Angela Merkel was returned for a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor on Sunday, defeating her main Social Democrat opponent, as well as a seemingly global surge toward populism. However, while she succeeded, her vote share declined – and the footnote of the election turns out to be the bigger story.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party came third, taking about 13% of the vote and entering parliament for the first time. The result was as good as any polls had predicted, meaning that some people who voted for them probably didn’t feel comfortable sharing their voting intentions with pollsters. The party was formed just four years ago, amid an anti-immigrant and anti-refugee backlash in response to Merkel’s liberal approach to the crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. In response, Merkel reined in her liberal approach somewhat, possibly saving her party from defeat. Just a few months ago, Merkel’s reelection appeared to be in doubt.
The success of Merkel’s conservative bloc is a sign that, when push comes to shove, German voters trust her steady hand at a time when the European Union and the world is in upheaval. While immigration remained a central issue in the election, its potentially negative impact on Merkel’s chances may have been blunted by the overarching desire for stable government.
In the face of Brexit and various economic crises in EU member states over recent years, Merkel emerged as the unequivocal leader of the vision of European unity. German voters endorsed her overall approach. But the emergence of AfD is worrying, though not surprising. Extremist parties have been burgeoning all over Europe – and extremism is flourishing in the United States. It would have been stunning if Germany completely avoided this trend.
For their part, the Social Democrats had been in a governing agreement with Merkel’s conservatives and, as is often the case in such scenarios, found themselves at a disadvantage in differentiating themselves from the incumbent government when putting their case to voters. They may choose to rebuild their party from the opposition side, rather than form another coalition with Merkel. However, if they choose to cooperate with the conservatives, that will put the third-party AfD in the enviable position of official opposition. This would give the radical right grouping even greater prominence than their 13% vote share would seem to justify.
“We will change this country,” declared Alexander Gauland, a co-leader of the AfD, on Sunday night. These are eerie words coming from the leadership of a group that promises a return to traditional German “volk” values, glorifies the Nazis and has been accused of racism and antisemitism.
The extremists will have an unprecedented platform (at least in the postwar era) in German politics and, even lacking legislative power, will be able to give voice to ideas that have largely been taboo in the German body politic for the past 70 years.
Yet, we should not allow the dark lining to obliterate the silver cloud. The election secured a stable, reliable and moderate direction for Germany that is good for Europe, the world and, not incidentally, Israel.
In its manifesto, Merkel’s party acknowledged a “special responsibility of Germany toward Israel” and earlier equated the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement with the Nazi campaign to boycott Jewish businesses. Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has continued and strengthened its very close alliance with the Jewish state. The German government has been a bulwark, to the extent that a single government can be, against the anti-Israel movements at the EU and the United Nations.
In election after election in Europe over the past year, worst-case scenarios have been avoided. Extremist parties have made inroads, but generally less than anticipated. The AfD’s relative success may be seen as a protest vote, in which case we may be seeing its zenith. In any case, Germans will now get a clear view of what the party stands for – and will have the opportunity to stand up in opposition to the divisive and xenophobic policies the AfD promotes.