Could Merkel's losses and populism's gains be therapeutic for German democracy?

Chancellor Angela Merkel's party lost significant support in federal elections, as did her coalition partners, the Social Democrats. But the end of that bloc could mean healthier democracy and weakened fringe politics like that of far-right AfD.

Christian Mang/Reuters
Workers remove an election campaign billboard showing Christian Democratic Union party leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Berlin on Sept. 25, the day after the general election.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party fared far worse than expected in federal elections Sunday. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) did far better than expected.

Is this the latest political earthquake?

Not exactly.

The results jolted Germany, especially after a placid – practically passionless, some have complained – political campaign. Both mainstream parties did their worst in decades, while the far-right earned an unprecedented new platform from which to share its views and shape attitudes.

The results in Berlin show that while those abroad might look to Ms. Merkel as the clear leader of the liberal order, at home she faces the same political fragmentation and breakdown of loyalties as her international counterparts, amid long-term economic and demographic transformations.

But beneath the shrill headlines, the results are less dramatic and unexpected, and while the outcome brings new challenges to the political arena in Germany – and Europe – it could serve to reinvigorate German politics.

“You will have a much stronger polarization, and there will be more debate in the Bundestag. The cozy times that we lived in are over,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. “I would consider that a good thing. Even though there will be surprises on the far-right, this Bundestag is more representative of what the mood in the country is, more than the previous one is, and that is not a bad thing for democracy as such.”

Government and opposition

Polls had predicted Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) would end up out front, the Social Democrats (SPD) would be in second, and the AfD would likely clinch third place, as it did. The surprise came with the margins of victory and defeat.

The CDU saw its worst performance since 1949 and its results were way down, at 33 percent, from the 41.5 percent it achieved in 2013. But the party faced similar numbers in the 2005 and 2009 races.

The chancellor is weakened. But the results show a plurality of Germans, amid economic prosperity and uncertain geopolitics, still think Merkel, even after 12 years, is the right person for the job.

The SPD was the clearest loser, garnering just 21 percent of the vote, and as of now the center-left party has ruled out continuing to serve as junior partners with the CDU in a so-called “grand coalition.” They say they will now become an opposition force. “We have understood our task – to be a strong opposition in this country and to defend democracy against those who question it and attack it,” said party leader Martin Schulz.

Although the make-up of the coalition is weeks, if not months, away, a clear opposition voice would be welcome. Some observers expect the SPD to move further left as has happened elsewhere in Europe, addressing working-class bases disillusioned with globalization and free trade. It also could take wind out the of sails of the AfD – which went from never having passed the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag in past elections to earning nearly 13 percent of the vote – by preventing the party from presenting itself as the main opposition voice in parliament.

More dissent generally could serve Germany well too. While the polarization in American politics under President Trump is seen as a worrisome sign of the dysfunction in politics, the civility in Germany has also come under fire. Observers pointed to a disappointing debate between Merkel and Schulz ahead of the vote where the two seemed to hardly differentiate themselves.

Eva Nowaki, a Berlin resident taking a walk on a recent day before the elections, says politics has been too consensual in Germany. “We’ve had a grand coalition for too long. We have no opposition, so I think it’s a little bit dangerous,” she says, though she quickly adds she considers the AfD the more dangerous force.

Germans will definitely will find themselves outside of their comfort zones. For all of the media criticism about the “grand coalition,” it aligns with their political identities. A recent Bertelsmann Stiftung report showed that only 2 percent of German respondents self-identify as extreme left or extreme right, compared to 8 percent in the EU (and 18 percent in France). The far majority consider themselves centrist.

Ekkehard Diedrich, a project manager in Berlin, defends the kind of consensus and civility in Germany politics, including the kind on display in a "grand coalition." “It’s important to talk about things in detail, not have a loud debate,” he says. For him the Brexit vote has stirred passions but revealed scant details.

The unquiet far right

It’s unclear what the AfD will actually bring to the table beyond protest. Already co-leader Frauke Petry announced this morning that she was leaving the AfD to serve as an independent in the Bundestag, shocking her peers and revealing deep divisions.

But the party's simple presence in the Bundestag will force Germans to look at a brewing discontent that has been overlooked in their country, amid postwar taboos and an economic prosperity that has dominated the narrative. The CDU’s campaign slogan illustrates this perfectly: “For a Germany where life is good and we enjoy it.”

Merkel acknowledged the need to listen to AfD voters moving forward. Many of her former supporters cast ballots for the far-right Sunday.

Still, she captured more than double the vote the AfD did, even after the refugee crisis that brought 1 million new asylum seekers to Germany.

As she works to build a coalition, which at this point looks most likely between the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, she’ll have to overcome the two parties’ clear policy divides. New, tough conversations could help Germany, argues Susanne Grund, a stay-at-home mom walking her Russian wolfhound in Berlin. “In a family you fight and debate. That is best for German politics too,” she says.

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