Germany’s Dilemma: The Disastrous 2017 Election & Its Consequences

Merkel in 2017. Photo: EU2017EE via Flickr.Source: Flickr, Open Parliament Licence v3.0.

Four months after the 2017 federal election, when Germany finally formed a government through a coalition of Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU and Martin Schulz’s SPD, the nation breathed a sigh of relief. The election season had been gruelling. But despite the resolution of its electoral crisis, Germany, once seen as the ever-constant giant holding together the EU, has like much of the Western world been plunged into political instability. As with Donald Trump’s presidency, many now ask – what happened? How did we get here? And, most importantly, what now? Like the UK, the United States, and France, Germany is dealing with the migration crisis, attacks on its democracy, and the effects of globalisation. However, it would be a mistake to see Germany’s problems as entirely analogous to those of its neighbours; Germany’s problems are uniquely amplified, and its solutions altered, by its history.

Part I: The Merkel Phenomenon & Pre-election

Germany’s 2017 election season began on a similar trajectory to the American election – the predicted win of a clean-cut, uncontested, and progressive leader who supposedly had widespread backing, despite difficulties the countries had recently encountered. Angela Merkel has been in firm control of Germany’s chancellorship since 2005, and has been politically unrivalled for the last 13 years. For nine of these years, Merkel’s CDU formed a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). This party entered the 2017 race with high hopes of finally replacing Merkel, who had been a stable leader, but ultimately had been in power for too long. In 2017, 65% of the German population was not satisfied with Merkel’s management of the refugee crisis, and her popularity began to drop significantly.

Consequently, the SPD saw their chance to offer a real alternative to Merkelism: when Martin Schulz gained 100% of his party’s vote for leading the SPD, he introduced a campaign of social redistribution and social justice – a strategy that, historically, bodes ill for them. Every time they had headed into the election season promising to tax the rich and redistribute it to the poor, they had been readily defeated. While the desire for change was clearly given, Germany did not believe that the SPD could deliver the necessary solutions. There is a strong argument to be made that Germany’s values of hard work and economic strength made the electorate wary of such left-wing polemic. Mr. Schulz briefly surpassed Merkel in the polls in February 2017, but quickly fell behind Merkel in the following month, reaching a 15-point difference at one point.

As the election season progressed, Mr. Schulz did not recover, continuing the SPD’s fate of not being able to distinguish itself from the CDU in terms of image. His consistent attacks at Mrs. Merkel’s policies gained little credibility, given that his party had been partially responsible for these very policies over the previous 12 years. The one debate on German television was described as a ‘love-duet’ and as having a‘cuddling atmosphere’ by press like Der Spiegel, ultimately crushing any hopes for change. No matter the winner, things would continue as before – a prospect that many Germans resented. Melissa Eddy’s article in the New York Times highlighted this, arguing that it was no longer a question of “who will win the election” but rather “whom she will choose to form her next government”.

The only other alternatives came from two unlikely candidates: the liberal democrats, FDP, and the far-right AfD. Both, however, stood no chance of ending Merkel’s dominance of German politics. The FDP was a party still recovering from the same fate that the SPD is now facing – a loss of identity because of Merkel’s centrism – and is still seen as the party of the financial elites, rather than the common people. The AfD, on the other hand, needs no introduction, notorious as it is for its far-right populism and nationalism.

German politics before the election was best summed up by Carola Lange, whom Ms. Eddy quotes in her article: ‘The only alternative for Germany is Mrs. Merkel.’

Part II: The Election Disaster & its Causes

What appeared to be a grudging, reluctant landslide victory for Merkel, quickly became a disaster on 24th September, 2017. The lowest result in history for both Merkel and Schulz resulted in the AfD amounting the third-most votes at 13%, and a surprising shock rippled through Germany’s media. The AfD’s strength was a surprise to many, but in reality, it is both a symptom and a testimony of Germany’s discontent with contemporary politics. The BBC’s analysis argued that growing nationalism, born from fears of an Islamisation of the Occident due to mass immigration from the Middle East, played a key role in the results. Yet statistics quickly dissolved this myth: according to the ZDF, the German state television, only 33% voted for the AfD out of conviction of its ideals, whereas 67% voted to protest against Merkel’s symbolic rigidity in German politics. AfD supporters therefore argue that ‘it will be a dark future if nothing happens’

While the BBC is “not entirely sure why” this election turned out this way, Jenny Hill’s analysis does hint at East Germany as a starting point for understanding the election’s turnout. Despite “far fewer migrants” being settled in East Germany, the AfD won this state with over 24% in the federal election, providing “fierce opposition to Mrs. Merkel’s refugee policy”. However, East Germans’ problems with refugees are a scapegoat, not a primary cause. The true cause of the election disaster must lie deeper than racism.

