“Things Fall Apart” is the name of a book by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Its title derived from an eponymous poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats which goes as follows.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
What happened in Germany yesterday was a certain reminder of that poem. The 2017 federal parliamentary election resulting in another first-place showing for the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), led by sitting Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Christian Social Union (the CDU’s sister party in the State of Bavaria). However, the CDU/CSU alliance suffered sharp losses compared to the 2013 election, only ending up at 33% of the popular vote nationwide (a loss of almost 9%). This is the second-worst result of the CDU/CSU since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. Meanwhile, former Speaker of the European Parliament Martin Schulz utterly failed in his mission to displace Merkel’s CDU/CSU with his Social Democrats (SPD) and scored the party’s worst post-war result, obtaining only around 20.5% (-4%). The main news of the evening was produced by the populist-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won 13% of the national vote – and ended up becoming the second-largest party in the five East German states. The liberal, free-market Free Democrats returned to the Bundestag (after failing in 2013) with 10%, while the centre-left Alliance 90/The Greens and the socialist Left Party scored 8.9 and 9.2%, respectively. Here are the five lessons from yesterday’s election.
- The Merkel Era is over
When making her post-election speech, Chancellor Merkel looked strangely calm and collected, even though her party had just suffered a major setback. A sitting chancellor who had presided over an otherwise strong and stable economy, record low unemployment, a balanced budget, unparalleled international standing and undisputed leadership within the European Union, alongside a splintered opposition, should have made the sitting chancellor a shoo-in for a landslide re-election by a convincing margin. Instead, Merkel’s CDU/CSU suffered historic losses – something that made the spectacle of her proclaiming victory all the more jarring.
There is no doubt that Ms Merkel has obtained the constitutional first right to form the next federal government. But nothing more. A victory in the actual sense it certainly is not. In other democracies she would either have been removed by a party-room revolt (as has happened in Australia on many an occasion, for instance in the Australian Labour Party in 2009 and 2013) or been challenged in an intra-party primary. Her good fortune may very well be the fact that her leadership will be required to initiate a fresh coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU alliance, the Free Democrats and the Greens (also known as the Jamaica Coalition) – especially given her own credentials as a liberal centrist. However, if history teaches anything, it is that the Christian Democrats do not tolerate leaders who fail to rally a broad plurality of voters. The voices within the CDU that will fault the chancellor for her handling of the 2015 illegal immigration crisis and a drab, uninspiring campaign with no obvious rationale to continue governing, will only grow louder – as will the calls for her to finally organize the transition towards a new Christian Democrat leader and (by extension) Chancellor. If the Christian Democrats do not wish to suffer the fate of parties like the Dutch CdA, Austria’s People’s Party, Denmark’s Venstre or the French Les Républicains (namely sandwiched in by populist-nationalist parties from the right). Just pretending like everything is back to normal, as has been a habit after successive sharp losses in legislative assembly elections, is no longer going to do. After 12 years of her chancellorship, the Merkel Era is, for all practical intents and purposes, over.
- Left Behind
Ever since losing power after the 2005 federal election, the Social Democrats have basically traversed the proverbial valley of tears. Under a succession of more or less competent leaders, they failed to score more than 25% since the 2009 election. Having served in Grand Coalition governments twice in one decade (2005-2009 and 2013-2017), the Social Democrats were bitterly disappointed to find that any achievements by their cabinet ministers (for instance, the introduction of the minimum wage or the ability of longtime employees to receive a state pension from the age of 63) were essentially credited to Chancellor Merkel instead. This neatly summarizes the dilemma of the Social Democrats, namely how to credibly criticize a chancellor with whom they had hitherto cooperated and whose terms in office they largely enabled.
