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Germany's political middle falls apart. Will Europe's center hold?

Why We Wrote This

For several years, voters across Europe have been breaking with familiar centrists in favor of often radical newcomers. Germans had resisted the phenomenon – until now. And that could shake the continent up.

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a news conference following the Hesse state election in Berlin Oct. 29. Ms. Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection when her term expires in 2021. “It is time today for me to start a new chapter,” she told reporters.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out, the latest European victim of voters’ anger with the same old same old. Ms. Merkel announced she would not stand for reelection after her party made its worst showing in over 50 years in local elections in Hesse last Sunday. Her governing coalition partners did even worse, while the far-right Alternative for Germany and the moderately progressive Greens surged in the polls. This more even spread of votes across the spectrum from left to right means no more domination by big parties and no more easily formed governments. It took six months to build a coalition government after last year’s German elections. If that becomes the norm, the country that has dominated Europe and provided a steady anchor to the European Union is likely to be much more concerned with its own business than with international affairs. It will also be a test case for the continent: Can the traditional establishment parties make themselves more responsive and ward off the populist wave?

For decades, the overwhelming majority of German voters stuck loyally to the two centrist parties that have dominated political life since World War II. But familiarity has bred contempt.

October regional elections in the states of Bavaria and Hesse have shown those voters coming unstuck, fanning out instead to non-traditional parties on both right and left. And the shifting allegiances have thrown German politics into unprecedented doubt – already leading Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce plans to leave Germany's political stage.

But as a long-time bedrock of European stability, a now politically uncertain Germany will cast a shadow over the rest of the continent as well.

Voters' flight from the political middle “is a lasting trend that makes Germany similar to its neighbors in Europe,” says Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at the Free University of Berlin. “It’s a trend to normalization and we have to get used to it.”

‘A completely redrawn political landscape’

Chancellor Merkel announced Monday she would not stand again for her party’s leadership in a December vote, and that she would retire from politics when her term of office ends in 2021. She had little choice after the ruling Christian Democrats made their worst showing since 1962 in regional elections in Hesse on Sunday.

Merkel’s coalition government partner, the Social Democrats, fared even worse, coming in third, with 10 percent fewer votes than in the last elections. The big winners? The moderately progressive Greens, who took 20 percent of the vote, and the far-right, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which tripled its score to 13 percent.

These results echoed those of earlier regional elections in Bavaria. There, the two leading centrist parties' vote share slumped by 21 percent, while the AfD and Greens' combined vote jumped by 19 percent from the last regional elections.

Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/AP
Supporters of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) celebrate after the state election in the German state of Hesse in Wiesbaden, western Germany, on Oct. 28.

Overall, this reflects not so much a polarization of the electorate as diffusion, says Jan Techau, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “As society has grown more diverse and fragmented, the political party system has emulated this” in a number of European nations, he points out.

“In some countries, we see a completely redrawn political landscape,” agrees Morgan Guérin, head of the Europe program at the Montaigne Institute, a Paris-based think tank. “Where big blocs on the left and right used to dominate … now four or five parties can win around 20 percent.”

The impact on the German political landscape has been profound. Since general elections in September 2017, uncertainty has overshadowed national political life. It took six months to form a governing coalition which has been dangerously fragile ever since its ministers took office.

And a new government may be needed soon. Speculation is rife in Berlin about how long a weakened Ms. Merkel can remain in her job, and the new electoral math will make it as hard to build the next government as it was to create the current one last year.

Chances are that it will take a three-party coalition, says Mr. Techau, with all the instability that implies – and all the effort devoted to keeping the government together instead of governing. “A time of succession and internal turmoil will mean introspection and a lesser role on the international stage,” he says.

Less time for European policymaking?

And that is not good news for Europe, says Sheri Berman, professor of European politics at Barnard College in New York. “Without Germany as a stable and default leader” in Europe, she says, “there are serious questions about the future.”

That’s because Germany has long been Europe’s dominant power, however reluctant Merkel has been to play that role. Under her leadership Germany was the decisive player in managing the Greek debt crisis; Berlin was at the vanguard of a strong European reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, insisting on tough sanctions; and Merkel led the way in welcoming refugees fleeing to Europe in 2015 and 2016.

As a lame duck chancellor now, Merkel will not be able to take such initiatives, further hobbling European policymaking.

“It is already very difficult to achieve anything among the 27 members [of the EU],” says Mr. Guérin, pointing to persistent disagreements on migration policy as an example. “The No. 1 political power in Europe being in a period of introspection will make European politics even more complicated.”

Nor will it be easy to find a successor to Merkel who will match her political skills. “It will be tricky to find someone with her nerves of steel and her ability to forge a compromise,” says Techau. “People have found her reliable, predictable, and steady.”

The next leader of Merkel’s party, whoever that proves to be, will have to decide on fresh policies, and though they are certain to maintain Germany’s commitment to the European Union, they might well put Germany’s national interests ahead of a readiness to compromise for the common good, says Dr. Neugebauer.

“A majority of Germans think we should take care of ourselves first,” he says.

Whether the next government, whoever leads it, will succeed in winning disaffected voters back from the margins is less clear.

“There is definitely a crisis of confidence in liberal democracy” around the world, says Professor Berman. “Germany is part of a wider trend. But liberal democracy’s health will depend on how parties handle the challenges that voters are concerned with. Can the establishment make its institutions more responsive?”

German voters’ flight from traditional establishment parties “is inextricably tied to what is happening everywhere else in the world,” says Nathalie Tocci, head of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome. “We are going through this wave at a global level.”

“If it happens in Germany,” long wedded to a stable political center, “then no country is immune,” Dr. Tocci adds. “But that does not mean it’s game over for democracy.”

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