Germany has voted for stability and continuity — and thus for a fourth term of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
There was no desire for new leadership, no wind of change in Germany. Why should there be? The economy is chugging along with record employment numbers every month. The changes that Germans see in the world — terrorism, authoritarianism and a fraying world order — is the type of change they want to by protected from by someone who has proven to be able to do it: Angela Merkel.
Yet, while Germans did not vote for change, they will get it nonetheless. They will find themselves in a country that is more polarized and more difficult to govern.
The cozy period of a Grand Coalition ended Sunday night. After their whipping at the polls, the center-left Social Democrats declared that they will not enter a new government as a junior partner. Instead, they aim to be the leader of the loyal opposition. Likely, they will move to the left and become a more redistributionist, more social justice oriented group in the mold of Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labor Party. The SPD chairman, Martin Schulz, gave an inkling of what that will look like when he forcefully attacked Chancellor Merkel on a post-election TV show. So forceful indeed, that some of his loyalists hoped he had done the same during the campaign that had just ended in defeat.
A more left leaning Social Democracy will be joined in opposition by a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany or AfD. The entry of this group into the Bundestag is a watershed moment for Germany’s postwar democracy. It’s importance should not be underestimated. For the first time, a party was elected to the Bundestag that is openly nationalistic and islamophobic and that advocates historic revisionism. Some of the new members of the German Parliament might even be called neo-Nazis.
Given the vote tally that puts the AfD at above 13 percent, the number of deputies elected to the chamber is so large that many of these them are not known to the public or even to their own party. We might be in for surprises as to who these people really are.
Germany’s period of exceptionalism is over during which it seemed immune from the temptations of right wing populism and nationalistic sovereignism. Now, finally, globalization anxieties and the feeling of cultural dislocation have reached the country’s main stage.
The AfD claims their entry into the Bundestag is good for democracy. Finally, they say, the locus of public debate, of alternative visions for society, will once again be the Federal Parliament. It is true: The Bundestag has been a rather sleepy place during the Grand Coalition. Now, opposition from left or right will be more vocal, more forceful. The spectrum of opinions represented will grow. Parliament will better reflect the divisions and the polarization that has existed in the country for quite some time. But it might also be a place where extremism has a home.
Most likely, it will be extraordinarily difficult for Angela Merkel to form a government. Since the Social Democrats have ruled out participation, “Jamaica” is now the name of the game. Jamaica’s flag features the colors of the parties that need to join into a coalition for Angela Merkel to be able to continue governing. A combination of her conservatives with the free market FDP and the Greens seems to be the only viable option. But it is not a foregone conclusion. First of all, no three party coalition has ever been tried on the Federal level. And there is only limited experience with “Jamaica” on the state level. The differences between the parties are stark.
Just take the most relevant foreign policy topic of the coming years: Eurozone reform. Much will depend on whether a French-German bargain can be struck to change the Eurozone from a fair weather building to a sturdy structure. But when it comes to the necessary transfer of funds within a currency zone, the free market FDP is the party of “no” while the Greens are the party of “yes” — and in between stands a fourth term chancellor who is known for incrementalism, not grand bargains.
Or take refugee policy. Merkel’s conservatives have dramatically lost: 8 percentage points overall and 12 points in their Bavarian heartland. On election night, Bavarian conservatives announced that they will want to close the gap to the far right AfD, especially on refugee policy. It is difficult to conceive how identity politics from the right will go along with the open arms multiculturalism of the Greens.
If, in the end, these three parties give it a go, they will find it difficult to avoid controversy over time. Extraordinary mediation skills will be required. This is where the chancellor comes in.
Under normal conditions, mediation is her strong suit. But this election has weakened her. Many in her own party make her personally responsible for the rise of a party to the right of conservatives. They say, her liberal refugee policy and her accommodating Eurozone policy have played into the hands of the far right. Therefore, election night might also mark the beginning of the decline of Angela Merkel’s power: A weakened chancellor in her fourth term, leading an unwieldy coalition — that wasn’t exactly what conservatives dreamt of.
Angela Merkel’s task will require extraordinary skill: She will need to form and maintain a stable government under less than favorable conditions and at the same time create conditions that will see the AfD fade. Otherwise, election night will mark the fraying of the traditional party system — including mainstream conservatism.
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) where he oversees the organization’s activities in Germany and leads the Europe Program. Prior to joining GMF, he served as an advisor to Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany. From 2013-17, he oversaw policy planning and speechwriting for the president.