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German Elections Explained – Inside the politics of the 2017 campaign

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Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras overlooking the Reichstag, home to the Bundestag, German parliament. Photo courtesy of Αντώνης Σαμαράς Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας.

Wong Tsz 

Germany has just experienced one of the most turbulent general elections in recent history. Merkel has gained another 4-year term; for the first time since WWII, a far-right party, the AfD, has made its way into the German parliament; and a three-party coalition seems inevitable. But what else can we tell from this election?

Winners and losers:

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Official election figures. (Source)

Coalition

A record six parties have entered the Bundestag. They are: The centre-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union), SPD (Social Democratic Party), The Left (Die Linke), The Greens (Die Grünen), the FDP (Free Democratic Party), and the AfD (Alternative for Germany).

As it stands, no party wishes to cooperate with the AfD, and die Linke is a traditionally difficult ally due to its uneasy past regarding the East German Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdienst, SSD). Since the SPD vows to withdraw from the grand coalition that it has formed with the CDU since 2013, the only feasible possibility is the CDU-Greens-FDP coalition – also known as the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, named after the three colours. Although coalition government is not something new for the German politics, a three-party coalition is still not commonly seen in the German parliament.

The instant problem with this coalition is the disparity in domestic and foreign politics between the three parties; on domestic issues, the Greens want more protection to refugees’ right in Germany, while the FDP want to roll back Germany’s refugee policy to the Dublin III agreement, in which refugees will be registered in the first member-state they have reached – preventing Germany from taking any more refugees. On foreign policy, while Merkel has been taking a rather strong stance against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which she recently compared to the division of Germany after WWII, the FDP chair Christian Lindner calls for reconciliation with Russia. You do not need to be a political analysist to understand the complications in forming a working coalition government.

SPD and Martin Schulz – The Moor’s Revenge

Though the SPD campaign was once considered a serious threat even by Merkel herself – especially after the waves of left-wing resounds from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn to Jean-Luc Mélenchon – Martin Schulz’s playbook did not pay off. This is mainly due to his lack of experience in domestic politics; his last inland position was serving as the mayor of Würselen, a town of 37000-population. Schulz was seen more as a leader of the European Integration, but not of Germany; Schulz is therefore received by many voters as a politician who is even more willing to sacrifice Germany’s interests to the greater goal of European integration.

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Martin Schulz. Photo by Olaf Kosinski.

To be fair, Schulz was, in many ways, a much better candidate than Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate in the 2013 general election. Schulz’s performance in the TV debate was also positively received; his persistent criticism on Merkel’s refugee politics and foreign policy, especially on Turkey, successfully diverted the public’s attention from his weakness in domestic politics. Most of the time, Schulz managed to have a very energetic attitude and teeth-shining smile; a pretty big contrast to Merkel’s calm and sometimes cold attitude.

But similar to the Moor’s revenge, Schulz and the SPD’s whole election campaign were soon proven to be doomed; German voters clearly realize that the SPD was part of the grand coalition and is also responsible, at least partially, for the criticism SPD poses to the current government – especially on the refugee issue, where the SPD actually backed Merkel’s decision to open up Germany’s borders in 2015. Meanwhile, many SPD-initiated policies on bettering the pension system and minimum wage are easily absorbed into the CDU’s agenda.

In the end, the SPD lost more than 5% of the vote compared to the last election, its worst result since WWII. Most of its votes went to the smaller parties, especially the FDP and right-wing AfD, and not so much to the CDU. SPD is certainly facing a serious identity-crisis:

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Diagram showing which parties won votes from the SPD in 2017. (Source)

 

After the unsuccessful campaign, Schulz vowed to quit the grand coalition and to become the biggest opposition party, and immediately promised to focus on the upcoming Lower Saxony election. Furthermore, the chairmanship of the Bundestag’s budget committee, the most powerful in the chamber, traditionally goes to the leader of the opposition. Considering the SPD’s leader, who has chosen to stay and fight on, the Moor’s revenge seems too early to call an end.

AfD – Alternating Germany

While CDU and SPD are vigorously debating over refugee policy and EU politics, the AfD seized its chance to demonstrate its lifelike approach towards the neglected voters. Many voters, although they may not entirely agree with AfD’s agenda, do consider AfD as a legitimate voice in the parliament to balance the mainstream parties’ politics. AfD as a new protest party enjoys greater liberty in formulating a more populist agenda to address ‘real’ political issues: anti-immigrants, anti-EU, Germany first.

AfD’s election campaign was a great success – with sound-bite slogans in simple language, AfD targets every source of potential voters. Especially from the mainstream parties:

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Diagram showing which parties the AfD won votes from in 2017. (Source)

Following their success, the AfD pledged to deliver its agenda to their voters. Alice Weidel, the party’s co-chair, reminded its supporters that the AfD owe the trust to the voters, and therefore the party has to address its promises to the people as soon as possible. At the same time, the other big gun of the AfD, former CDU member and AfD vice-chair Alexander Gauland, vows to hunt Merkel down and reclaim the country and the people.

The AfD’s anti-immigrant agenda gained considerable support; many German voters do feel a threat to homeland security after Merkel’s open-door policy in 2015 – the Cologne New Year’s Eve attack (2015), the Würzburg train attack (2016), the Berlin attack (2016), and the Hamburg attack (2017). In great contrast to Merkel’s policy, the AfD’s former co-chair Frauke Petry once suggested that Germans should shoot at the refugees who are trying to enter the country illegally.

