The result of the 2017 German federal elections is historic – in a historic year. The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Konrad Adenauer on 19 April, the death of Helmut Kohl on 16 June, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Willy Brandt on 8 October: 2017 is a year when post-war West German history is again being remembered. But it is also a year that will go down in history, since it stands for the end of the Federal Republic as we know it. The old saying ‘Bonn (or Berlin) is not Weimar’ doesn’t ring as true as it once did. Since 24 September, we have come a bit closer to Weimar-like conditions.
With her fourth election victory in a row, Angela Merkel – the ‘divorcee from the East’ (as former CSU leader Edmund Stoiber referred to her) – has finally entered the league of Adenauer and Kohl. The unique thing about her career is that she has got to where she is without having a power base in the West. Yet Germany has paid a high price for the twelve years under alternating Merkel governments.
One number stands for this above all: 53.5 per cent – the election result of the entire grand coalition. It expresses the fundamental decline of the people’s party as a model. Let’s recall: both Adenauer and Kohl won roughly similar results for the CDU alone. Beginning in 2005 with around 70 per cent, after two periods of office under Angela Merkel, the CDU–SPD coalition (interrupted by CDU–FDP) is no longer a ‘GroKo’ but merely the last remaining two-party coalition in German politics. Merkel has cannibalized her previous coalition partners in a quite astounding fashion, though not without huge assistance from the FDP and SPD themselves. The novelty of this election is that the CDU is now also deeply unwell, its 33 per cent the party’s poorest result since 1953. Both people’s parties are thus massively weakened. It was precisely their strength upon which the stability of the Federal Republic of Germany was historically based.
Ever since 1949, the parties of the centre right and left, the CDU and the SPD, have more or less exclusively divided up government between themselves. In the centre, making up the numbers for the respective majority, were first the liberals and then the Greens from 1983. However, just as the traditional constellation of parliamentary parties – on one side the liberal conservatives, on the other side the Left – now belongs to history, so too do coalitions between one larger and one smaller party. CDU–FDP is no longer an option and nor is CDU–Green, without the latter ever having been attempted at the national level. Today, the SPD is the CDU’s last remaining, sole possible coalition partner.
However, the SPD’s announcement that it will exit the grand coalition means that this option is also out. That makes Germany, if not exactly ungovernable (to use a term from the almost idyllic-seeming 1970s), then certainly a lot less governable. For the first time ever, seven parties are represented in the Bundestag (including the CSU), which because of the SPD’s refusal precludes the possibility of a two-party coalition. This means – irony of history – that Angela Merkel, the chancellor of ‘no experiments’ (Adenauer’s campaign slogan in 1957), is now faced with the opposite: ‘more experiments’ are now urgently called for.
An AfD campaign poster, reading ‘New Germans? We make them ourselves’. Photo: Valodnieks (own work, CC BY-SA 4.0) Source: Wikimedia
The midwife of the AfD
Merkel’s ‘victory’ is also severely tainted in another respect: the entry of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) into the Bundestag. The CDU has now gone the way of its leftwing counterpart. Since the foundation of the so-called ‘Electoral alternative social justice’ party (WASG) in the West in 2005, which merged with the eastern based PDS to form Die Linke in 2007, the traditional Left has been split and is effectively incapable of governing. Merkel’s liberalization of the CDU has opened up a wide space to the right of the party. The chancellor has thus allowed to happen what her predecessors were always careful to prevent.
In his first periods in office, Konrad Adenauer succeeded in integrating the rightwing splinter parties into the CDU, without which his absolute majority in 1957 would have been impossible. Adenauer’s successors, from Ludwig Erhard to Helmut Kohl, also kept the nationalist Right in check, even though in 1969, after the first grand coalition under Kurt-Georg Kiesinger and Willy Brandt, the NPD almost made it into parliament. It was only with Angela Merkel that the CDU stopped being the sole representative of the right half of the party spectrum. The AfD is the first in part openly far-right party ever to enter the Bundestag, despite provocative statements from its leading politicians. Or worse: precisely because of them. The fact that its voters, the vast majority of whom are male, were not put off shows that anti-Semitism has again become socially acceptable among a part of the electorate.
Recent experience suggests that this discourse will become yet more radical. The mere fear of an AfD parliamentary presence in Bavaria prompted the CSU to imitate AfD rhetoric (for example the term ‘the rule of injustice’, used by CSU leader Horst Seehofer in connection with the opening of Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015). The consequences have been fatal, both in eastern Germany and in Bavaria, where the AfD got its best election result of any western German state. Despite this, the danger is that the CSU will increase the dosage of this essentially wrong cure in the run-up to the regional elections in Bavaria in 2018, instead of stopping it altogether.
The AfD will bring into what is already a highly destabilized Bundestag a radical critique of the system. Its declared goal is to obtain absolute power, in order – in the revolutionary conservative jargon of the 1920s – to ‘clear out’ the talking shop (Markus Frohnmaier, AfD MP). This is the categorical distinction between the AfD and Die Linke. While the former opts for radical vilification of the elites and the ‘system’, the latter is generally willing to enter coalitions, despite being thoroughly system-critical.