Meanwhile, the anti-capitalist Left Party has also drawn votes away from the Social Democrats, primarily propelled by the former’s criticism of the welfare reforms introduced by the during the SPD/Greens coalition government of Merkel’s immediate predecessor, Gerhard Schröder in 2003. The Social Democrats have also suffered from successively nominating dour, uncharismatic and somewhat maladroit candidates for the chancellorship – none of whom matched the energy and charisma of Schröder in his heydays. Martin Schulz, the former Speaker of the European Parliament, despite his earnest effort and the initial buzz surrounding him, was completely unable to capture the imagination of Germans in a time when many of them were deeply unhappy with traditional precepts of politics – something manifested not just by the AfD’s 13% score, but also the 9% of voters who chose the Left Party. He ran a safe campaign in which he failed to sharply attack the chancellor and offer a clear alternative. Tactically, he made a fatal error by excluding the possibility of a so-called Red-Red-Green coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party – since that deprived the Social Democrats of
Whilst their initial announcement to immediately seek the opposition benches is the right conclusion from the erosion, the SPD will have to make hard choices about its future strategy. Will it renew itself and start preparing the ground for a credible centre-left alliance between itself, the Greens and the Left Party.
The Social Democrats may wish to look all the way across the Pacific for a winning approach: just one day prior to Germany’s federal election, New Zealand voted for its House of Representatives. New Zealand’s Labour Party ran with 37-year-old leader Jacinda Ardern, who has only been in politics for the past 8 years, as its candidate for Prime Minister – with a campaign squarely focused on issues like education, housing and, interestingly, limiting immigration to New Zealand. Most importantly, Labour could draw credible contrasts with the National Party (New Zealand’s equivalent of the CDU) – especially as it had been in opposition, not in a grand coalition government. The result? Labour’s energetic campaign led to 35.8 (+10.7%), a major gain to the 2014 House of Representatives election – and the possibility of forming a government with the Green Party and the populist New Zealand First Party, despite the National Party still coming in a strong first. Another reason to consider the New Zealand experience? It’s the only other country that approximates Germany’s election system which combines party lists and direct constituency seats.
Germany’s Jacinda Ardern? Look to Manuela Schwesig, the former Minister of Family Affairs and recently inaugurated premier of the eastern state of Mecklenburg Western Pomerania – young, largely untainted by the Merkel era and someone whose nomination as a chancellor-candidate in 2021 would represent a clear break with Social Democrat leaders of the past.
- Populism is not dead
When 2017 began, much anxiety was expressed about impending elections in Austria, the Netherlands and especially France. Given the successful Brexit referendum and the recent election of Donald Trump across the Atlantic, there existed the potential for a wave of right-wing populist success at the polls. Whilst the Netherlands and France escaped the populist temptation, Germany did not. The AfD’s success resulted in the party even coming in first in the eastern state of Saxony, an embarrassment for the Christian Democrats who long governed the state with an absolute majority.
The AfD’s historic result heralds a seismic shift in German politics, thus proving that populist-nationalist forces can thrive even in economically stable times. The AfD’s triumph also represents a major challenge to the traditional parties of the centre-right and the centre-left: running on a strategy of deliberately stoking nationalist passions (with at least some of its leading personnel and future MPs dabbling in historical revisionism, as well as fascist and racist sympathies) and “taking our country back”. This display of disdain for the traditional parties, as well as (at least) some constitutional values makes the AfD unpalatable to any of the other parties. Judging by its behaviour in state legislative assemblies, the party will seek to provoke controversy and scandal – similar to the Trump campaign in the United States.
But don’t be fooled by yesterday’s result: For all the hype, the party only scored 13% – a share that is reflective of other populist-nationalist parties in continental Europe. Similar to the Trump campaign, the AfD was boosted by inordinate media hype around it – especially by the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, who had ironically been attacked by the AfD for being part of the traditional establishment. Even before Election Night, there were well-documented fissures between the different personalities – divisions that became even more apparent on Election Night. Whereas the leading parliamentary candidates of the AfD, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, want to continue the hard-right course of the party, its nominal leader, Frauke Petry aims at turning the AfD into a conservative party capable of being a coalition partner for the centre-right parties (the irony being that Petry herself has long been a part of the conservative wing of the AfD). That said, traditional parties should not exclusively rely on the AfD’s divisions – they will need to address the concerns of many AfD voters (with former non-voters and Christian Democrats chief amongst those) in a responsible, clear-eyed manner if they hope to reduce the AfD as a political force in 2021.
- Set sails for Jamaica?
