Merkel’s concerns

The AfD’s success presents a major challenge to the government, tapping into a feeling more widely of being left behind, that caught on, particularly, in the East. It is notable that of all the parties, the AfD was the one that received the largest share of previous non-voters, followed by the FDP, according to graphics put together by the Financial Times.

Part of the challenge for Merkel going forward will be addressing the issues raised by this, while at the same time working with the Greens and the FDP. The pressure for tougher policies on immigration in particularly will come from the Bavaria based CSU, which has faced particular pressure from the AfD and faces regional elections next year. Yet, the government has already toughened its approach to immigration over the past year, while FT data has suggested that high levels of support for the AfD aren’t necessarily linked to actual levels of immigration but more by the narrative the AfD has managed to create, feeding into existing anger particularly in the East of being left behind.

The same figures showed that some of the gains made by the AfD came from those who had previously voted for Die Linke, the socialist party that traces its origins to the former ruling party of East Germany. It is 28 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification but it is clear that much remains to be done.

Shape of things

Where things go from now? The decision by finance minister Wolfgang Schauble to exit the government and become the speaker of the Bundestag is seen as enabling a partnership with the FDP (which could take the coveted finance position), and a potential step in the formation of the Jamaica coalition. Tensions remain though: the FDP, which is particularly cautious about elements of the European project, and fears it could become a “transfer union” with Germany carrying the lion share of the financial burden.

Hoff, however, believes that the shape of the next government is likely to emerge by end October, or early November, following local elections in Lower Saxony. “There is a will on all sides to make this possible and that the ideological barriers that would have stood in the way a decade ago have disappeared with the alignment towards the centre,” he says.

Concerns about the impact that the AfD could have has been tempered by a number of recent developments, including the dramatic resignation of its leader Frauke Petry, which highlighted the divisions within the party. By entering parliament those tensions are likely to become more apparent as they are forced to draw a clear line on their willingness to comply with constitutional principles, says Hoff. “The win of the AfD is so big it may work to their disadvantage. There will be around 19 people (in the Bundestag) to keep together which may be difficult as they range from disgruntled Conservatives to outright neo-Nazis,” he says.

Schauble, as speaker, is also being seen as key to keeping the AfD in check. There’s little doubt that the results present Merkel with a complex challenge as she begins her fourth and final term as chancellor. Whether she continues her focus beyond the borders of Germany, and on solidifying the European project, will become clear in the weeks and months ahead.

Published on October 02, 2017

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