Last year, the world was introduced to several right-wing shocks. First, when the UK voted to leave the EU. The second was when Donald Trump was elected President. Since those events though the right-wing, populist victories have been hard to come by. In France, the National Front was crushed by newcomer Emmanuel Macron. In Austria, not even two tries could lead to victory for the Freedom Party. Most recently, the Tories in the UK saw their majorities be severely diminished in the summer.
So, it is with some surprise that Germany’s election Sunday breaks the trend. The anti-immigrant and right-wing AfD, or Alternative for Germany, finished third according to exit polls. Not only would this be the first time they enter the Bundestag (minimum of 5 percent of national vote) but they are set to do so as the third largest party.
Let’s back up for a second though and give some context to their victory. Without it, you’d probably be wondering why this is such a big deal.
Since 2001, Germany has been ruled by the CSU/CDU (Christian Social Union/Christian Democratic Union) helmed by Angela Merkel. Merkel initially governed as a conservative alternative to the SPD (Socialist People’s Union) but over the years her party has drifted leftward. Particularly on immigration, which gave rise to the AfD.
The general sense at the start of the election cycle was that Merkel was in trouble. She had reigned over Germany for a decade and a half and voters were going to replace her with somebody else. The problem was the mainstream alternative, the SPD, had entered into a grand coalition with her in 2013 and thus struggled to paint themselves as a viable alternative. Minor parties such as the Greens, the pro-business FDP, and Far Left only mattered on the fringes.
But, since its creation as a nationwide party in 2013, the AfD has found support among a public worried about freewheeling spending to aid Greece and more particularly, the influx of Muslim refugees from the Middle East.
Initially, polls showed the SPD as competitive against the CDU/CSU. But after Merkel righted the ship by sounding more right-wing on immigration and fiscal issues, the polls reverted to giving her party a solid lead. Meanwhile, the AfD, which had found local electoral success last summer and popped up as high as 15 percent in national polls faded to around 5 to 10 percent of the vote-in line with Green and FDP support.
But, if exit polls are to be believed, two things happened at the close of the election. The first is that AfD’s message of Germany First paid off. Secondly, polls underestimated the actual composition of the electorate. According to exit polls, many AfD voters were not consistent voters. Additionally, fully 60 percent of their supporters voted against the other parties and only 34 percent for AfD. The CSU, the more conservative cousin of the CDU, could be widely popular if it moved outside Bavaria according to 70 percent of all voters. If so, the CSU could seriously contest Merkel if it can take some AfD voters and breaks from the CDU in the future.
Domestically, Merkel could not have asked for a worse result. The SPD has refused to rejoin her coalition (the first smart electoral decision they have made this year) and by themselves the FDP and CDU/CSU do not constitute a majority. This means Merkel is unlikely to be able to form a pro-business majority. Instead, she is likely to have to join with the FDP and the Greens, the famous Black, White and Yellow Coalition that has worked locally but never to form a federal majority government. For obvious reasons, Merkel would not consider forming a government with the AfD.
Beyond Germany’s borders the results indicate right-wing, populist parties are far from dead. Rather, they are successful when they draw in many non-traditional voters into the process. Voters fed up with the system and finally jarred to participate as worries about the economy and their livelihood increase.
It has been said that Merkel is now the leader of the free world (because Trump has so transformed the nation). Except her party has less of an electoral mandate than Donald Trump and Republicans do here at home. Her standing, despite her victory, has been severely weakened. Even the fragmented nature of Germany’s modern political climate cannot change such a dynamic.
The CDU/CSU’s 33 percent and SPD’s 20 percent is their worst post-war showing in the modern era. This is a far cry from 2013 when the CDU/CSU and SPD combined to garner almost 75 percent of the vote. This means the AfD garnered almost 60 percent of the SPD vote and 40 percent of the CDU/CSU vote.
As for the AfD, it has vowed to function as a responsible opposition. The Greens have argued the “Nazis have come back to Germany.” While the AfD are hardly Nazis, they will likely find themselves struggling to form a coherent governing ideology when their contingent in the Bundestag is divided between moderates and pragmatists vs. hardliners. Ultimately, such is the fate of any party but the AfD seems particularly susceptible due to its single issue status (anything in the name of the Fatherland). In truth, they are the first overtly nationalist and anti-immigrant party Germany has seen in the modern time.
The AfD garnered about 11 percent in Western Germany. But in the former Soviet controlled Eastern Germany they garnered almost 22 percent of the vote. These areas are more rural, downscale and more likely to be sensitive to demographic change.
By tomorrow we will know the exact results and it will take time for Merkel to form a government. But the lesson to political leaders in Europe and the rest of the developed world is clear: voters continue to be disgruntled and worried about the future. That leaves room for more parties like AfD to flourish.