At first blush the results in Germany for the EU elections looked like nothing of significance had happened. The media trumpeted the regression of the right. Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) 11% after polling as high as 18% in 2018 made it look like Angela Merkel had weathered the storm against her chancellorship from the right.
But, in doing so, she opened herself up to attack from the Left. The combined results for the ruling coalition in Germany was only 45% with the Social Democrats (SPD) under-performing even their recent bad polling data, garnering just 15.8% of the vote.
It was the loss for the SPD in Bremen which voted for both the EU parliament but its own, however, that was most disturbing as the SPD lost to the Merkel’s CDU by a point. This was the first loss in any state-wide election for the SPD in Bremen in 73 years.
That prompted two big moves in the wake of the results. Merkel supposedly ‘un-retired’ as head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and, more importantly, Andrea Nehles stepped down as the leader of the Social Democrats.
This has now thrown the future of the current Grand Coalition into doubt.
And the question now is whether it can survive until the next election in 2021. The recent spate of speculation on this after Nehles’ resignation lead me to believe there may be something pushing for this behind the scenes.
The Greens have surged to more than 20% and what looked early on as a protest vote over another four years of the SPD rubber-stamping Merkel’s EU-first policies has taken on greater significance. These EU election results imply that the SPD may be, like the Tories in the U.K., in terminal decline.
Greens in Germany are of the most hawkish variety. They are the most militant about bringing about societal change through Progressive politics and the SPD have played footsie, in their eyes, with Merkel for too long. These results will only make them more strident.
And it will have knock-on effects in the EU as well.
So, like I said in my last article, the center isn’t holding in Europe. And the days of centrist politicians like Merkel are numbered. Grand coalitions that stand for nothing except care-taking the advancement of the European project were the big losers last month from both sides of the political aisle.
The political radicals will now have a far greater say and influence over the course of Europe. And it starts with the rise of the Greens in Germany. They have held above the 16% level now for months and just came through a major election above that critical level.
This is now a social movement in Germany, not a protest vote. And that could easily bring down the Merkel government.
The problem, however, is that there is now no workable coalition possible unless the Greens surge to 35% percent, wiping out the SPD entirely.
The Greens were the main reason Merkel had such a difficult time putting a coalition together after 2017’s election. Either she will have to jump harder-left, alienating her already tenuous relationship with Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) or consider a coalition with AfD, which is anathema to everyone.
Merkel spent so much political capital over the past eighteen months pushing back against the rise of AfD over her disastrous immigration policy that it has now put her in a real bind if the coalition falls apart.
I’m sure this is why she has ‘un-retired’ as head of the CDU, to help keep the SPD on side for now. But there are three big state elections in eastern Germany later this year — Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia.
All of these are AfD strongholds now. AfD won Brandenburg and Saxony and nearly won in Thuringia. This is setting up a strong East/West divide in Germany which Merkel is doing nothing to improve.
Looking ahead, Brandenburg and Saxony go to the polls on September 1st. Strong showings by AfD there should give them coattails six weeks later when Thuringia goes to the polls. Brandenburg, in particular is key for them given that the Greens are now the dominant party in Berlin.
The path for Merkel to hold onto power in Germany just got more twisted. Her policies have radicalized the right against her while dissatisfying the hard left. That trend will only continue as time goes on.
The big problem for both of these younger parties is learning how to govern. It’s easy to be a force for change when you are a vessel for people’s anger and frustration. You can influence the major parties into adopting your positions, which is part of what has stabilized the CDU’s numbers, having Merkel embrace stronger immigration controls.
It is quite another, especially in Germany’s murky parliamentary system, when you have to make deals to provide stable leadership.
That’s where AfD’s leadership to this point has fallen down. They didn’t move off of their signature platform point quick enough to outflank Merkel and she blunted their growth nationwide. Now they have to build on their regional influence through good governance, if they can leverage their leads into governing coalitions, and being respectable members of the Bundestag.
For both the Greens and AfD the good news is that Merkel is vulnerable on the economy. The rapidly slowing German economy coupled with Merkel’s strained relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump will work against her holding her coalition together.
This is where AfD can bridge the gap with voters and shore up their majorities in the eastern states, emphasizing that the current mess is Merkel’s fault and have a plan as to how to fix things. They can start with demanding sanctions be lifted against Russia over Crimea. Merkel is vulnerable here.
She’s trying to do this while saving face and not angering Trump. That’s not possible, so she continues to not lead and leave the status quo in place while the German economy suffers from lack of business opportunities for key industries.
Trade with Russia has rebounded to pre-sanctions levels but it is still way down in the important state of Bavaria, where even the Greens are making strides.
But, for now, it seems to me that it will be difficult to take down the current government because current polling precludes any viable coalition forming that could command a stable majority. The instability of Germany’s political situation will continue to build just below the headlines until Merkel finally meets her end.