Why a weakened Angela Merkel is still the most important politician in the West
Andrew Hammond says the full ramifications of the German election, and the newly empowered far right, are unclear but Merkel remains on course to set records, as well as influence the terms for Brexit
Angela Merkel has won her fourth straight general election, while the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) surged to third place. Merkel’s victory could have key implications beyond Germany, including for Brexit negotiations.
The unexpected narrative of election night was the higher-than-previously-anticipated support for the AfD, which won around 13 per cent of the vote, according to exit polls. The party therefore becomes the first far-right group to win Bundestag seats in some six decades, and could trigger a significant shift in the country’s post-war politics.
The AfD campaigned extensively on immigration, which has grown significantly in salience since 2015, when Merkel allowed around 900,000 migrants and refugees into the country. Moreover, some elements of the German far right sought to link her immigration stance to recent terror atrocities – including a truck attack in Berlin that killed a dozen people last December.
Yet, the anti-immigrant message did not resonate with the German electorate on Sunday as well as it did during the French presidential ballot this year. That ballot saw National Front populist Marine Le Pen in the final round run-off against Emmanuel Macron, where she secured some 40 per cent of the vote.
Part of the reason the AfD did not connect with even more of the electorate is the relative sense of contentment in much of the country. Many, but by no means all, Germans still see themselves as beneficiaries of globalisation, with unemployment this year the lowest since the reunification of east and west Germany.
The key question now is who Merkel’s right-of-centre Christian Democratic Union and its sister Christian Social Union, which collectively secured 32 per cent, will enter into a coalition with. This question may not be finalised for weeks: in 2013, it took 86 days for the CDU-CSU to forge a deal with the left-of-centre Social Democrats.
What is clear is that the Social Democrats (led by former president of the European Parliament Martin Schultz) will not join a new grand coalition, and the AfD will not be invited. The Social Democrats had hoped to make significant gains in Sunday’s election, yet the party’s campaign – centred around economic inequality and increased poverty – failed to catch on, and the party scored their lowest post-war total of 20 per cent.
This means Merkel will need to look to other possible coalitions. The most likely is a combination between CDU-CSU, the Greens and the liberal-oriented Free Democrats, but not the far-left Die Linke party.
This would be welcomed by some elements in the UK, which believe a CDU-CSU combination with the pro-business FDP could mean Germany potentially adopts a more sympathetic position in Brexit negotiations. Such a stance would be not be supported by Schultz, who is likely to be the next main opposition leader in the Bundestag.
This underlines that the nature of the next coalition will matter for international politics. Although Merkel’s status is diminished, she remains the most important political leader in Europe, having been leader of the CDU since 2000 and chancellor for a dozen years. Indeed, in the era of Donald Trump and “post-truth politics”, she has solid claims to being the most influential leader in the Western world.
Should she now serve a full fourth term to 2021, she will match Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in office, from 1982 to 1998. To put Merkel’s achievements into perspective, four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) and the same number of UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) have served during her 12-year tenure. Merkel has also already exceeded the previous record of Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest serving female leader, at 11 years.
Europe and the wider world are assessing the international ramifications of the rise Germany’s far-right, and Merkel’s fourth term. While this will see much policy continuity, precise implications will not be clear until we know which parties she forms her coalition with.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics