On September 24, Angela Merkel made history by securing a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor. But the country will remember the latest federal election by another historic development: for the first time in some 60 years, a far-right party has entered the German parliament, the Bundestag.
Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its sister party Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), got more than 30 percent of the vote. Their win was overwhelming, but comparative. The CDU lost about 1 million votes to the four-year-old populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), that secured the support of some 13.5 percent of voters.
Social Democrats (SPD) came second in the race with 20 percent, while the liberal Free Democrats scored 10.5 percent, and the Greens and the far-left Die Linke got 9.5 percent and 9.0 percent accordingly.
The AfD’s strong performance did not come as a surprise for experts. However, the election results shocked Berlin.
“Polls have been more accurate with regard to the AfD results than they were more recently on Brexit for instance. So, the results were not that surprising but nevertheless Berlin has been in shock about the AfD scoring as the third strongest party – and the strongest in some parts of Eastern Germany,” Anna-Lena Kirch, Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told The Globe Post.
Founded in 2013, the AfD has largely positioned itself as an anti-immigration party. It has been seen as the main opponent of Ms. Merkel’s open-door refugee policy.
Dietlind Stolle, Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal, told The Globe Post that the AfD came out as the winner of the election, while the two main party players, CDU and SPD, which have been in power for decades, had been punished.
“Given the rise of radical right parties and populist parties in Europe and the rise of Trump in the US, this result was not particularly surprising,” she said. “What was surprising is how well the party did in some East German districts, where about 26 percent of East German men voted for the AfD, and it became even the strongest party in a few East German districts.”
Ms. Stolle underscored, however, that 87 percent of Germans voted against the AfD and “that is a high number of people overall.”
With the far-right in the parliament, the tone of the political discourse in Germany will become harsher. As the result, some Conservatives will promote a more reactionary approach and take a tougher stance on such policy matters as migration, Eurozone issues and cultural aspects, like the Burka discussion, according to Ms. Kirch.
“Horst Seehofer, head of the CSU, already announced that the CDU/CSU shifted too much to the centre and has to close the right flank that it left open, going forward,” she said. “This means that coalition negotiations will become tough as the CSU and the Greens have quite different positions on a range of post-materialist issues and foreign policy options.”
Ms. Stolle said there is a large part of the German electorate which will always refuse the goals and demands of the AfD.
“The opposition towards this party will be strong, but their popularity has some room to grow. It might also depend on whether the more moderate part of the party gains power in the parliament or not,” she added.
Many of the people who voted for the AfD did so not so much because they believe in the party itself, but because they were unhappy with all the other parties, Ms. Stolle explained.
“They also indicated that some of the radical right language used by the AfD is not what they like to hear,” she said. “In that sense it’s a kind of protest vote.”
Nevertheless, the AfD will likely not turn out to be a short-term phenomenon. The party will remain in Parliament and might even increase its popularity, “if they play their cards right,” according to Ms. Kirch.
The Bundestag membership means that the AfD will have more resources and greater opportunity to increase visibility.
“They will likely manage to continue and present themselves as the real advocates of the non-elites / ‘common people’ in Germany,” Ms. Kirch said.
Ms. Stolle noted, however, that some internal AfD divisions indicate that it will have a difficult path forward and might even break in two.
One day after the historic election, the AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry walked out on her own party, declaring that she would not sit with it in the Bundestag.
At present, all the established or “mainstream” parties refuse to work with the AfD. Chancellor Merkel will have to take on a complex task of negotiating a coalition with smaller political players. Earlier this week, she said the CDU is open to talks with the Free Democratic Party, the Greens, and the Social Democrats.
The difficult negotiations could delay movement forward on such European issues as the reform of the union.
“Especially on questions related to the Eurozone, there will not be any movement in the near future before coalition negotiations are concluded because this is one of the most controversial issues among the Liberals, the Greens and the Conservatives – with the Liberals putting Greece back on the agenda and challenging the existence of the European Stability Mechanism whereas the Greens support [French President] Macron’s reform plans of more EU investment and far reaching Eurozone reforms,” Ms. Kirch said.
“This will certainly not fit the pace that French President Macron has in mind with regard to pursuing EU reforms. But on Brexit negotiations I don’t expect any major delay from Germany’s side,” she added.
Ms. Stolle noted that pushing the EU further would be the “easiest” common undertaking for the parties, even though disagreements exist.
“On other questions they are more divided,” she concluded.