This Sunday, September 24, Germans went to the polls to elect a new Bundestag. The preliminary results confirm predictions that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU; and its Bavarian partner Christian Social Union) would come in first, with about one-third of the vote, but this is down about 8 percentage points compared with four years ago.
The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by Martin Schulz, turned in its worst performance since World War II, with just over 20 percent of the vote. The SPD thus becomes the latest victim in the collapse of center-left establishment parties nearly everywhere. In the May presidential election in France, the French Socialists also turned in their worst performance since their founding and have been forced to put their party headquarters up for sale to pay the bills, and of course Democrats in the U.S. lost to Donald Trump.
Finishing in third place was the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which rose to prominence on its virulent anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric. In the long piece I wrote for the print edition of TAP, I predicted that AfD, as the party is known, had lost some of its steam and would finish with under 10 percent of the vote. I was wrong. Early results put AfD just over 13, which makes it the third strongest political force in Germany. Although discussion of the refugee crisis had taken a back seat in recent months to outrage over the conspiracy by German auto manufacturers to cover up their violation of Diesel exhaust emissions limits, AfD’s candidates successfully exploited smoldering resentment of Merkel’s open-door policy, especially in the states that used to be part of East Germany. While AfD’s 13 percent is still well short of the Front National’s 33 percent (in the second round of the French presidential elections), Germany will now have an openly racist party represented in the Bundestag for the first time since the end of the war.
Merkel has said that she will not include AfD in any coalition government. She has also excluded working with Die Linke, the far-left party, which garnered just under 9 percent. Her coalition options are therefore limited. She could try to renew the Grand Coalition with the SPD, with which she has ruled for the past four years. But SPD members are distinctly unenthusiastic about continuing to serve as Merkel’s junior partners. Even before the election results were in, many in the party felt that their cooperation with the CDU over the 12 years of Merkel’s rule has cost them dearly, not least because it made them party to the deepening “dualization” of the German labor market, which has been good for export businesses and for the skilled workers they employ but which has also resulted in a sharp increase in the Germany poverty rate.
If the SPD refuses to renew the Grand Coalition, or if Merkel herself decides that her best option is to jettison the weakened left, two possibilities remain. She can seek to form a so-called Jamaica coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party—the name “Jamaica” refers to the colors of the three parties, black (CDU), yellow (FDP), and green (Greens), the same as the colors of the Jamaican flag. The FDP, which fell below the 5 percent threshold in the last election and was therefore excluded from the Bundestag, has come roaring back under leader Christian Lindner, more than doubling its score since 2013. The Greens have also improved their score compared with 2013 but still trail the FDP by about a percentage point.
The problem with a Jamaica coalition is that the staunchly free-market FDP and the passionately market-curbing Greens are deeply at odds on many issues. What’s more, the FDP is deeply Euroskeptic, whereas Merkel remains committed to the European Union and has signaled to French President Emmanuel Macron that she is willing to entertain a number of his proposals for EU institutional reform.
If Jamaica proves too exotic a destination, Merkel could try for a Black-Yellow coalition with the FDP, but she would then also need to pick up some votes from members of other parties. It may be some time yet before we know the exact complexion of the new Bundestag membership. The German electoral system combines proportional and first-past-the-post tallies, so it will take some time before we even know precisely how many seats each party will hold.
Putting together a final coalition will then require extensive backroom dickering. One important unknown is the fate of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Merkel and Schäuble have not always seen eye-to-eye, and she may avail herself of the opportunity to use his position as a bargaining chip to woo a potential coalition partner. Neither the SPD nor the FDP would be likely to join a coalition with Schäuble as finance minister.
In any case, Merkel will now begin her fourth term as chancellor, putting her in a position to rival Helmut Kohl’s all-time longevity record. But the vote is hardly a ringing endorsement of her stewardship. One possible casualty of her lackluster triumph is the promise of cooperation with France on EU reform. The surge by both the FDP and AfD suggests that more than a few German voters think their government ought to put them first and foreigners second. EU reform is not high on their list of priorities.