The just-concluded German election has shown that democracy can have many faces and in a system where a coalition is the norm, coming in first is of immense value and also a sign that you are still a survivor. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Chancellor Angela Merkel is being congratulated for winning the election. This is because it has emerged as the single largest party with a vote share of 32.8 per cent. This puts the CDU in the position that no government can be formed without it. However, it has lost 8.7 per cent of its vote since the last election in 2013. The CDU, clearly, is the biggest loser in this election, and yet its biggest winner.
This German election was supposed to be boring. Yet it has thrown up a big surprise with the triumphant entry of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) into the Bundestag with about 13 per cent of the vote polled, eight per cent more than its share in the last election. The biggest event of this election is the entry of the AfD into mainstream federal politics in Germany.
The AfD is the first right-wing party to enter the Bundestag since World War II. Right-wing parties have so far won seats only in state elections — the AfD, for instance, is already present in 11 of the 16 state legislatures in Germany. The AfD has not just entered Bundestag, but it has also become the third largest party in the House. Only the CDU and the diminishing SPD (Social Democrats) with 20.4 per cent votes are ahead of it. The AfD will be a major opposition voice in the Bundestag for the next four years.
Founded in 2012 as a reaction to the Eurozone policies, the AfD has benefited tremendously from a long national coalition between the CDU and SPD. The two main parties had come together in the national interest since the fractured verdicts in the past two elections led to a situation where a stable government was possible only if the two large parties came together. This created a space on the fringes for other groups. While the Left and the Greens failed to benefit from the opening of this space, the AfD and, to some extent, the Free Democratic Party gained ground.
They seem to have attracted the votes the SPD and the CDU have lost. Such long experiments with national coalitions involving the main political parties have left many voters disgruntled. Many seem to have opted for the AfD, signalling their critique of the CDU and the SPD.
The AfD brings together several streams of disgruntled thought. It has a strong presence of Euro sceptics and a fringe of neo-Nazi elements. Islamophobia and the AfD’s anti-immigration stance struck a chord with those who resented the pro-refugee policy of the Merkel regime. Many were also unhappy with the perks and privileges given to the refugees while their own economic lot did not improve.
It is worth noting that the AfD had some of its biggest gains in the old East Germany. In the states of Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony Anhalt and Merkel’s home province of Volkenberg-West Pomerania, the AfD got nearly 21 per cent of the vote. This is significant and important. Not only is this Merkel home, but it is also the stronghold of the Die Linke, the successor to the Communist Party of GDR. How this part of Germany, which was socialist, became anti-immigrant, intolerant and Eurosceptic calls for deeper analysis. The SPD is in office in all these five former GDR states, in coalition with the CDU in three and the Greens and the Left in others. Thus, the political challenge of the AfD in these states is to all the parties of the former East Germany and not confined to the CDU or SPD. However, the Greens and the Left compensated their losses here by gaining votes in the West German areas. Their vote share has remained the same — nine per cent for the Greens and 9.1 per cent for the Left.
In the last few months, the AfD underwent an internal churn, while registering several successes in state elections. While Merkel’s half apology for the refugee policy reduced the potency of its anti-immigrant stance, the AfD reinvented itself during the course of the poll campaign. The neo-Nazi elements were pushed to the fringes and a more reasonable-sounding leadership emerged. In their post-election speeches, AfD leaders have stated they will not join the government, but play the role of an active opposition in the Bundestag. The rise of the AfD has influenced Merkel to nuance her position on open borders. Late in the campaign, she announced that Germany will not abolish internal border controls till the EU controls are strengthened.
The AfD’S oldest leader is Alexander Gauland. His views on Islam rile not just refugees but also the three-million Turkish German population. He has also said that Germany needs to recall, not repent, the sacrifices of its soldiers in the World Wars. Towards the end of the campaign, he said he has no fear about immigrants from India as they contribute to the economy and don’t tear the social fabric.
The other face of the AfD is Alice Weidel, a self-avowed lesbian in a same sex union with a Swiss citizen of Sinhalese descent. She was a corporate high-flier and is today an unlikely, but well-known AfD face. Her main focus is on getting Germany out of the Eurozone. The AfD chose her as leader because Frauke Petry, her predecessor, could not keep the rightist elements in the party on a leash. The original leader of the AfD, Bernd Lucke had left the party in 2015 after losing the leadership challenge mounted by Petry. How the party will cope with the parliamentary opportunity and whether it will pander to the fringe elements or adopt a more centrist position on crucial issues will be closely watched.