German Elections: Merkel Stays As Chancellor: Far-Right Makes Breakthrough

Angela Merkel, surrounded by party officials, speaks to the press having secured a first-place finish in Germany's election on Sunday, September 24, 2017

As expected, exit polls from the German federal elections Sunday show that Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU has remained the largest party in parliament, ensuring that Merkel will return for a fourth term as chancellor. But this election was never really about a change in government — barring unimaginable changes, Merkel was a shoo-in long ago — and the story that will exercise political minds is what the rest of the vote shows.

What does it show? Firstly that the second largest party, and CDU/CSU coalition partner, the SPD, has had its worst result in more than 80 years, falling back to 20 percent and a likely 137 seats (against 32.5 percent and 220 for Merkel’s party). The electoral math shows that the two parties could combine to form a coalition again, easily passing the threshold of 316 seats for an overall majority, but such a move is unlikely, with the SPD having verbally ruled out co-operation with the CDU this time around.

Secondly, the poll has delivered a record-high share of the vote for the Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) party, a relative newcomer to German politics. Their score of 13 percent is far more than the 5 percent required for a party to take seats in Parliament, makes them the third largest party in the Bundestag and could see them becoming the official opposition to the government; this would entitle them to benefits including influence over the parliamentary budget committee. It also marks the first time in over 60 years that a far-right party has entered Parliament in Germany.

The CDU and SPD have found it difficult, verging on impossible, to work together recently, and this, allied to the difficulty that could result from handing the official opposition mantle to AfD, means that parties may look for alternative ways to form a coalition. One way that this could be achieved is for the CDU to work with the Free Democrats (FDP), newly returned to Parliament after a wipeout in 2013, and the Greens.

This “Jamaica coalition” — so called because of the official colors of the member parties (black, yellow, and green respectively) — would see the SPD become the official opposition. Such a move would take the SPD out of government, it’s true, but it has been felt that their role in the “grand coalition” formed by Germany’s two largest parties played a major role in depressing their support at this election. Four years of applying pressure to a Merkel government — and possibly a change of leader, with present head Martin Schulz stepping down — might see them fare better in 2021.

AfD members have come under scrutiny recently for the party’s far-right policies and for the questionable remarks made by some prominent members. Co-founder Alexander Gauland, per the Guardian, recently said that Germans have the right to feel proud of Germany’s military history across the World Wars. That’s a controversial statement to make in any case but particularly in Germany, where Hitler’s memoir Mein Kampf is banned from sale along with all Nazi propaganda. A regional leader of the party condemned the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame.”

These statements, along with the party’s anti-refugee policies — co-leader Frauke Petry has said that refugees entering the country illegally should be shot “if necessary” according to the BBC — mean that there is no prospect of any party working with them in a coalition. But their expected haul of 89 seats will see them have influence in the Bundestag even if the SPD becomes the official opposition.

Chancellor Merkel has given her initial reactions to the expected results, underlining that she will listen to the concerns of people who voted for the AfD. Notably, she has said that a key aspect of her plan for government will be to fight against “the causes of migration” as well as fighting illegal immigration. How she goes about that may depend a great deal on the policies she will be able to sell simultaneously to the populist right of her own party, the liberal free-market FPD and the left-of-center Greens. But if all those factions are at risk of walking away from talks, they need only look at the now very real specter of an emboldened far-right and ask themselves if the AfD taking power in 2021 is really what they want.

[Featured Image by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images]