Nationalism is in the core of AfD’s values –when AfD was first established in 2013, the AfD had a strong anti-Euro, but not anti-EU agenda, and it was not yet received as a far-right party. Yet, after the resignation Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics, who later founded the Liberal Conservative Reformers (LKR, Liberal-Konservative Reformer) in 2015, the AfD has clearly turned more nationalist with a strong anti-immigrant – and especially anti-Islamic – agenda. Also notable is the AfD’s call for rethinking Germany’s past, including Germany’s involvement in the two World Wars and, of course, the 12 painful years of Nazi dictatorship. AfD vice-chair Gauland calls for “being proud of our soldiers in the two World Wars”, as Gauland puts it:

“We do not have to hang on these 12 years. It no longer affects our identity, therefore we have the right not only to take back our country, but also our past.” (Source)

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Alexander Gauland. Photo by Metropolico.org.

Such a statement from a politician would be unthinkable in Germany before the AfD’s establishment. The post-war German government has been very strict on the retrospection of Germany’s Nazi past, anything that relates to Nazism is heavily limited, and the German government has been apologizing ever since for the war crimes and anti-human conducts of its past. Such retrospection has heavily undermined the national identity among German citizens, especially the younger generation. What is happening in Germany now is reminiscent of post-war Japan; the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, 自民党) has been handling Japan’s ‘past’ in a similar fashion. Its ministers have been paying tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社) in honour of the soldiers and the war criminals, and on the other hand its government has been expanding its military forces for its border defence.

Also similar to the current LDP in Japan is the internal conflict within the party – where the former LDP member and current governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike resigned from the party and forms the new Party of Hope (希望の党), the AfD has experienced at least two major splits. First came Bernd Lucke’s resignation in 2015. Subsequently, he and several ex-AfD members founded the predecessor of the current LKR, the Alliance for Progress and Renewal (Allianz für Fortschritt und Aufbruch, ALFA), and 20% of then-AfD members also shifted to the new party. The second split happened right after the 2017 election, in which Frauke Petry, then co-chair of the AfD, also quit due to her accusations of a ‘witch-hunt’ against her.

The AfD has now shifted far from the original anti-Euro elites’ party, and by opening fire in almost every direction, it now has to deal not only with its internal issues, but also all the political paycheques it has promised to its voters. It is definitely worth observing if the party can truly turn itself from a protest party into an opposition party.

Merkel holds ground

With no surprise, Merkel has again won the election, although her party lost more than 7% of the votes, mostly to the FDP:

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Diagram showing vote wins and losses for the FDP in 2017. (Source)

But in general, Merkel’s election campaign worked; in response to the growing right-wing sentiments, Merkel’s election posters, for the first time, were designed with the German colours.

Mother Merkel (Mutti is her nickname), the “Chancellor of the Free World”, represents the stability and sanity of real politics (realpolitik). Merkel shifts her position when she realizes the change in circumstances; as she did on the nuclear power issue, she did in her refugee’s policy, and she did on same-sex marriage. Merkel is tied with conservative values on the one hand with the CDU, and on the other hand, she is an exponent of a liberal European world. She is still the long-standing leader of Europe, the kind of leader Europe needs, but back home, she also realizes that her ‘Europe-first, Germany-second’ policy has provoked many voters, whose trust she promises to win back – especially those who voted for the AfD.

By losing many votes from her East German home, Merkel is indeed facing a divided Germany. Not just a division in votes – also the ever-growing economic gap, where 10% of the population controls 60% of the wealth, and 16% are at the edge of poverty. While integrating the migrants, Merkel’s government must integrate the nation as well.

On a side note, Turkey issued a travel-warning to its citizens traveling to Germany during the election period of potential ‘anti-Turkish’ sentiments, and Merkel fired back immediately:

“I want to be very clear here: Any Turkish citizen can come visit us… No journalists are arrested here. No journalists are put into detention here. Here, we have freedom of expression and the rule of law. And we’re proud of that.” (Source)

Not quite the end

This election is a wake-up call for all mainstream parties in Europe. Even Germany could not avoid facing the global far-right’s rise; for a nation who was heavily baptised by fire, this is particularly alarming. For Germany, politics will inevitably become less predictable, and political changes may occur without any prior warning; yet, even with a three-party coalition, the consensus politics may still work effectively. For instance, despite the fact that the FDP has a strong opinion on Merkel’s austerity measures in the Euro-zone, Merkel could still bargain with tax-wave policies and the position of the Minister of Finance. For smaller parties, the chance to co-govern also earns them more concrete political achievements to their voters. The Greens, for instance, may well monitor Germany’s denuclearization. For the SPD, they could well balance the influence of the AfD in the parliament, and stop the AfD from chairing the Federal Budget Committee, a position traditionally chaired by the largest opposition party. Moreover, the SPD may correspond on EU issues with the governing coalition with its influence in the European Parliament.

So goes democracy – German voters have called for change, but not a radical one, and thus Merkel will always be remembered as the longest-serving chancellor of Germany.

Click here for more National Politics on the Euroculturer 

Click here for more EU Politics on the Euroculturer 

Click here for more by Wong Tsz 

 

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