The AfD is likely to employ a dual strategy in the Bundestag. The leader of the parliamentary group, Alexander Gauland, will pretend to belong to the establishment while perfecting the art of provocation, in order to keep the radical forces happy. With the resignation of former AfD spokesperson Frauke Petry from the party immediately after the election, a first round of cleansing has already taken place, and further splits will inevitably follow in this ‘fermenting heap’ (Gauland).
This new Right is in favour of a massive polarization of society. The central task of politics, on the other hand, is to forge a working government. The only ones that will have ‘nothing to do’ with this are, disastrously, the German Left. Fundamentally weakened, the Left – as a formation even more than as a party – are perhaps the biggest losers of the election. On the 24 September, Willy Brandt’s ‘majority beyond the Union’ was dealt a fatal blow. The entrance of the AfD and the FDP into the Bundestag has caused the Republic to swing massively to the right; the mathematical possibility of a red-red-green coalition is, for the foreseeable future, zero.
Left on the sidelines
The unwillingness of the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke throughout the entire Merkel era to consider an alliance has now returned to haunt them. The twenty years since the departure of Oskar Lafontaine and the split into the SPD and Die Linke have been wasted years for the German Left. Of the 41 per cent for Schröder and Lafontaine in 1998, only 30 per cent remain: 9 per cent for Die Linke candidate Sahra Wagenknecht and 20.5 for SPD candidate Martin Schulz.
A hundred years since the birth of the communist movement and twenty-five years since the start of the neoliberal-social democratic era (Clinton, Blair, Schröder), the question of the future of the Left poses itself in a radical fashion. In 2019, the Social Democratic Workers Party of Germany (the forerunner of the SPD) will have its 150th anniversary. At the moment, however, it is far from certain that Social Democracy still has a future. One need only look at France, Greece or Holland: social democratic parties are being defeated across the board. The same thing is now threatening to happen to the SPD.
Completely burned out after fifteen years of coalition in two decades, the SPD urgently needs a period of regeneration in opposition. The whole party could do with an overhaul, a new start both in personnel and policy. However, the SPD will first need to acclimatize to its role as opposition leader, especially since Die Linke are used to acting as a tough opposition. One thing is sure: the SPD can’t make do with being the last remaining functional coalition partner in the Federal Republic. To be genuinely successful, the SPD must again represent a genuine political alternative. Only then can it make a credible claim to post of chancellor in the future.
But how can the SPD recover its strength and once again become a genuine people’s party? Since the SPD no longer has a left wing of note, the entire Left needs to be on board. Shared time in opposition must be used to finally clarify the relationship between the parties of the Left. They must learn the bitter lesson of recent years and move from mutual antagonism to mutual cooperation. In the last twenty years, the tragedy of the Left – the fraternal feud of the first half of the twentieth century – has repeated itself as farce. It can’t afford another twenty years without the chance to influence policy: the tasks at hand are far too important for that.
After this historic election, politics is confronted with a double integration task. Inwardly, in order to defend democracy and provide an effective remedy to the increasing anger and dissatisfaction in the country, which is the main reason for the election success of the AfD. And outwardly, in order to guarantee the future of the EU in these globally highly dramatic times. The Merkel era will also be judged according to these two criteria. Both the crisis of German democracy and the crisis of the European Union are the legacies of the policies of the last three Merkel governments.
Angela Merkel will also be judged politically on the basis of how far she meets the central challenge of continuing along the path of European unity in the tradition of Adenauer and Kohl and, if possible, making this irrevocable. Currently, the possibility clearly exists of reviving the German–French axis in partnership with Emmanuel Macron. The dilemma is that in order to solve the European crisis alongside a (hopefully) resurgent France, what is urgently needed is a government capable of action. The continuation of the grand coalition would, in contrast to a ‘Jamaica’ coalition (i.e. CDU–FDP–Green), definitely be able to ensure this. However, continuing the grand coalition would risk the very existence of the SPD. That is why the SPD leadership will find it much harder to raise support among its membership for another grand coalition. This is another reason why the decision to enter opposition was entirely consistent.
Evidently, we are in a historic period of transition. For the first time ever, a three-party coalition will be necessary (or four-party coalition if you count the CSU as an independent party, which one clearly needs to do). Speaking against Jamaica at this precise moment is the fact that all four parties are currently highly unstable. For the Greens, the leap into a Jamaica coalition would be comparable to the ‘watershed moment’ of the FDP in 1982, when it joined a coalition with the CDU, having previously formed governments with the SPD. And for many in the severely weakened CSU, as well as in the FDP, the Greens are still a red rag to a bull. Because of these massive reservations, all three parties will go into coalition talks demanding the maximum, even though a coalition of such breadth will depend on all sides conceding the maximum. For that reason alone, the Jamaica coalition’s prospects seem anything but rosy.
So will new elections end up being inevitable? That would be one solution to the problem, but certainly not the best one. In the worst case, it would cause a further erosion of the people’s parties. However, when none of the classical coalitions work any more, then new ways must be found to lend a government the necessary legitimacy. That is why the previously unthinkable will need to be thought about – for example, a Scandinavian-type minority government under Angela Merkel. The chancellor would then have to find majorities on each issue, which would at least mean a re-politicization.
In any case, all the democratic parties, as well as all German citizens, will need to be much more innovative when it comes to defending parliamentary democracy. After 24 September, the alternative is very clear: ‘illiberal democracy’. Its frontrunners in Europe are no longer in government only in Hungary and Poland. They are also in the German Bundestag.