Merkel's (Fourth) First Day

Contributor: Heather A. Conley

On September 24, German voters delivered an ambivalent victory to Angela Merkel, returning her to power as Chancellor of Germany but with a much smaller margin for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU collectively lost 8.5 percent of its vote share compared to the previous election in 2013. One million ex-CDU/CSU voters also shifted allegiance to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD’s strength in the Bundestag is a shock for German politics (there has not been a far-right party in Parliament since 1961) but it reflects broader trends in European politics which have seen a steady rise in far-right groups for the past five years. The vote for the AfD was first and foremost a rejection of the established parties rather than an endorsement of the AfD’s anti-immigrant and nationalist agenda: 60 percent of its voters reportedly chose the party as a means of protest. Worryingly, AfD’s support was the strongest among 30 to 44-year-olds, a sign that it may be present on the political stage for a while.
  Source: German Bundestag.
The rejection of established political parties struck the Social Democratic Party (SPD) particularly hard, which fell by about 5 percent and registered its poorest showing in the post-war era. The SPD has now lost four consecutive elections.  Serving as a junior partner in CDU-led “grand coalition” governments has obscured  the SPD’s message and political profile, so party leader Martin Schulz announced immediately that the SPD will go into opposition, where it will be the largest opposition party. This electoral loss is yet another example of the larger demise of the traditional center-left in much of Europe, which has seen a wave of electoral rebukes in France and the Netherlands, among other places. The SPD has indicated it will select a new leader for its parliamentary caucus as deeper soul-searching begins.
Source: German Bundestag.
With the stronger performance of the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – the latter making a comeback into the Bundestag after failing to clear the 5 percent threshold in 2013 –, the CDU/CSU’s most promising and problematic coalition option is the so-called “Jamaica” coalition, named after the black, green and yellow colors of the parties. These four political parties make strange political bedfellows: the FDP is skeptical about greater Eurozone integration and wants to boost German business; the Greens wish to eliminate use of fossil fuels, which would challenge Germany automotive sector; and, the CSU, fighting for its political life ahead of Bavarian state elections in 2018, will press for a more hardline anti-immigrant and conservative law-and-order program which will pull the coalition to the right – a direct effect of the  AfD’s entry into the Bundestag.   
The Chancellor will face difficult choices and political agendas, and will need to exercise all her mediation skills to patiently establish a coalition agreement that will provide sufficient stability to her fourth government. It could take two or three months before a government takes office, making the Chancellor’s estimation that a deal will be reached “by Christmas” realistic. The next several months will not be easy for Europe’s leading power.   

Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program