Last Sunday’s election was a turning point for Germany. Not because Chancellor Angela Merkel squeaked through for a fourth term or the Social Democrats (SPD) nearly collapsed. More fundamental was the steady progress – some might call it ‘escape’ – towards political ‘normality’. The new parliament will encompass four smaller parties.
This kind of proliferation is common around Europe. The old monolithic ‘no experiments’ German elections are a thing of the past.
This was the 19th parliamentary election since 1949. I was following these affairs closely at the time of the sixth election in 1969. This too was considered a watershed, because it ushered in the first democratic change of government in Germany since the election of Adolf Hitler in 1933. The SPD replaced a government led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union, which had headed every West German administration since 1949.
We at the US Embassy in Bonn were watching carefully for revolts in the streets; there were none. The only hitch was a congratulatory telegram from President Richard Nixon to CDU incumbent Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who got the most votes, but had no partner with whom to form a coalition. An unorthodox leader who had spent the second world war in exile took over instead. His name was Willy Brandt.
In 1969, there were only three parties in the German parliament. By the early 1990s there were still only four. Now, the new faces belong to radical anti-European, anti-Atlantic groupings. The Left party has been around for some time, built on the remains of the East German communists. The four-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a product of the upheavals of globalisation and automation. Like voters for Donald Trump in the US, AfD supporters say they voted more out of emotion than ideology.
They blame politicians and ‘Europe’ for their troubles. In other words, the German election produced a ‘normal’ result for these abnormal times, just as in the US and many places in Europe.
As in the US, established parties failed to understand the attraction of these new ‘deplorables’ (as Hillary Clinton called her Trump-supporting rivals) in the AfD. The more the establishment condemned them, the more popular they became. First reactions have focused on nationalist sentiments from parts of the AfD. Gloomy observers have again articulated old worries about German authoritarianism. But the ‘Germany first’ narrative of the AfD is likely to reflect the same radical demands as the Freedom Caucus in the US House of Representatives or the ‘True Finns’ in Finland.
The AfD focuses on Germans and German interests. The party wants to pay less for Europe and defence. They reject immigrants and refugees – and favour more programmes for ‘real’ Germans. French President Emmanuel Macron seems already to have drawn conclusions from the new mood in Berlin, by toning down earlier-trailed ideas on improving integration in the euro area.
There will be difficult negotiations to form a coalition. Since the SPD opted out of extending its co-operation with Merkel, the Green party and the traditionally CDU-minded liberals of the Free Democrats (FDP) will be necessary to give Merkel a working majority. A three-party coalition will be another first for post-war Germany.
Assuming such a complex mixture can be assembled, the FDP and Greens will give Merkel many headaches. They will not wish to be outdone by the AfD in their rejection of ‘business as usual’. And her Bavarian partners are still trying to recover from massive losses in their home state. It is no surprise that Wolfgang Schäuble, who resigned as Merkel’s finance minister yesterday, has been rushed in to keep order as the new president of the parliament.
Merkel faces difficulties in making compromises on pressing European issues or in supporting the US hard line on Russia or Iran. On the other hand, Britain’s negotiators handling the UK’s exit from the European Union might hear more sympathetic overtures from Berlin. A British-style sense of self is what many Germans are looking for.
Most important will be for Germans and their partners to remain calm. Extraordinary measures to contain the AfD are not necessary. The party seems already to be splitting into two camps. Ignoring the AfD will not help either. Better to apply the lessons learned in other electoral ‘surprises’ in the US and Europe. A more normal Germany should be pushed to help define a narrative for a more normal Europe which looks to the future rather than trying to corral the past. Maybe pressure from the AfD will help move things forward.
John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisers Council.