Germany’s Election as Weathervane

By Kelly Beach

It has been over a year since Americans took to the voting booths and cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential election. For Germany, it has only been a matter of weeks, as their most recent elections occurred on September 24, 2017. The German democratic election process is very different than how American voting takes place. The people initially nominate a body of leaders, who, in turn, elect a chancellor. The chancellor has a nearly identical role to that of the American president, however, there are far more parties in Germany that compete for seats in the Bundestag, which often requires coalitions of parties to constitute a majority and form a government. The Bundestag is the legislative, constitutional body of Germany’s government composed of the most popular parties, based on their percentage of national support and representation.

Until this most recent election, five parties have dominated the constituency of the Bundestag. However, the recent election saw the shocking redistribution of seats as well as the introduction of a sixth party to the Bundestag, hosting a significant amount of seats. As predicted, Angela Merkel retained her position as chancellor of Germany and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), once again retained a majority of the seats (26.8%).[1] However, this victory for the CDU was certainly by a smaller margin than the 2013 election (34.1%) as nearly every other party represented in the Bundestag gained more seats. But why is this significant, especially if Germany still has Angela Merkel at the helm?

Angela Merkel has been a firm but moderate force that has led Germany to become Europe’s most successful and stable country since her first term in 2005. While it is in both Europe and Germany’s best interest that Merkel remains in power, this year’s election shows some worrying trends demonstrated by a rise in radical far-right parties. In Germany, this party is the AfD, or the “Alternative for Germany” who went from having 0 seats in the Bundestag, to now having 92, becoming the third most represented party.[2] [3] Their ideals are populist, nationalistic, and Eurosceptic. These trends of thought have become popular across many European countries in the face of the bailouts and austerity of the Great Recession, and more recently with the controversial influx of Middle Eastern refugees. Secession movements such as in Great Britain and Catalonia have also spurred on skeptics of a European Union. These skeptics are often nationalists, disproportionately male, and often extol traditional family values with overtones of homophobia.[4] In the case of the AfD, skeptic nationalists would rather see Germany become a country unfettered and unburdened by the EU and be even more successful as a standalone country. This is an attractive proposition for those who believe that Germany’s leading prosperity goes to pay for maintaining the EU, instead of allowing Germans to enjoy self-made success. However, given Germany’s and Europe’s bloody 20th century history, it is easy to see why many question the wisdom of the dissolution of the EU and the resumption of German ultra-nationalism.

Much like Germany, this trend of far-right parties achieving some power was visible in France, which also experienced an election this year. Fortunately for Germany, France, and the European Union, radicals on both sides failed to achieve dominant political power, however, in both countries, these parties did succeed in gaining notoriety and increased representation in their respective governments.[5] These parties gaining steam in Europe are especially unnerving for immigrant and minority groups who have sought shelter in Europe for a variety of social or economic reasons. Refugees, migrant workers, and particularly Muslims are often the target of obvious acts of hate, usually executed by far-right xenophobes who want to oust minority groups.

While far right groups have only gained minority footholds within European government in 2017, there is potential for these parties to drastically change policy over time. However, it may not be as dramatic or worrying as the results seem. Taking an optimistic tone the Economist states:

Germany’s generosity in accommodating more than 1 million refugees in two years was bound to provoke a reaction among voters on the right, and the return to opposition of the SPD’s pugilistic leader, Martin Schulz, could reinvigorate German democracy. And although Mrs. Merkel’s mandate is only slightly worse than during her first two successful bids for the chancellery, she will now need to deal with the tensions and anger that the AfD’s success has brought to the surface.[6]

Only time will tell how this new rise of populism and nationalism will affect the European Union and the individual countries within. With France and Germany continuing to elect and support level-headed governments in 2017, the future for the European Union could still be bright. While this year’s elections showed signs of concern, it is not expected that the far-right will gain significantly increased support and will likely remain inactive until the next election. However, the sentiments and prejudices that exist will not easily go away and will be a major issue for every European leader to deal with as policy making rides the fine balance between domestic interest and humanitarian efforts.

[1] “German Bundestag – Homepage,” German Bundestag (2017): Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.bundestag.de/en/#url=L2VuL2RvY3VtZW50cy90ZXh0YXJjaGl2ZS9lbGVjdGlvbi0yMDE3LzUyNzI4NA==&mod=mod453306.

[2] “German Bundestag – Homepage.”

[3] “Wahlumfragen Zur Bundestagswahl,” Wahlrecht.De (2017) Accessed November 17 2017. http://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/.

[4] “The Return Of Germany’s Anti-Euro Party,” Handelsblatt Global Edition (May 8, 2017): Accessed November 1, 2017. https://global.handelsblatt.com/politics/the-return-of-the-anti-euro-party-761195.

[5] “The Return Of Germany’s Anti-Euro Party.”

[6] “Germany’s Election Results in Charts,” Economist.Com (September 25, 2017): Accessed November 1, 2017. https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/09/daily-chart-15.

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