Why elections in Europe spring a surprise

Germany follows France in holding an election in which voters showed a new independence from the main parties and seem to seek a different political identity.

AP Photo
German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union ponders a question during a press conference in Berlin Sept. 25., the day after the German parliamentary election.

Last spring, Europe watched with surprise as a new centrist party in France, En Marche!, defeated the two traditional parties. The election win was a signal that the French want more independence and individuality in their political identity. Now it may be Germany’s turn.

In a Sept. 24 vote for a new parliament, Germans displayed a preference for greater choice in politics by delivering a blow to the two establishment parties. The tallies show that only about 1 in 2 Germans voted for the center-right Christian Democratic Union or the center-left Social Democratic Party – far fewer than in recent decades.

And many Germans decided to cast a protest vote, which gave a lift to three smaller parties, the far-right Alternative for Germany, the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the environmentalist Greens.

The message to German leader Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats is clear as she tries to form a new government with the Greens and FDP: The old political alignment, in which the two main parties either trade power or share it in a coalition, relies too much on a model in which professional politicians treat voters like market categories of demographics, sweeping them with broad brooms into one party or another.

In an age of Facebook and other new digital expressions of individuality, more voters see their political identity in expansive ways. They are able to quickly form political alliances online. They rely less on parties to define their aspirations.

The loose term for this is populism, which is often described as anti-elitism, but it is rooted in voters seeking political models that are not depersonalized by campaign operatives, pollsters, and the media who divvy up people by their levels of anger over divisive issues.

A similar trend can be found in another major European country. In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo has rattled the political system. In elections next year, it could provide another example of a big upset for traditional parties.

Western democracies face many big tests, such as high public debts, middling wage growth, and a low regard for immigrants. But at a fundamental level, voters may be showing a streak of independence, driven by a desire for a new model of politics that better reflects a higher vision of themselves.

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