Yesterday’s result also heralds a tough process of government formation. While it’s unlikely to be as arduous as in Belgium (which literally set a record for its inability to form a federal government), the voters have dealt a rather difficult hand to the traditional parties, especially Chancellor Merkel. Due to its extremist tendencies, no one wants to work with the AfD. The Left Party, due to its rejection of the NATO alliance and its critical attitude towards the European Union, is also unpalatable to the mainstream parties. Given that the Social Democrats have decided to go into opposition, the only option that would appear to remain is Jamaica Coalition (so called because of the colours of the Jamaican national flag; with black standing in for the CDU/CSU, yellow for the liberal FDP and green for Alliance 90/The Greens). However, it isn’t plain sailing for that alliance: The Liberals, who have just returned to the Bundestag, are not exactly keen on entering government as they want to avoid the whiff of opportunism that haunted their last stint in federal government with the Christian Democrats and led to the FDP’s elimination from Parliament in 2013. The Greens, on the other hand, are traditionally centre-left, with much of its base traditionally opposed to an alliance with the Christian Democrats. The Christian Democrats, judging by some of their statements, would almost prefer continuing the Grand Coalition with the SPD. Flashpoints in any negotiations between the four parties (CDU, CSU, Greens and FDP) include immigration and refugee policy (with the CSU insisting on a sharp right turn, especially in view of the 2018 legislative assembly election in its home state of Bavaria), the country’s relationship to Europe (with the FDP having become more Eurosceptic under its new leadership) or the phasing out of coal power plants (something the Greens campaigned on) and diesel cars, to name just a few. Coalition negotiations promise to be protracted, with no promise of an effective coalition at the end. Prior to the Legislative Assembly elections in the state of Lower Saxony, which will also influence the composition of the upper chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, not much progress can be expected.
Another option that was readily dismissed by Chancellor Merkel on Election Night, but which may become necessary in case Jamaica fails and the Social Democrats still refuse to play ball: A minority government, whether consisting of CDU cabinet members on its own or alongside the FDP. Except the AfD, none of the major parties will want to risk sending the voters back to the polls for another federal election anytime soon. Such a minority government could seek support on a case-by-case basis, whether through ad hoc discussions with the opposition parties or a confidence-and-supply agreement similar to the one between the Conservative and Democratic Unionist parties in the UK. Even though Merkel herself might be risk-averse, if neither a Grand Coalition, nor the Jamaica Coalition works, a minority government may be the only way – even though it has not been hitherto attempted during the Federal Republic.
- Polarization en vogue, Europe on hold
Germans will have to get used to a politics that will be far less amiable, far less consensual. But that does not have to be a bad thing. The outcome forces a clearer positioning of the two traditional parties – with the Social Democrats’ refusal being particularly laudable in this respect. There is no constitutional duty by any party to join a government, and due to their losses, the Social Democrats are perfectly within their rights to reject another unwanted Grand Coalition. Until 2005, the Grand Coalition had only occurred once in the Federal Republic’s history, namely from 1966 to 1969. It was seen as a “democratic exception”, as the joining of two major parties effectively reduces the usual power dynamics between government and opposition. Since 2005, Germany has seen two more such coalitions. For a look at the kind of future that could be in store for them if the Grand Coalition were to continue, Germans only need to look across the Alps. In Austria, successive grand coalitions between the Social Democrats and the Popular Party have led to the far-right Freedom Party being a legitimate contender for government.
Pending the formation of a new federal government, Germany will also be relegated to the sidelines (for the interim period) as an effective player in Europe. Major initiatives like President Macron’s ambitions for the Eurozone, controversial as they are, will be slowed down because the composition of Germany’s future cabinet and parliamentary support is quite simply not known. The same applies for the Brexit negotiations, which will also hinge on Germany’s attitude towards any offers extended by London. To what extent, a weakened Chancellor Merkel can wield any authority in Europe, that’s a completely different matter altogether. Time will tell, but she is a leader who lives on borrowed political time.
An end to the consensus-based politics of yore is long overdue. A democracy lives off lively debate, policy differences and sharp contrasts between philosophically different parties. It also lives off authenticity and beliefs, not just mere tactical game-playing. The AfD offers none of that genuine change – in its current manifestation, it’s a nationalist, regressive force that is looking towards the past and yearning for a Germany that has thankfully been left behind decades ago. To build the bridge to the future, to take account of voters’ legitimate concerns, to understand the message of yesterday’s result, that will be the responsibility of Germany’s traditional parties. The future of Europe may very well depend on that.