Angela Merkel just walked into her fourth term as chancellor of Germany. Her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), picked up 32.5 percent of the votes in Sunday’s election, according to the first exit polls issued at 6 pm German local time. The Social Democrats, Merkel’s closest challenger, were a distant 20 percent. Those numbers were lower than the last polls from Stern/RTL, which projected 36 percent would pull the lever for the CDU and 22 percent for the SPD.
German election (ARD 6pm exit poll)— Mathieu von Rohr (@mathieuvonrohr) September 24, 2017
The results weren’t a surprise. Merkel’s campaign taglines were all about continuity. “Clear for Stability,” read the podium under the chancellor at a rally in Munich on September 22. Her campaign was designed to remind Germans that life in Deutschland is pretty good, with Europe’s strongest economy, only 3.7 percent unemployment, and the fastest-growing GDP among the G7 industrialized nations. After a year of jolting elections, from the United States selecting Donald Trump to Brexit in the United Kingdom, the subtext was clear: Germans should stay the course.
But one party was set on crashing Merkel’s stability party — and did. The Alternative For Germany (AfD), a far-right party founded in 2013, won 13.5 percent of the vote, according to these exit polls. That meant the AfD not only easily cleared the barrier to entry to the Bundestag (set at 5 percent of the general vote) and will now be the first far-right party to enter the German parliament in decades, but it does so as the third-largest party.
AfD supporters breaking out into national anthem as exit polls announced. Gauland: "We will take back our country and our people"— Philip Oltermann (@philipoltermann) September 24, 2017
And that’s making a lot of people uncomfortable, starting with Merkel herself. “I will never work with the AfD,” she told Deutsche Welle, the German news service, on Friday.
Germany has long kept the far right at bay. That’s now changing.
Germany has long had a unique barrier to the far right: its own 20th-century history, and a resulting revulsion for the reaches of the far right.
The AfD was founded as a euroskeptic party, created by economists who weren’t thrilled with Germany’s bailout of Greece during the European economic crisis that began in 2008, along with defectors from Merkel’s CDU. But within two years it had begun to echo the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platforms of the far-right populist parties of other European nations, like the National Front in France and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. The AfD’s original founder left, complaining about the party’s turn toward xenophobia. New AfD figureheads began to make statements about how Islam was incompatible with German values.
The shift in focus began with Merkel’s open-door policy during the height of the European migrant crisis in 2015.
Carl Berning, a political scientist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, told me earlier this summer that initially, the AfD “focused on the euro and showed almost no evidence for populist or radical positions,” a dynamic that’s since moved markedly to the right.
“The more radical wings of the party gained power and now shape the profile of the party,” he said.
As I wrote back in July, in spring 2016, the AfD unveiled an explicitly anti-migrant platform that included ideas about banning minarets and the niqab and encouraged German women to bear more children.
Then this year, some AfD members began to dabble in a different sort of nationalism, one that questioned the postwar German culture of memorialization. In Germany, since the Holocaust, memorials to victims of the Nazis have been erected across the country. It’s a point of national identity to recognize that dark past, to discuss it and teach it, lest it repeat itself.
But recently the AfD has begun to bemoan the country’s inability to celebrate the past. One of the party’s new leaders, Alexander Gauland, said at a party rally earlier this month that his countrymen should “have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars.”
And back in February, a local AfD official named Björn Höcke complained to a group of young party supporters that "These stupid politics of coming to grips with the past cripple us. We need nothing other than a 180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance." He also referred to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sea of concrete steles in the center of Berlin, as a “a monument of shame in the heart of [the] capital."
For many Germans, statements like Höcke’s and Gauland’s are shocking. This is, after all, a country that has worked hard to own responsibility for its dark past.
“These are calculated breaches of taboos,” Joerg Forbrig, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told me last week. “These are provocations. They are designed to sort of propel the AfD time and again into the media and the public debate.”
The AfD has run this campaign against migrants and Islam
The AfD campaign has pushed many boundaries in this election, running advertisements that mixed Islamophobia with misogyny, including one image of women in bikinis, photographed from behind. The tagline read “Burqas? We prefer bikinis.”
AfD supporters also spent part of the campaign showing up at Merkel’s rallies to heckle her from the sidelines.
But heckling does not equal political force. I asked Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution about the apparent sudden surge of support for the AfD. She told me last week that Merkel’s efforts to bring the party more into the center of politics left some right-wing voters disgruntled— and open to poaching. In other words: Merkel left her right flank open.
That right flank became even more vulnerable in the wake of Merkel’s decision to allow nearly 900,000 refugees into Germany during the height of the European migrant crisis of 2015. It was a humanitarian gesture that not everyone appreciated.
Some thought it would cost Merkel a fourth term. “[Merkel] managed to ride [the refugee crisis] out by saying in her own uniquely Merkelian way two contradictory things in same breath: ‘I wasn't wrong, and I’ll never do this again,’” Stelzenmüller told me. “ Plus, she adds, “The refugee influx has dwindled to a manageable level.”
But for the AfD, and its supporters, that type of statement is too little, too late. They’ve capitalized on that to enter parliament.
Merkel says she won’t work with the AfD, but she can’t work alone
The last government was run by what’s called the “Grand Coalition” — that means the Christian Democrats worked with the Social Democrats, the next-largest party. But as Deutsche Welle pointed out this week, that can cause problems for the smaller party — in this case the Social Democrats. They have less of a say in the movement government makes while they are in the coalition, but they’re blamed by voters when things go wrong. That can make them less inclined to join up.
And the Social Democrats will have a lot of internal work to do, Handelsblatt, the German daily, reported today, given their weak showing in today’s election.
Merkel may have come out on top, but she’ll spend the next few weeks hammering out a coalition agreement with the other parties. Often that’s discussed, in the press, by references to the colors associated with each party.
Depending on how many votes each party takes in, one coalition option includes a so-called “Jamaica” coalition — green, black, and yellow, the colors of the Jamaican flag — of the CDU, the Green Party, and the Free Democratic Party. Another option is a center-right yellow and black pairing of the Free Democratic Party and the CDU.
Whatever happens, what’s new today is that the far right in Germany is no longer a sideshow. Now that the AfD is the official opposition in parliament, it will have a larger budget and a major national platform — something it hasn’t had before. The party also has the right to respond after the chancellor speaks. As the New York Times reported today, many German political watchers are worried it will alter the tenor of discourse in the Bundestag, turning it into a more acrimonious space.
Merkel has said she won’t work with the AfD. But sidelining the party as much as possible will mean she has to work fast to build bridges with everyone else.