Decoding the German Elections: Is This a Populist Sweep?

While the rapid rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party is alarming, the tide of populism visible elsewhere in the world has not quite swept over Germany.

Angela Merkel is set to resume her fourth term as the chancellor of Germany, surprising no one. However, contrary to expectations, this victory was far from comfortable. In a trend visible across Europe, the established parties took a beating, with the far-right populists faring much better than expected.

Merkel’s centre-right Christian-Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) received 33% of the vote, a fall of over 8.5% compared to their 2013 results. The centre-left Social Democratic Party suffered a near rout, receiving just over 20% of the votes. Causing a tectonic shift, the far right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged as Germany’s third largest party, winning 13.5% of the national vote. This will be the first time in decades that a far right, nationalist and blatantly anti-European party will sit in the Bundestag.

It is clear that Germany’s status quo has been challenged. The rapid rise of AfD from a fringe group to a national party with close to 80 seats in the parliament is alarming, to say the least. With increased television exposure, more speaking time in the parliament and a national platform, their polarising discourse will seep into German politics. Does this mean the tide of populism visible elsewhere in the world has swept over Germany? Not quite.

Not a swing to the Right

This result is by no means comparable to the shift in politics that brought about Trump or Brexit. The AfD will not be in the government, as all mainstream parties have rejected its messages. With the SPD’s decision to not join the governing coalition, AfD will not even be the strongest party in the opposition. Moderate parties still got 80% of the national vote. Its win also does not mean that Germany is swerving towards the extremes. A poll from German state TV showed that 60% of AfD voters had voted for it in protest because they were “disappointed by other parties”.

Also read: The Rise and Rise of Angela Merkel, or How to Succeed in German Politics

While AfD did benefit from its anti-refugee rhetoric, it also gained ground and voters as established political parties, especially CDU under Merkel, moved towards centrist positions. The party has mobilised 1.2 million non-voters and has taken over one million voters who previously voted for Merkel. Moderate parties, especially the Left, have their work cut out. They will need new policies and strategies to address the economic and political anxieties, both real and imagined, of these voters.

Top candidates for the German elections Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland of Germany's anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AFD) during an AFD party congress in Cologne Germany, April 23, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

Top candidates for the German elections Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland of Germany’s anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany during an AfD party congress in Cologne, Germany, April 23, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

Mixed news for Europe and partners abroad

For the time being, however, it is clear that political centre will continue to hold comfortably in Germany. Which is good news for Europe. However, Merkel’s domestic standing has been dented by this result. She will now have to undertake tough negotiations for the so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition comprising the CDU/CSU, pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens. It will be a difficult coalition to negotiate and hold, given the vastly different policy preferences of the coalition partners, particularly the FDP and Greens. Having FDP in the coalition will also mean the end of hopes for Eurozone reform that Emmanuel Macron had been pushing for.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Reuters

For India, the return of Merkel to power is good news. She and Modi have a solid and established working relationship. Before Germany launched into election season, India and Germany conducted far-reaching intergovernmental consultations on trade, investments and strategic relations. These might even expand with the pro-business FDP as part of the governing coalition.

While continuity is a good sign, this is not the strong mandate Germany’s international partners had hoped for. This setback to Merkel and the rise of AfD will force Germany to be even more inward-looking and introspective, as parties reckon with the rise of identity politics. Germany’s consensus-driven politics is over, to be replaced by the cacophony of coalition politics. Those hoping Merkel will lead the free world should prepare for disappointment.

Garima Mohan is a Project Manager at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.