Angela Merkel won. But how long can Germany's center hold?
The far right is ascendant in Germany
Before it even went down on Sunday, Germany's elections were branded as "boring." And indeed, the headline result has been predictably boring: As was widely expected and forecast for months, Angela Merkel held on to her job as chancellor of Germany for a fourth term, riding a still-strong economy to overcome the unpopularity of her decision to open Germany's doors to migrants from the Middle East and Africa.
But look below the headline result and things are much less boring. Like the U.K.'s recent general election, and the French presidential election before that, and just about every other Western election since the upsets of Brexit and President Trump, international watchers want to know one thing about the German election: Who's up and who's down among the "globalists" and the "populists"?
It has become exceedingly clear that significant numbers, if not majorities, of the electorates of the United States and Europe are unhappy with their elite rulers, and have been buffeted by secular trends, including globalization, trade, multiculturalism, and technological change. They are pissed off, and in the process of being pissed off, they vote for things and people that the educated classes find distasteful, alarming, or downright evil.
And in this election, while Angela Merkel, the queen of the globalists, has vexed her opponents once again, the populists still gained ground.
Let us count the ways. The first and most obvious one is that AfD, Germany's populist-right party, is now the third-biggest party nationally and second biggest in the former East Germany, even though it didn't even exist 10 years ago.
AfD is a unique phenomenon in German political life. Germany used to stand out from many other European democracies in lacking a major hard-right populist party, largely due to the huge German taboo against anything even vaguely reminiscent of Nazism. To some, AfD is a garden-variety populist party representing popular anxieties; their politics may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they don't threaten basic democratic institutions and values. To others, AfD is basically just Nazism 2.0. So, which is it?
It's complicated. And it's doesn't help that AfD can't even answer this question itself.
The party was founded a few years ago by a group of milquetoast economists, journalists, business leaders, and center-right politicians to oppose German bailouts of Southern Europe. It was nicknamed "the professors' party," as one early poll showed two-thirds of its supporters held doctorates. It was Merkel's decision to open the door to refugees that changed everything. It was an obvious political opportunity, and AfD pounced. The party became defined by its opposition to immigration, attracting another cast of characters. While AfD officially disavows racism and has a policy of disassociating from far-right groups, when one of the party's founders gave a speech criticizing the idea of having a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, some AfD leaders stuck by him while others denounced him.
Usually, parties go into identity crises when they lose elections; AfD is entering its identity crisis as it starts seeing real success.
AfD had two leaders reflecting these two wings — and one just quit in a huff right after the election, saying she would sit in Parliament as an independent, and saying AfD had grown too extreme. Schizophrenia about racism and bombastic incompetence: hallmarks of the populist right all over the West.
It is surely because of this taint of extremism and incompetence that AfD underperformed relative to the reach of its ideas. After all, AfD won "only" 13 percent. That's a far cry from, say, the French National Front's 35 percent or Brexit's referendum majority, some are already saying. But this would misread what's going on.
You see, another big winner in the election is the FDP, which reinvented itself from milquetoast centrist liberalism to harder-edged conservatism, making a simple pitch to voters: "You find the AfD too extreme or distasteful but still want to send Merkel a message about immigration and European integration? Vote for us." Presto, the FDP more than doubled its share of the vote from the previous election. In an exit poll, 49 percent of German voters agreed with the statement that "AfD has understood better than the others that people no longer feel safe." Interestingly, the anti-establishment parties of the left have barely budged since the last election, showing that the anti-establishment sentiment is being mostly channeled to the right of the political spectrum.
But the biggest tell of how much (or how little) the center is holding is that the two establishment parties that have dominated democratic politics in Germany since the end of World War II, the center-left SPD and the center-right CDU/CSU coalition, have received historically low vote shares. Few things could be a better indicator of widespread loss of confidence in not just this or that policy, but the political establishment and the normal way of doing business as a whole.
Merkel's post as chancellor is secure, but she must now build a governing coalition with junior partners. The SPD has ruled out governing with her, and she has ruled out a coalition with AfD, so she has few attractive options left. She will try to pursue a coalition with, on one hand, the FDP, and on the other hand, the Greens — two parties with diametrically opposite views on many topics; the other option would be a minority CDU/CSU government with SPD support.
Merkel's biggest problem, however, is not building a coalition. It is figuring out how to create a politics that offers genuine responses to the legitimate grievances of most of her public, in order to prevent a further radicalization of politics and preserve the best of the institutions of the liberal order. This is a much tougher nut to crack than the intricacies of parliamentary politics — and it is the problem that faces not only Angela Merkel, but the West as a whole.