While Merkel had made a large mistake with her management of the refugee crisis by breaking her only rule of not rushing towards action, it does not entirely explain East Germany’s problems. Rather, it is indicative of historically-induced problems catching up with the government, and gaining momentum through Merkel’s unpopularity.

This section of Germany never fully recovered from the effects of reunification, which saw East German companies and resources being bought and relocated to the West. East German factories closed, workers left, and the youth fled to the cities. Nowadays, little financial, industrial, or economic activity resides in East Germany, with only Berlin and Leipzig being stand-out cities. On top of this, Germany’s aging population is growing rapidly, as the ‘baby-boomer’ generation leaves the workforce. This phenomenon leaves a barely cohesive, very locally and ultimately unsustainable economy, which has unsurprisingly made many fear for the future. When Mrs. Merkel then decided to open Germany’s borders to the refugees, the effect of clashing cultures and sudden growth of population overwhelmed East Germany. According to the FAZ, 20.6% of refugees have been redistributed to East Germany, while the region itself only contributes about 15% of Germany’s total GDP. The result is a population that feels as if it does not have any foreseeable future, and that therefore, only the AfD can save them.

When I visited East Germany in late 2017, I witnessed the extremity of the situation. Take, for instance, my hometown of Bad Homburg in West Germany, which has about 51,000 inhabitants. On a Saturday, this city will be bustling with life, and its shops are swamped. On the other hand, my grandparents’ East German hometown of Dessau, which has about 88,000 inhabitants, is empty on Saturdays. The shopping centres have no queues, and barely any people roam the streets. The infrastructure has seen better days. Seeing this first hand does put into perspective the political climate of frustration that dominates the East. It is no wonder that people here think Merkelism has failed them, and that according to RP Online, only 22% of East Germans feel like they are part of a unified nation. Four more years of Merkel or similar parties would spell four more years of misery for them.

Even beyond such attitudes, another second factor played a crucial role in shaping the election results across the nation: the German identity crisis. Merkel attempted to reinvent Germany with her welcoming of the refugees, putting to rest any last doubts of Germany’s possible affiliation with its nationalist past and presenting it as an open and peaceful country. However, it is because of this very past that Germany does not possess a dominant culture like the US; it is in part still coming to terms with what that culture precisely is. As the nation attempts to find a new identity, the migration crisis feels like a clash of cultures. Tens of thousands take to the streets against the “Islamisation of the Occident”, which, despite being an unreasonable claim, resonates, especially among working class East Germans. This initial break-out movement then quickly developed into a broader movement – Anti-Merkelism.

This concept quickly spread in Germany, and many suppressed issues began to resurface in the late stages of the election season. Another pre-election moment that caused Merkel’s campaign to take a hit was an expose’ by a young nurse, who vividly described the horrifying conditions of Germany’s retirement homes – a question that Merkel ignored on live national television.

In television debates with representatives of all parties, an obvious divide between the AfD and the rest of the parties became very apparent. Ultimately, a repetitive pattern formed of the AfD putting forward notions similar to Trump’s, while the other parties followed the strategy that had already cost Hillary Clinton the election: calling the opposition racist for hours on end, without engaging with the other side’s policies. While the AfD may have revolting solutions to Germany’s problems, it appeared at least to have novel solutions, leading many to falsely believe that the party could deliver a change on these issues. People were, and still are, worried about refugees, changing demographics, poor elderly care, crumbling infrastructure, and deteriorating educational institutions.

Merkel’s response to all of this was simply: ‘I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong.’

