To a large number of Germans, Angela Merkel has been a symbol of stability, competence and success. A pastor’s daughter who grew up in Communist East Germany to earn a doctorate in quantum chemistry and then went on to become the most powerful woman—and, for some time now, Europe’s most powerful politician—in the European Union as Germany’s first woman Chancellor, she has been a hugely inspirational figure.
That image of invincibility—built over three terms in power—now seems to have taken a beating after the rece-ntly-concluded federal elections in Ger-many on September 24. Her ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with its coalition partner and Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), got 33 per cent of the votes, making it the largest party in parliament. Yet this has also been its worst performance since 1949 in the Bundestag.
The most worrisome challenge for most people within and outside Germany came from the voices of narrow unreason. For the first time in 72 years, a far-right party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is avowedly anti-Muslim and anti-immigration, has gained as much as 13 per cent of the votes, making it the third largest group in the Bundestag. For many, the air is redolent of the rise of National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party) in the 1930s.
“The outcome of Germany’s federal election holds a crucial lesson for the European Union: even a country that has been the EU’s bedrock of stability amid crisis is not immune to political fragmentation and polarisation,” opines Daniela Schwarzer, director, German Council on Foreign Relations.
Merkel may still end up becoming Chancellor—allowing her to equal the record of her two earlier predecessors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, with four consecutive terms. But cobbling together a viable coalition can prove to be tricky and time-consuming.
The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD)—Germany’s second-largest political party, and part of Merkel’s last governing coalition—also hit a post-war low, receiving just 20.5 per cent of the vote. The SPD is now considering a role in the Opposition, which it feels will allow for serious introspection. This may force Merkel to look towards parties like the Free Democrats and the Greens for a coalition.
Many observers are apprehensive of what the results mean for Germany as well as the EU in general, what with ongoing negotiations between the UK and EU on post-Brexit relations, amidst calls for severing ties with Brussels ringing out from sections in other EU countries.
“Since the beginning of the Federal Republic in 1949, one question has always haunted German politics: Could the Weimar experience be repeated, with the radical right triumphing again?” says Princeton professor of history and international affairs Harold James. Now that the extremist AfD has won seats in the Bundestag for the first time since World War II, “the question has stepped out of the shadows,” he adds.
Sharing the growing apprehension with the AfD’s rise, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer suggests, “To prevent the right from doing irreparable damage to German democracy, parties that stand for democratic values must take their responsibility to form a new government seriously.”
Fondly called ‘Mutti’, or ‘Mother’, for her steady hand in dealing with crises situations, Merkel, at 63, has been a survivor in the cut-throat world of politics predominantly populated by men.
A nimble-footed manoeuvre brought her to political centrestage in 2005, when she outwitted her mentor Helmut Kohl to take over leadership of the centre-right CDU and succeeded in getting herself elected as Chancellor when the former was caught in a financial scandal.
In the West many regard her as a liberal, especially after her 2015 decision to take in one million refugees—something that earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But back home, with her opposition to gay marriage and strong support for a burqa ban, she is perceived differently. However, she changed her stance on nuclear issues after the Fukushima disaster and opposes new nuclear power plants—a stand that endeared her to the Greens.
“All told, the election was a landslide against Merkel’s grand coalition. And, to a large extent, it can be seen as a protest vote against Merkel herself,” writes Fischer in an opinion piece. He observes that while abroad she is appreciated as an effective stateswoman and the guarantor of stability and moral authority in the West, at home that is no longer the case.
One reason for this disaffection has been her silence or refusal to clarify her stand—beyond the generous, initial welcome—on the influx of large number of refugees from Syria and other conflict areas. The apprehensions about the presence of large numbers of, mainly Muslim, ‘outsiders’ and how it might change German society remain unanswered. That resentment against the Merkel government and immigrants grew manifold in the wake of the December 2016 Berlin terror attack and the sexual molestation of many women at the Cologne Cathedral, allegedly by “Arab or North African” men, on New Year’s Eve 2015. Sporadic jehadi terror attacks in different European cities deepened the unease.
“Patience is the secret of Merkel’s success” was how many observers admiringly saw her earlier. Merkel’s ability to avoid taking decisions on “hot-button” issues and pushing them aside used to be seen as a virtue. But the election showed how that has become her greatest liability. The sudden wind in the AfD sail didn’t all blow from the far-right. It comprised many disillusioned voters from the CDU/CSU as well as the SPD.
“We expected a better result, that is clear,” Merkel said after the results were announced. “The good thing is that we will definitely lead the next government,” she added optimistically. She also said she would address supporters of the AfD “by solving problems, by taking up their worries, partly also their fears but, above all, by good politics.”
The AfD is now the second-largest party in federal states comprising the former East Germany. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the neo-Nazis had always had a strong base there ever since the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.
But, as Princeton professor James poi-nted out, if there is room for optimism about the German poll results, it lies in its closeness to the European norm. The AfD vote at 13 per cent is almost the same share that the populist Geert Wilders won in the Netherlands in April, in an election that was widely seen as a defeat for radical populism. “It is clear that an overwhelming majority of Germans do not support the AfD, whose fortune could soon fade, owing to a probable split in its leadership,” says James.
But then, why do the AfD’s ascent give rise to such consternation when most did not express such grave worries during the Dutch elections?
“Indeed, the Dutch and German vote shares of the nationalist right are the same, and I don’t really think the vote is so worrying, especially since the AfD is quite incoherent and looks as if it is breaking up with the resignation of Frauke Petry,” says James. “The shock obviously comes from the memory of the Nazi dictatorship and the fact that there hasn’t previously been any far-right party that made it over the 5 per cent threshold in the federal parliament,” he adds.
James’s predictions may well come true. But until that welcome disintegration, many in Germany and beyond will keep their eyes peeled for any discernible increase in the righward tilt. In the biggest economy in a Europe that barely recovered from the Eurozone crisis, the stakes are impossibly high.