What to Expect from the New German Government?
This year’s parliamentary elections in Germany have created a new political landscape in the country. Angela Merkel will remain Chancellor but without the solid majority that she used to enjoy. The new situation is opening up new alliances and policy priorities. In this Leadership Perspectives call — exclusive to GMF's Alumni Leadership Council members — Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, The German Marshall Fund’s Vice President and Director of the Europe Program and Berlin Office, provides an executive summary of the results and consequences of Germany’s vote.
Read below for the call’s key takeaways:
- Angela Merkel won the election and will remain Chancellor for her fourth term. Her victory was a result of her ability to safeguard her country from any major change. The economy has suffered only a minor financial crisis in what has otherwise been a boom of ten years, and it continues to register record employment rates, despite the insecurity in the rest of Europe.
- Roughly 73 percent of voters continued to support mainstream parties, which are pro-democratic, pro-capitalist, pro-transatlantic, and pro-European, albeit in a different combination than before.
- Given that Germany has no term limits for chancellors, Chancellor Merkel will now enter the pantheon of long-term chancellors, which include figures like Willy Brant and Helmut Kohl.
- Beneath the surface, however, this election marked a major shift in German politics and an end to German exceptionalism in Europe. We now have an anti-immigrant, anti-internationalist, anti-European, and anti-globalist sentiment represented in the national parliament — the Bundestag — through the populist, far right, and anti-Muslim Alternatives for Germany (AfD), which many fear would eventually reveal itself to be anti-Semitic too.
- This is the first time since the end of World War II that a far-right party has managed to enter the national legislature. The victory of AfD has also unmasked some other important divisions. AfD polled just shy of double the votes in the east than in the west, winning the plurality of votes in some districts of Saxony. The party also did better with males than females and among rural voters than urban.
- Most importantly, the far right’s electoral success took place despite record turnout and near full employment, including in Saxony.
- At the subnational level, the AfD’s electoral success in Bavaria took place at the expense of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) sister party the Christian Socialist Union (CSU), which had always won the majority of votes in the state and now lost more than 10 percent.
- The other big loser of the election was the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which immediately declared that it will not be a part of another grand coalition and will most likely now move further to the left in order to become a more viable opposition.
- The German parliament will now be much more representative. The cozy times of grand coalitions when major parties agreed on policy are now over. We will now hear more left-wing and right-wing voices. The country will be increasingly harder to govern as coalition building becomes more difficult.
- In the 1980s, we had the splintering of the left with the arrival of the Greens that occurred once again in the 1990s, with the arrival of the former Communists. What we are seeing now is the splintering of the right with the arrival of AfD and the emergence of a multiparty system similar to those in the Netherlands and Italy.
- The weakened Conservatives will now have to form a coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats. In Germany, such a coalition is called “Jamaica” because the colors of the three coalition partners resemble those of the Jamaican flag: Black for Conservatives, Green for the Greens, and Yellow for the Free Democrats. There is no precedent for such a coalition at the national level.
- For the Jamaica coalition to come about, two main issues will need to be resolved. The first is Europe and the reform of the eurozone; the second is migration and refugees.
- The Free Democrats advocate “austerity on steroids.” They are opposed to mutualization of debt and further integration of eurozone, especially along the lines proposed by President Macron, making any grand bargain with France that much more difficult. The Conservatives and Greens, on the other hand, hold softer positions on these issues and are more open to compromise.
- The Greens are very open to migration and refugees, which the Bavarian Conservatives want to limit. They are also committed to ecology and renewable energy, whereas the Free Democrats want a less restrictive business environment.
- The Greens will need a narrative for their base to agree to this coalition. Having succeeded in phasing out domestic nuclear power, they will now want to phase out coal and put an end date to fossil fuel powered cars. They will want to do so through incentives and in partnership with the car industry, which is already accustomed to working with the Greens, who have been in power in Baden-Wurttemberg, where the German car industry has been located for quite some time now.
- Back to the question of populism, the phenomenon is understood differently on each side of the Atlantic. In the United States, it has a tradition of pointing out what is wrong with the country and generating movements for reform. In Germany, populism has a connection with right-wing nationalism that comes close to the former Nazi philosophy, and as such, it touches a nerve in this country, where 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II.
- AfD started out as a conservative party that took over the space that Angela Merkel vacated as she moved her party to the left. Their membership is very heterogeneous. We need to distinguish between those who are simply disenchanted Conservatives and those who are neo-Nazis, but it would be too hasty for any organizations including GMF to engage with AfD members any time soon, if at all.
- With a Jamaica coalition, the German foreign and security policy might undergo change. Beyond the already mentioned disagreements on Europe policy, the coalition partners would also have to agree on the 2 percent defense spending commitment for NATO, which the Greens might resist, despite their strong pro-transatlanticism.
- More significantly, however, the new partners might also have to revisit Germany’s Russia policy. The new German parliament is significantly more pro-Russian. Germany has a 3 million strong Russian community. AfD campaigned heavily among this demographic group and is unabashedly pro-Russian. The Social Democrats are also likely to become more pro-Russian with the former Communists being there already. The Free Democrats have also made some noises in this direction. The situation will definitely be sharped by the U.S attitude toward Russia as well.
- With regards to the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries, we can expect a continued projection of European values and support. In this respect, not much will change. The return of Angela Merkel to power will mean continuity of commitments and engagement.
- With respect to the United States, Angela Merkel seems to understand that all the issues on Trump’s domestic populist agenda, such as immigration, trade, and climate change, will be a cause of friction without much room for collaboration. The relationship with the United States will also be burdened with President Trump’s low approval rating in Germany of only 9 percent, as well as a need, for the first time in the postwar history, to formulate a strategy to deal with a United States that is no longer committed to the international liberal order.
What we are faced with today is a wave of cultural discontent that comes in different shapes and forms that we need to face together.
GMF’s Leadership Perspectives informs leaders about trends that are changing the nature of transatlantic relations. During each call, members of GMF's Alumni Leadership Council have the unique opportunity to send questions through an instant messaging group and shape content.
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