Same, Same, but Different – Germany After the 2017 Elections
WASHINGTON — The German election campaign this past year was described as boring by many. In fact, one of the leading possible challengers to Merkel’s reelection, Martin Schulz, found it hard to disagree with her on anything of substance since his party had helped to devise the policies of the previous government. So, compared to the recent volatility of elections in the U.S., France, and the Brexit campaign, among others, relatively little seemed to be at stake. And unlike in many recent elections, the polls and experts were correct: Angela Merkel — the known quantity, the woman of stability and continuity — was re-elected for a fourth term.
Yet the perceived continuity only serves to mask the problems under the surface. After an election campaign vaguely devoid of real issues, particularly in the realm of foreign policy — with Turkey’s crackdown on civic freedoms and the aftermath and future proportions of the migration crisis as rare exceptions — it is time to return to the real policy battles.
Clemens Wergin, Washington Bureau Chief of the German newspaper Die Welt, and Washington Post Opinion Editor Christian Caryl both emphasized that point in in a discussion with GMF’s Young Transatlantic Network of Future Leaders (YTN) and the Foreign Affairs Congressional Staff Association (FACSA) that took place Thursday, September 21, three days before Germany voted. GMF President Karen Donfried moderated the conversation.
What is Different Now?
A protest vote or a return of extreme right-wing ideology? Why did close to 6 million voters, or 13 percent of the electorate, cast their ballot for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD ) in the German elections — almost one million among them former CDU supporters and half a million former SDP voters? That’s what experts are left to determine in the wake of Germany’s federal election on September 24.
Either prospect is deeply troubling. If voters think it advisable to casually cast a protest vote with little more thought than clicking the “like” button on Facebook and just for the sake of venting their frustration, that is concerning for the future of the electoral process and the basic tenets of Western democratic society.
If voters secretly — or even openly — support extreme right-wing policies and statements such as those made by AfD leading candidate Alexander Gauland, who professed to “hunt” Chancellor Merkel and suggested “disposing” German-born SDP politician and Minister of State Aydan Özoğuz in Anatolia, that is arguably even more distressing — particularly with future elections in Germany in mind.
What Does It Mean for Germany’s Future?
Election experts suggest a 60:40 split between protest and ideologically motivated AfD voters, and even among the 40 not all likely subscribe to the most extreme statements coming from the party. Regardless of motivation, one thing is clear: The AfD used social media more effectively than any other party in the 2017 German elections. Given the somewhat shocking election results, many Germans have ominously begun pointing to the NSDAP as a cautionary tale, which infamously climbed from 6 percent in the 1924 Reichstag elections to 18 percent in 1930 and 44 percent just three years later.
Ranging from German election posters openly mixing racism with völkisch barroom clichés to statements about shooting refugees at the border, all of the panelists agreed that the AfD knows how to provoke and see results in the voting booth: ultimately scooping the vote of 1.5 million previous non-voters and many more frustrated former establishment party supporters.
Both active in the digital news space, Wergin and Caryl agreed it is easier, though not right, to drive digital traffic with negative content. Oversimplified critiques are often more appealing than the laboriously negotiated and unadventurous compromise of policy accomplishments. It is also arguably easier to be in the opposition than to govern.
With that in mind, how will Merkel’s coalition government, whose makeup has yet to be determined, handle the expected onslaught from the right? How will she prevent the narrative that any deviation from her centrist course towards the right will be interpreted as policy success for the AfD? And could a joint front against the AfD driven by all other parliamentary parties do away with the feeling of centrist indifference to the concerns of the “Wutbuerger” that likely inspired many frustrated AfD voters — a large majority of them in the former East — to vote AfD in the first place?
The years ahead for Germany will likely be anything but boring. It’s safe to assume that the quiet, prosperous times of Angela Merkel’s center government are over and that the “you know me” campaign strategy of Merkel will need readjusting in a world dominated by social media, bots, and cyber interference. The next months and years will show if the CDU and other established parties are ready for the battle over hearts and minds — but also over tangible policy successes.
In the best case scenario, perhaps the reality of a far-right party in the German parliament will rattle Germans and give rise to the realization that sometimes there are more important things than continuity and stability — and that the way forward, in fact, often requires the unspeakable: change.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.