NEW YORK—Angela Merkel may have won a fourth term as chancellor of Germany on Sunday, but the political veteran now heralded as the “leader of the West” also lost at the same time.
That was the consensus at a discussion on the aftermath of the German elections that took place Monday at New York University’s Deutsches Haus. Panelists pondered the nation’s future a day after Merkel held on to power and the Alternative for Germany party won seats in parliament, becoming the first far-right party to do so in over five decades.
“For the first time, we now have people in the parliament who are openly racist. Not all of them, but some of them,” said Christian Martin, a visiting professor at NYU. “This is bad news for Germany.”
The election season, often depicted as dull and colorless, led to results that were “anything but boring,” according to Steven Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany. On the contrary, he said, they signaled “a seismic shift” in Germany.
“Both of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had their worst election results since 1949,” Sokol said, referring to the centrist parties that make up Merkel’s coalition in the parliament. “This was a clear vote against the status quo.”
The erosion of support for the mainstream parties was underscored by the AfD’s 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest party in the parliament. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) won the largest share of the vote with 33 percent, seven points lower than the last election in 2013. The drop signaled lingering resentment from voters over the chancellor’s economic and immigration policies.
The AfD has long been criticized for its anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric. Before supporters on election night, one of its leaders vowed the party would “hunt Merkel” and investigate her decision-making on refugees.
This election aligns Germany with other Western nations which have wrestled with far-right politics over the past year, including France, the Netherlands and Austria. Merkel’s decision to throw open German borders to over one million refugees in 2015 triggered a populist backlash, in addition to her policies enlarging Germany’s role within the European Union.
The AfD is now surging, but Dr. Martin said that around 60 percent of the party’s voters said they mainly supported the party out of protest, which suggests their support does not run deep.
Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, said the AfD’s hardline position on immigration resonates among the German public. The mainstream parties share a general consensus on how to deal with key issues, offering few alternatives for voters who wish to chart a different path.
“A general debate about the role of immigrants in German society, about German national identity, about the ways Germans should discuss and deal with their past, [there is] pretty much very little difference,” said Berman.
During the campaign, Merkel drew criticism for being out of touch when she touted the country’s economic progress and told voters they are prospering like never before. Though it’s true, a significant segment of the population feel anxious over changes brought by globalization, said Thomas Jahn, a correspondent for the German newspaper Handelsblatt.
The Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) sudden decision to enter opposition as the second largest parliamentary party augurs a contentious period of coalition building for Merkel. Her best hope, Jahn said, may lie in the “Jamaica Coalition,” made up of the environmentally friendly Greens, pro-business Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats – so named since the party colors match the Jamaican flag. They share, however, few similarities in economic and foreign policy and are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Berman said she fears the stagnation that could arise from an ideologically diverse governing coalition on issues like immigration and the eurozone. Though Merkel has a strong partner in French President Emmanuel Macron, who also seeks deeper cooperation within the European Union, she may have difficulty convincing her future coalition partners to play along as she strives to revitalize the troubled union.
“The whole point was after the election, Merkel would have the political power behind her to start making deals with Macron and become the engine of some kind of revitalization of the European Union,” said Berman. “It’s very hard for me to see how that happens now.”
Photo: Angela Merkel walks to a European People’s Party Summit on March 9, 2017. Photo via European People’s Party.
A previous version of the article mistakenly identified Steven Sokol as a political science professor from Northeastern University. He is the president of the American Council on Germany.