Part III: Post-election Disaster

Ominously, Germany now has an opposition led by far-right nationalists, while the government proposes to continue its course that so many vigorously rejected. Moreover, German political commentators like Thomas Schmid argue that the German electorate ‘no longer recognised its own parties’, as the ideological fusion of CDU, SPD, Greens, and The Left (Die Linke) into a relatively homogenous centre-left block has increasingly mixed electorate groups that had previously been opponents. Schmid continues his analysis by taking on the SPD and the CDU separately: while the SPD successfully transformed politics from a matter of ‘left vs. right’ to ‘right vs. wrong’, the CDU’s conservative foundation now experienced the same effect as conservatives in the late 19th century. After years of stability, Schmid argues, a new set of ideas had to come about to break the political deadlock that Merkel had created. This analysis seems to hold true, as Merkel had created a monopoly of political opinion that all other parties submitted to, as Merkel continuously took other parties’ major issues and made them her own. The pinnacle of this strategy was reached in the 2013 federal election, when the CDU’s centre-left shift was able to gain 41.5% of the vote, while the remaining six major parties fell under 10%, with exception of the SPD at 25.7%.

This opinion monopoly ultimately allowed the CDU to adopt almost any policy they wished for, while further hollowing out the identities of the other parties. It was this centre-left power that allowed Merkel to open the borders to millions of refugees in 2015, a move that at the time, only the AfD opposed. As it became evident that this crisis wasn’t manageable, only the AfD emerged as voice of dissent, a status that, especially among CDU members, caused people to become disillusioned with their own parties, who were meant to be the resistance against the Merkel’s hegemony. However, moving towards the extremes of the political spectrum seemed to spell out a strategy of doom, as political extremity had been heavily rejected by the electorate since the end of the Second World War. This deadlock hasn’t been broken, and remained both in the weeks before and after the election, but if one thing had become evident, it was the desire for change. If this homogenous centre-left block, which is currently in a massive identity crisis, cannot offer the desired change, then people will continue to flock to the AfD. The only other attempt at moderate dissent to Merkelism, which promised a change in policy, was the FDP’s manifesto, but, as established, moderation seemingly cannot break Merkelism, which is why Linder’s FDP exited the coalition negotiations in November 2017.

Germany now stands politically broken, with its parties’ self-immolation preventing fruitful discourse from taking place, while the AfD continues its quest as strongest opposition party in Germany. They will seek to enter government in 2021, and will manifest themselves as permanent phenomenon, should the other parties not recover. In times where the EU appears to be crumbling from factors outside Germany, its strongest economy now needs decisive leadership, but cannot provide it, and internally, no progress seems to be in sight, which only further frustrates the electorate, and ultimately, markets.

Part IV: The Future

The next four years will be Merkel’s last in government, but no alternative has been found. The SPD will suffer the same fate as the FDP did in the 2013 election, and become nearly irrelevant in German politics, as it will be busy reinventing itself and rebuilding credibility. Germany’s problems have not been addressed in the government’s new coalition treaty, and no parties except the AfD or the FDP have presented alternatives, and no solutions will pass through parliament over the next four years. The FDP’s ideas will drown in the power struggles between the far-right AfD and Merkel’s centre-left allies. Merkel’s own party will continuously leave its right flank open, and therefore aid the AfD while simultaneously dealing with internal power struggles over securing Merkel’s legacy.

In four years’ time, Germany’s next election will be tumultuous: either the country will see fundamental reform in both parties and policy, or the AfD will become a permanent phenomenon. Germany is likely to choose the former, if Merkel abdicates, creating room for new ideas to flourish, while rejecting its past of right-wing populism.

Nevertheless, Merkel’s legacy and warnings should not be dismissed too easily. Europe can no longer rely on the US under Trump to defend itself against the ever-looming threats of Russia and China. A Germany-led EU will likely seek further integration and unity within the EU, because if Germany does not lead the EU in this direction, it will either become unable to compete in global markets, or face Macron’s France dominating the EU. Neither outcome is desirable for Germany.

Furthermore, Germany will be able to fill the gap left by Brexit, expanding its financial markets in Frankfurt, as many banks and businesses are moving their headquarters into Germany. Its economic prosperity will therefore continue, if not grow, and so provide the resources necessary to revamp the German infrastructure.

Germany may currently find itself in a dark tunnel, but ultimately has the economic tools and historical incentives to reform itself. Merkel has ruled Germany for too long, but her legacy will be similar to that of Helmut Kohl – a brilliant chancellor for many years, bringing prosperity and stability to Germany in times of crises, but falling prey to her own inability to enact change when necessary. Her fall from grace will be swift, but Germany is on track to continue a legacy she created – and history will be kinder. It is time for a Germany 4.0 that re-embraces its roots as an intellectual powerhouse of innovation and creativity.