In a year of unpredictable elections in the United States and in Europe, Germany’s federal elections on September 24 went as expected: Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected to a rare fourth term, signaling that a majority of Germans want more of the same for the next four years. And, why shouldn’t they? Germany has enjoyed low unemployment, historic budget surpluses, and is the undisputed (if reluctant) leader of Europe. But, despite the desire for stability among most, the elections also signaled a growing disenchantment with the mainstream and a desire to shake up German politics, even if just a bit.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won with only a third of the vote (33 percent). But while the CDU/CSU’s performance was far from a mandate, the Social Democrats (SPD) took the biggest hit, receiving only 20 percent support—the party’s worst showing since World War II. After years in a grand coalition with the center right, it became clear in the debate between Merkel and the SPD’s candidate, Martin Schulz, that the Social Democrats have little to distinguish themselves from their center-right coalition partners. Seemingly intent to do some soul searching for a defining vision, the SPD said that it would go into opposition, ruling out the idea of another grand coalition. This will leave the chancellor with a difficult road ahead as she will have to broker deals with smaller parties, which did remarkably well in the elections.
One of the smaller parties new to the German parliament is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). This far-right populist party ran an aggressive and offensive political campaign, covering German cities with anti-Islam posters to remind voters of Merkel’s much-criticized decision to allow over a million refugees into Germany. The tactics paid off: the AfD, a party founded only four years ago, won 13 percent of the vote, making it the third-largest force in parliament. The economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) also did well, with 11 percent, the far-left Die Linke received 10 percent, and the Greens 9 percent. But it’s the untested AfD that will be the thorn in Merkel’s side for the next four years as she calibrates how to build consensus without pandering to the populists’ anti-liberal agenda. This is an unsavory task that many center-right parties in Europe have had to take on as nationalist parties have become the norm, rather than the anomaly, in European parliaments.
With the AfD’s electoral breakthrough, Germany, a country which once seemed to be immune to the far-right surge sweeping across Europe, joins the ranks of the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, France, Sweden, and other Western European countries with similar far-right parties in the opposition. In Germany, the AfD won by shoring up support among first-time voters (1.2 million), siphoning voters from the CDU (one million votes) and SPD (500,000 votes), and strategically focusing on former East German states, where the party had done well in local elections.
In a surprise move, the party’s leader, Frauke Petry, who won a parliamentary seat in Saxony, stepped down from the party as the results were announced saying that she would sit as an independent. Petry had reportedly tried to move the party closer the mainstream, following a similar strategy to the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France, but was overruled by the more extremist wing that opted for the anti-immigration offensive against Merkel.
The bad news is that with Petry gone, the AfD’s more radical elements are likely to have a stronger voice in setting the agenda for how the AfD will behave in parliament. The good news is that the party’s untested leadership, extremist views, and lack of partners in the parliament will likely make it an irrelevant political player. The party will surely manage to make a lot of noise, but it will have to be careful about using the same campaign-style shock tactics in parliament, as German society has little tolerance for such antics.
On foreign policy, the AfD, like its fellow travelers in Europe, is pro-Russian and was propped up by Kremlin-backed media, trolls, and political bots during the campaign. Together with the communist Die Linke, Moscow will now have 23 percent of the German parliament on its side. But this is unlikely to change Merkel’s foreign policy. Merkel has taken a harder view on Russia, supporting the EU-US sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine.
Under Merkel, Germany has also reprioritized its commitment to European defense and NATO and is likely to continue to do so. Still, the AfD will make Merkel’s fourth term her most challenging yet, not least because the most likely coalition composition of the CDU-FDP-Greens will already require masterful politicking. The far-right populists will be there to take advantage of every misstep.
Alina Polyakova is director of research, Europe and Eurasia, at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter @alinasphere.