As the Far-Right Approaches: On the German Election and the Rebirth of Nationalism

Dana Langer 

Gabriel Siegel

Gabriel Siegel

On Sunday, September 24th, Angela Merkel won her fourth election for the German Chancellorship as leader of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU), but not without controversy. For the first time in 60 years, a far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), was voted into Parliament.

Gaining 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s constitutional and legislative body, the AfD’s popularity has risen starkly in recent years. In 2013 the party received only 4.7% of the vote, just short of the 5% minimum requirement to gain representation in the Bundestag. In just four years the party’s support, at least by measure of the ballot, has increased nearly three-fold.

    The international and domestic shock over the AfD’s victory this week may have dimmed Merkel’s win. One of the first to comment on the election outcome from the European Union in Brussels was the commissioner for economic and financial affairs, Pierre Moscovici, who tweeted, “The AfD's entry into the Bundestag is a major shock and bluntly reveals doubts in society.” However, the outcome should not necessarily come as such a surprise.

In recent years, a growing sector of German voters and politicians voice have voiced opposition to immigration and Germany’s acceptance of over one million refugees. In August 2015, when Merkel decided to open Germany’s borders to Middle-Eastern and Central African asylum-seekers, she faced stark criticism from the AfD, who felt Merkel should be “severely punished,” and that they were being turned into foreigners in their own country. Similarly, anti-semitism is resurgent. Rising numbers of anti-semitic attacks in 2014 provoked Merkel to order police guarding of all Jewish institutions in the country. Political opposition to the Chancellor’s refugee and immigration policies materialized in the form of protest votes in support of the AfD this election.

    Merkel’s win felt even more hollow this year due to the fact that the CDU lost approximately 90 seats in parliament, suffering its worst election since 1949. The CDU’s largest coalition partner in the last term, the Social Democrats (SPD), also suffered a significant blow, losing over 5% of their seats. The SPD has issued a statement saying they will oppose Merkel’s government, meaning the CDU and Merkel will have to build an entirely new coalition. Two potential coalition parties are the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the sustainability-oriented party, the Green Party. Now, Merkel will have to compromise with two groups that drastically differ ideologically from her own, making it even more difficult to form a stable government than before. Having to work with The Green Party, which is even more left-wing than the SPD, will force Merkel to make sacrifices which will displease both her conservative voters and her party. This coalition will not only weaken her efficacy and power to get things done, but will also likely be disastrous for her popularity among voters. And while working with the AfD would be unacceptable of Merkel, she somehow must appeal to the 13% of German voters who support them, thus adding another layer of complexity to the four-year term ahead.

    For the AfD, this election was an important victory. Not only did they secure a voice in Parliament, but they also gained access to financial resources and more media exposure, two platform-building perks that come with Parliamentary representation. Considering the party was only formed in 2013, this is a significant feat. For the 87% of German voters who did not vote for the AfD, frustration and concern are justified. The broader implications of the election outcome are clear: the AfD now have a larger and far more publicized stage to share their anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-EU ideologies, joining countries such as the UK, France, Austria, and the United States, who have dealt with similar political shifts in recent months.

    Merkel’s weakened stronghold in Parliament combined with the AfD’s significant win point to the international rise in nationalistic political views, painting a worrisome picture and potentially foreshadowing a dark and eerily familiar future for the politics of Germany. Merkel’s popularity abroad has remained high in recent years, however the election might serve as a reality-check for her regarding the public opinion at home. Rather than filling such an active, and vital, role in international politics as she did with the European Refugee Crisis in 2015, it seems in the upcoming years Merkel will need to focus on domestic issues first and foremost to stabilize and return political order to Germany, now that there is a glaringly apparent growing divide in the nation.