In what is perhaps the worst crisis of Angela Merkel’s political career, Germany has been witnessing its most protracted political stalemate—federal elections held in September 2017 presented inconclusive results, and the country’s future has since been mired in uncertainty. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union, secured 33 percent of the votes—their worst electoral result since 1949. The CSU-CDU alliance lost 65 seats compared to its 2013 election victory, though they remain the largest force in the German parliament, Bundestag.
In order to secure a majority, Merkel’s alliance must form a coalition government, but negotiations among the country’s political parties have resulted in a four-month long deadlock, which is still ongoing. The Social Democrats Party, or SPD, which obtained 21 percent votes and 153 seats to become the second-largest party in last year’s elections, also saw its worst electoral performance. Though Martin Schulz, the head of the SPD, had initially ruled out the possibility of a repeat of the incumbent “grand coalition” with the CDU, the parties started fresh negotiations after tripartite talks between the CDU-CSU alliance, the Free Democrats Party and the left-leaning Green Party collapsed in mid November.
Schulz and Merkel recently concluded negotiations to form government, in which Merkel had to make significant concessions, including awarding the finance ministry to the SPD. But the coalition has yet to be approved by a membership vote of the SPD, in which around 464,000 members of the party will vote on the alliance with Merkel. According to a Reuters report, Schulz stated that he was optimistic about the vote, the results of which will be announced on 4 March. He also stated that, for the SPD, the coalition deal marked a “fundamental change in the direction of Europe.” But the September elections reflected a fundamental shift in German politics for another reason as well—the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 13 percent of the votes and 92 seats, and became the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since the Second World War.
The AfD is not only dominating the national discourse but also forcing mainstream parties to re-strategise their politics. One of the central issues that had caused the tripartite coalition talks to fail, among others such as tax policies and environmental concerns, was the CSU’s stance on immigration. While the CSU had always been more conservative than the CDU, the party doubled down on its hard line position after the results, and demanded cuts to welfare benefits for asylum seekers. This campaign season also witnessed a resurgence of rhetoric and vocabulary that was popular during the Nazi era. The election indicated the dangers of the far-right politics and the challenges it is posing for the mainstream parties.
“A lot of people are just angry and feel they are not well taken care of,” Sylvia Schwarz, a Berlin-based actor, told me. “Most of them are actually not right-wing in their spirit.” Schwarz’s expression is a common sentiment among a section of Germans, who still believe in an inclusive and multicultural Germany. According to Fabian von der Mark, a political correspondent with Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, several analysts had misdiagnosed the populist surge as one arising from an economic insecurity, rather than a “difference in values.” Fabian added that it was the responsibility of the progressive forces to engage with people and address this values gap.