It turns out that, like other Europeans, millions of Germans are fed up with an out-of-touch political class.
Can we learn anything from Sunday’s election results in Germany? Yes. That European voters’ patience is running out.
Chancellor Angela Merkel did win a fourth term. But German voters delivered her governing coalition a major rebuke. More and more Germans regard her as woefully out of touch with normal people. So is the professional political class that transcends Germany’s right-left divide. When a party that won almost 42 percent of the vote in 2013 slumps to about 33 percent just four years later, you know it has made serious errors of political judgment. Merkel’s Christian Democratic/Christian Social (CDP/CSU) coalition is reeling.
We need to understand the scale of the shakeup. Post-1945 Germany’s party-political landscape proved relatively stable. When new parties emerge, it happens slowly. Then they either disappear or gradually merge into the political mainstream.
The German Greens are a good example. They formed in 1979. They gradually gained parliamentary seats. But they didn’t enter a government until 1998. By comparison, the eruption of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has been extraordinarily fast.
The AfD emerged just four years ago in April 2013. Its architects? A group of stereotypically mild-mannered economists, professors and financial journalists. They regarded the euro as a failure. They saw bailouts of nations like Greece as flouting European law and the German constitution. The party proved a rarity in Germany: It leaned Eurosceptic. After several bitter internal struggles, the AfD has become a catch-all for many Germans no longer willing to accept the status quo.
Conservatives were infuriated by Merkel’s decision to open the door to almost one million Muslim migrants in 2015. (Most were economic migrants, not refugees.) Two years later, more than 90 percent don’t have jobs. They live on government handouts.
People often call the AfD a far-right party. Well, it does have a significant share of unpleasant crackpots. People inclined to offer ugly “revisionist” accounts of Germany’s National Socialist past. But a look at its voters will surprise you. They reflect a much wider set of constituencies than opponents will admit.
Not Just Frustrated Conservatives
Exit-poll analysis indicates that many former CDU/CSU voters switched to the AfD. That isn’t surprising. These conservatives were infuriated by Merkel’s decision to open the door to almost one million Muslim migrants in 2015. (Most were economic migrants, not refugees.) Two years later, more than 90 percent don’t have jobs. They live on government handouts. That’s a sore point for many Germans.
But it’s not just about the money. Admitting so many migrants from utterly different cultural-religious backgrounds has stoked enormous social tensions. But Merkel’s government denies it all. German bureacrats and police are trying to repress information about outbreaks of sex crimes committed by migrants against German women. They are playing down the involvement of migrants in jihadist terrorist incidents. Many Germans feel outraged at all this.
The AfD hammered these facts over and over again during the election. As we’ve seen, it paid off.
The AfD is winning converts from across the spectrum. More than 400,000 Germans who once voted for the Social Democratic party switched their votes to the AfD. In France, the National Front in France has captured the mantle of the industrial working class from the traditional left-wing parties. So too has the AfD attracted significant blue collar votes.
The Questions You’re Forbidden to Ask
Yes, the Social Democratic party (like most European center-left parties) has become a party of middle-class left-liberals. It’s very far removed from the party’s proletariat roots. But the issues matter too. Working-class Germans resent being told they’re “not allowed” to express reservations about, for example, Merkel’s immigration policies.
And that perhaps is the biggest lesson of the German election. It mirrors results elsewhere in Europe. The European political class and their media enablers stigmatize anyone who questions their preferred positions. But that is just driving voters to new parties. To groups willing to say what is otherwise regarded as “unsayable.” Parties that will admit that open borders constitute a grave injustice. That real and deep cultural-religious differences cannot be wished away amidst a sea of sentimental humanitarianism and Kumbaya happy-talk.
These people can’t all be casually dismissed as neo-Nazis.
The AfD’s has become the repository of anger and resentment of many, varied Germans. These people can’t all be casually dismissed as neo-Nazis. In that sense, the AfD reflects the populist wave which continues to surge in much of Europe. It’s cutting into mainstream political parties. It long seemed that Germany was immune to this trend. Now we know it isn’t.
The Economic Dimension
Yet another twist hurt Merkel. Many fiscal conservatives ditched her for the party which has traditionally carried the free market flag. The classical liberal Free Democrat party (FDP) actually lost all its seats in the Bundestag after the 2013 election.
This time round, however, they’re back. During the campaign, the FDP stressed just how much Germany is spending to float the rest of Europe. Think especially of Southern European nations which find fiscal discipline “challenging.”
That point resonated with many fiscally-conservative Germans. While they were unwilling to vote for the AfD, they saw the FDP as a way to protest. They don’t want to see Germany carrying so much of the financial burden for the rest of the EU. That burden that will increase immensely for Germany once Britain departs the EU.
Until now, Angela Merkel has been the great survivor of European politics. She shows an uncanny ability to weather changes in the European political scene. She has outlasted France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, Britain’s David Cameron, and half-a-dozen Italian and Greek prime ministers.
To get disgruntled voters back in her camp, however, will require changes. Merkel and the CDU/CSU must fundamentally rethink their positions. They must face policy-questions that the European political class has shown no interest in significantly changing. And if that proves to be a bridge too far for Merkel, politics in Germany is going to get a lot rougher over the next four years.