Germany went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new federal parliament – and a new national government – and the results stunned Europe and the world. Although center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in office, since her party came out on top in the vote tallies, in truth the election stands as a stern rebuke of her and her party’s governance since 2005. For a politician widely considered the de facto leader of the European Union, and even hailed as the “leader of the free world” by some, including Hillary Clinton, this is a serious setback.
Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) received one-third of the votes, 33 percent, far ahead of the second-place Social Democrats (SPD) with 20.6 percent, but for both parties this represented a big drop-off since the last elections. In 2013, the CDU and the SPD got 37 and 29 percent, respectively, and Sunday’s tallies are the lowest for both parties since the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949, out of the ashes of Nazism and the Second World War.
The big news here is the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Founded only four years ago, this new right-wing party barely competed in the 2013 election, garnering only 1.9 percent of the vote, but on Sunday the upstart AfD won 12.6 percent, which will give them 94 seats in the incoming parliament in Berlin, what Germans call the Bundestag. For the first time since 1990, a new party will be seated in the Bundestag, and it’s on the far-right. The AfD did especially well in economically lagging regions of the former East Germany, where 26 percent of men voted for the party.
Several other parties hovered around the 10-percent mark, including the libertarian-leaning Free Democrats (10.7), the former East German Communists rebranded as Die Linke (9.2), and the environmentalist Greens (8.9). As the chastened Social Democrats show no interest in a grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the only way the chancellor can form a government will be in coalition with some of these smaller parties. The likeliest outcome is the so-called “Jamaica” coalition from the colors of that country’s flag: black for the CDU, yellow for the Free Democrats, and green (obviously) for the Greens.
Merkel will keep the upstart AfD out of government at all costs, viewing them as pariahs and extremists. Ironically, this new rival is very much her own creation, inadvertently. Born out of frustration with Berlin’s costly bailouts of Greece and other bankrupt EU states, the AfD takes its name from one of Merkel’s less popular aphorisms, when she repeatedly stated Germany had “no alternative” but to financially bail out Southern Europe from its insolvency.
This was far from popular with many Germans, a notoriously frugal bunch that loathes debt; as late as 2011, only one-third of Germans had a credit card, and most personal transactions are still in cash. Merkel then made things worse by opening Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015, which made her deeply unpopular with many working-class Germans. The arrival of two million migrants in 2015 – relative to population, this would be like the United States taking in eight million migrants in 12 months – has caused serious political heartache in certain quarters.
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