Merkel works on new direction for Germany as far right gains ground

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose open-door refugee policy played a role in winning a fourth consecutive term, faces the tricky task of building a ruling coalition amid the rise of a nationalist, anti-Islam party.

Official preliminary results released early on September 25 had Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), winning 33 percent of the total vote, down from 41.5 percent four years ago. It was the CDU/CSU’s worst result since 1949.

In her acceptance speech to her party, Chancellor Merkel noted the significant role that immigration had played in the election.

Merkel said she would fight for a unified Europe and address illegal immigration and its causes.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) came in a distant second place with 20.5 percent of the vote, its worst result in post-WWII Germany.  SPD leader Martin Schulz said his party suffered a “crushing election defeat” and ruled out another “grand coalition” with the CDU/CSU.

However, Sunday’s biggest winner was the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which came in third place with 12.6 percent of the vote. The nationalistic, anti-Islam party – founded in 2013 – increased its share of the vote by 7.9 percent compared to the 2013 federal elections.

Despite a surge in support, all mainstream German parties have ruled out working with the AfD. Many regard the party’s Islamophobic and anti-EU positions with deep suspicion.

In a stunning post-election press conference announcement, AfD leader Frauke Petry abruptly announced she would be leaving her party. Instead, Petry – arguably the AfD’s most visible figure – said she would be serving as an independent MP for her constituency in Saxony.

Petry’s more moderate positions were increasingly at odds with those of other AfD party leaders, including party founder Alexander Gauland.

AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen accused Petry of dropping a bombshell on her party.

“That was not discussed with us in advance. We knew nothing about it,” said Meuthen.

Merkel is expected to form a coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party. The FDP won 10.7 percent of the vote – an increase of 5.9 percent compared to the 2013 federal elections – while the Greens garnered 8.9 percent of the total.

The German Chancellor has also said the CDU/CSU would not form a coalition with the Left Party, which won 9.2 percent of the vote.

Why does the German election matter? 

Although largely unsurprising, the election results still have important implications for domestic politics, German-EU relations, and Germany’s place in the world as a major economy.

Probably the most significant and likely consequence of yesterday’s vote is its detrimental impact on Merkel’s ability to steer the German government, according to an expert on German politics.

Dr Alexander Clarkson, lecturer in German and European and International Studies at King’s College London, told WikiTribune:

“She’s no longer seen as a winner”.

“It’s now quite clear that she’s not going to stand in 2021, so we begin to drift into a period where discussion about who’s going to succeed her is going to increase.”

Clarkson believes this potential power void will lead to an increase of party infighting. An intra- and inter-party power struggle would make it harder for Merkel to govern effectively on a national and international stage, particularly if she decides to form a coalition government with parties whose policy views differ significantly.

This could have significant knock-on effects on Germany’s role in the European Union (EU).

“Europe as well as the rest of the world needs a stable and functioning Germany Able to take action, able to send a clear message to partners as well as enemies,” says Clarkson.

“If you have a government that is both split within the parties in the coalition, as well as a coalition between three parties [the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens] that have structural difficulties with one another, then it’s going to become more difficult for Germany to speak in a clear voice.”

He says Merkel will have to make significant concessions to the Greens if she wants to be able to govern, particularly with ecological, development and foreign policy. For the FDP, Clarkson says Merkel will be forced to look at “difficult” compromises over tax reform, over investment in digital infrastructure and the euro.

Clarkson believes Merkel’s underwhelming electoral performance is partly due to her long tenure as German chancellor.

“She’s an easy scapegoat for what’s going on in German society. She’s been around forever.”

Clarkson says it will take half a generation for society to adjust to the influx of people due to Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy, which saw more than a million asylum seekers enter Germany. While domestic backlash against the policy has diminished, Clarkson says that there are a host of unresolved economic and social issues in east Germany that are easy targets for populists.

He believes these concerns have provided fertile ground for the AfD’s anti-establishment and nationalistic message to sprout.

But he also cautions against overstating the AfD’s influence on German politics.

“There’s a lot of people in the AfD that want to run it and fewer that want to follow. That’s going to be a huge problem.”

More importantly, Clarkson believes the AfD faces an identity crisis.

“It’s a composite of national conservatism and radical right. The radical right isn’t the biggest part of party, but it’s the best organised. The national conservatism [contingent] has a large number of MPs and members, but is less-well organised,” he says. “If the AfD survives [the latest power struggle] and manages to contain the radical right element of the party, it could expand.”

But what if it doesn’t?

“It will put off a lot of people who wanted to vote national conservative but got Nazis instead,” Clarkson says.

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