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The far right isn’t the real story of the German elections

Merkel is by far the longest-serving political leader of a major democratic state, having already survived two U.S. presidents, three French presidents, three British prime ministers, four Greek premiers, and five Italian ones.

by Cas Mudde
Sep 22 2017, 10:48am

There’s little doubt that Germany’s elections this Sunday will make history. The populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be the first modern radical right party to enter the Bundestag, the lower house of the German Parliament. But whether it becomes the third- or sixth-biggest party in Germany is of little political significance, as the AfD will be immediately excluded from the coalition-formation process.

The real story of the German elections is the seemingly effortless re-election of Angela Merkel, leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and German Chancellor since 2005. Merkel is by far the longest-serving political leader of a major democratic state, having already survived four leaders of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) as well as two U.S. presidents, three French presidents, three British prime ministers, four Greek premiers, and five Italian ones. Moreover, she has been polling close to 40 percent, which means she is set for one of the best scores in her party’s history. Not bad for someone whom many political commentators predicted would not survive 2016.

Most remarkable about Merkel’s popularity, it’s not based on the older, rural, white electorate that has become the declining base of right-wing parties in the UK and U.S. A recent poll showed her party to be the most popular among under-18-year-olds in Germany by far, polling almost 30 percent. This might not be that surprising, as most of these voters have never known any other chancellor.

In true CDU fashion, Merkel sells stability, an increasingly rare commodity that is not just attractive in Germany, which has weathered the Great Recession well. In a world that seems to have lost its way, Merkel has become a beacon of hope and trust for people around the world. A Pew poll from late June showed her to be the most trusted world leader, out-polling Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Importantly, large majority groups in most other West European countries expressed confidence in her “doing the right thing.”

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So what can the Germans and the rest of the world expect from the next Merkel government?

First, Merkel is said to prefer another coalition with the SPD, but that party might choose a period in opposition, after being marginalized in the previous Grand Coalition. This would mean that Merkel returns to the pro-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), but the two parties might not get a parliamentary majority together — particularly if the next Bundestag would count six, rather than the existing four, parliamentary factions. Since Merkel considers both the AfD and the radical left-wing party The Left as unfit to govern, she’ll have to work with the moderate Greens, forming what has been dubbed the Jamaica Coalition — the colors of the CDU-FDP-Greens are black, yellow and green, respectively.

Second, whatever the actual coalition, Merkel will probably not initiate new fundamental reforms in Germany. Having survived both the Great Recession and the refugee crisis relatively unscratched, she will continue her unique politics of Merkelism, which The Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe describes as consisting of three pillars: (1) ethical, not ideological; (2) reactive, not programmatic; and (3) detached, not engaged.

This approach all but guarantees that the country overall will do well, but underlying socio-cultural and socio-economic tensions will continue to fester or worsen.

Third, it’s broadly expected that this will be Merkel’s last term — if she even serves out the full term, as she has stated. This makes Germany’s future much less predictable. Not having to worry about re-election, and coming off a resounding electoral victory, Merkel faces much fewer constraints. At the same time, various leading CDU members will start to position themselves for the successor race, cautiously opposing her less popular policies, particularly with regard to European integration and immigration.

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From an international perspective, Merkel will face pressure to team up with French President Emmanuel Macron to pull the EU out of its current moribund state. Ever since Macron’s shock victories in the French presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this year, Europhile commentators have dreamed of a new German-French alliance that mirrors the famous Kohl-Mitterrand tandem of the 1980s. Macron would provide the political vision and Merkel the political power — assuming the young French statesman can keep his momentum going, given the sharp decrease in support in recent weeks. A grand alliance would be the perfect last trick for Merkel, ensuring her a legacy equal to the two other long-serving Christian democratic chancellors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl (before the latter got disgraced by a corruption scandal).

Ironically, Merkel’s ability to do this will depend less on her coalition partners or other European leaders than her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), with whom the CDU forms the so-called Unionsfaktion in the federal parliament. The CSU is much more right-wing than the CDU in general, and Merkel in particular. It has been a staunch defender of the powerful Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has been the architect and rigid defender of the EU’s austerity policy, while party leader Horst Seehofer has regularly sided with hard-line Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, against Merkel’s pro-refugees politics.

As long as Schäuble remains finance minister, austerity will be the rule within the EU, creating frictions with not only Southern European countries like Greece and Italy but also Macron, who has called for a more Keynesian approach to boost the eurozone. And no fundamental reform of the EU’s immigration policy can be expected as long as leaders like Orbán keep opposing the resettlement of any refugees and parties like the CSU keep protecting him within the European People’s Party.

The AfD will no doubt grab the headlines, spurring commentators to speculate on its role in the future of German politics. But you’d be wise to focus on the almost equally nativist and authoritarian CSU. It is Southern Germany’s austerity-loving winners of globalization who will decide whether Merkel enters the history books as simply a national stateswoman or a leader for all of Europe.

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Cas Mudde is an associate professor at the University of Georgia and a researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. His most recent books include “The Far Right in America” and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction.”