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.