This year’s German elections are neither exciting nor crucial for the country’s future. Or at least that’s what the Germans themselves are saying. According to a recent survey by the Allensbach Institute only 19 percent of German citizens see the upcoming elections as critical. It’s true that this is somewhat more than four years ago, but in 2005 (when Angela Merkel won for the first time) 47% viewed the elections as critical, and in 1998 (when Helmut Kohl was replaced by Gerhard Schröder) the percentage was 45%.
Even though Merkel has been in power for twelve years, there’s no sign of a desire for change. The chancellor has effectively appropriated Konrad Adenauer’s slogan, “Keine Experimente”, which is particularly appealing given the uncertainty in the rest of the European Union and beyond. She also benefits from Germany’s excellent overall economic situation. Her promise to perpetuate this status quo thus suffices as a campaign programme.
Civilization and its discontents
But under the surface of this idyllic picture are currents of change that are reflected neither in the lethargic election campaign nor in the public satisfaction record by opinion polls. There are reports of growing animosity towards political elites in some circles, especially concerning the refugee crisis and the domination and stultification of political discourse by the coalition of the two biggest parties (the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats).
As for the causes of this antipathy, the gap between the richest 1 percent and those at the bottom of the economic pile is widening; the education system is in urgent need of reform; infrastructure has been neglected; and Germany is falling behind in terms of digitalization. Economists have been warning that the failure to make necessary investments in these spheres (in part because of the “debt brake” enshrined in the German constitution a few years ago) threatens long term decline.
Equally important is the question of how Germany will define its role in the world and in the European Union. In the last four years German elites have realised that unless Berlin assumes greater political, military, and economic responsibility, both Germany’s interests and the future of the European Union will be in jeopardy. Just what that responsibility should look like – and, importantly, how to win consensus from the German public for this larger international role – are key questions for at least the next four years.
A new dawn
Whether and how Germany will cope with these challenges will be determined by several factors, including the economic climate and international developments. But the shape of the political scene and of the governing coalition will also be crucial – in spite of the apparent lack of alternatives to Merkel’s policies and the lacklustre competition among the main electoral players.
The first thing to note about the next German government is that there will be a new party in the Bundestag – something that hasn’t happened since 1990. And not just any new party; the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a genuine outsider to the existing broad social consensus; one that calls into question the fundamental paradigm of German politics. Currently polling at 11 per cent, they could yet become the third largest party in parliament.
The AfD‘s arrival could be seen simply as Germany joining Europe’s new normal. And one could say that it‘s better for extreme views to be represented in parliament than for resentment and frustration to be expressed in extra-parliamentary ways. Many would like to see the AfD as a traditional conservative party, filling the vacuum left as Merkel has pulled her party decisively towards the center. But this is wishful thinking.
Over the last two years the AfD has undergone a clear evolution towards more nationalist, xenophobic, and radical positions. According to an Allensbach survey 60 percent of the party’s voters support this shift, and only 28 percent believe that the AfD should reject extreme right-wing stances.
One of the party’s two leading Bundestag candidates, Alexander Gauland, recently said that the current integration minister (of Turkish descent but born and raised in Hamburg) should be “disposed of” in Turkey. The second of the two Spitzenkandidaten, Alice Weidel, was supposed to be the “liberal” face of the party, but last weekend“Die Welt” published her 2013 emails in which she described Merkel’s government as “swine who are puppets of foreign powers.” In a recent rally she described herself as an “angry citizen” (Wutbürger), a term used in Germany to refer to those who protest against political correctness and the establishment. With the AfD, the “angry citizens” will now have representation at the federal level.
This is an important turning point, not only for German political culture, but also for the formation of the government. The electoral fragmentation caused by the arrival of the AfD could mean that there will be no two-party alternative to the “grand coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the SPD. But given that all the major parties have ruled out working with the AfD, they will ultimately not be part of the next German government.
The flip side of the AfD’s rise is the Greens‘ decline (they are currently polling at 7 to 8 per cent). The party has been a true success story over the last thirty years, but they have become victims of their own success. Since they entered the Bundestag in 1983 Germany has changed beyond recognition: postmaterial values and liberal attitudes towards diversity have become the norm (including acceptance of marriage equality as well as the well-known Willkommenskultur), and ecology has become as German as bratwurst and beer-drinking. It’s no wonder that sociologists talk of contemporary German‘s ‚green spirit‘.
The Greens have played a major role in shaping this consensus – but consensus is precisely the problem. The party‘s identity was built upon anarchy and rebellion, but it has since come to be part of – and even define – the mainstream. Since the CDU (not to mention the Social Democrats) have rejected nuclear energy, opened the borders to refugees, and voted for marriage equality (reflecting their conviction that social changes cannot be ignored and that elections are won in the center), how can the Greens distinguish themselves?
The liberals (who have been out of parliament since 2013) are considered by their fans to be the only party that can break this consensus and end the “kleptocratic activities” of the two large ruling parties. Critics describe them instead as a protest party of the well-situated and satisfied with life who don’t like the direction in which the country is heading.
Both interpretations have some justification. The liberals’ voters are more or less as dissatisfied with political elites as the AfD’s voters, and emphasise similar themes: security, migration, taxes, and retirement. On many issues their party presents views that are very different from the current mainstream. It would like to revise EU treaties to include the possibility of member states (such as Greece) leaving the eurozone and to strictly enforce the ban on financial support to member states threatened by bankruptcy. But they are disproportionately well-off, much happier, and less inclined to radicalism.
As a “Der Spiegel” commentator observed, the liberals’ program is steeped in a belief in the market’s infallibility and in the effectiveness of the current principles of the eurozone, as if the financial crisis and the experience of a single currency had not left any trace on the party’s economic worldview.
The importance of who eventually becomes Merkel’s coalition partner in the post-election German government should not be underestimated. Thanks to Merkel, the CDU is a party without a defined profile, a party that can successfully shift either to the left or to the right. And it is precisely because of this that these elections have increasingly become a contest between the Greens and the FDP as potential coalition partners for Chancellor Merkel in her fourth term.
It might happen that these two rival parties are forced – if the CDU is not very strong, and if the AfD polls well above 10 percent – to enter the new Merkel government together. This Jamaica coalition (a reference to the colours of the three parties) would be unstable and at odds with itself at a time when Germany will need effective and steady leadership.
The dispute between the Greens and the liberals is based on a question that is fundamental for contemporary democracies—the question of the proper role for the state. The outcome of this dispute may well determine the direction which Germany will take over the coming decades. Thus, in the end, this election may turn out to be much more crucial and exciting than the German public currently realises.
Unless, of course, it all ends with what Germans love best: maintaining the status quo and repeating the grand coalition.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.