Weak Merkel Victory Leaves Policy Questions Up in the Air

Germany's chancellor has a lot of negotiating ahead of her.


Initiative D21

Angela Merkel led her party to a fourth consecutive victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, but she doesn't have much to celebrate. Her party, the Conservatives (CDU/CSU), posted their second worst showing since World War II. Her most recent governing coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), posted their worst showing since 1890.

A tussle between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, and the complicated horse-trading required for Merkel to form any other governing coalition, threaten an already eroded liberal immigration policy. It also creates more chances for Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing nationalist party founded in 2013, to exploit dissatisfaction with the status quo.

SPD leader Martin Schulz responded to the election results by signaling he would not continue the party's coalition with Merkel, who will have to instead turn to the pro-market Free Democrats (FDP) and the eco-leftist Greens. This potential combination is being nicknamed a "Jamaica coalition," after the three parties' colors: black, green, and yellow.

AfD gained the most from the CDU/CSU and the SPD's losses. In 2013 it fell short of the threshold required to to send members to Parliament, but this time won 12.6 percent of the vote and earned 94 seats.

The appearance of a nationalist party in the country that produced the Nazis is worrying, but the situation isn't necessarily as dire as that sounds. "A majority of their voters have said that voting for the AfD was primarily a way to express their protest and dissatisfaction with the other parties," explains Josefin Graef, communications officer for the German Politics Specialist Group of the United Kingdom Political Studies Association. Writing in The Guardian, Cass Mudde argues that the results show "de-alignment from the mainstream parties, rather than re-alignment to AfD."

Graef calls AfD "an extremely heterogeneous and internally divided party whose members represent different shades of a conservative political ideology, stretching from economic-liberal to national-conservative to outright right-wing extremist." Those divisions are not likely to diminish with the party in Parliament.

All the same, AfD's success, however limited, could excite far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. And the party has already arguably played a role in pushing German politics away from a liberal immigration policy.

"I am not sure Germany's immigration policy, specifically its asylum policy, can actually still be characterized as open and liberal," says Graef, "considering that a number of severe restrictions have been introduced in the past couple of years, not least due to the pressure exerted by the AfD."

For now, Germany's immigration policy does remain more open than that of most other EU members, including France and the United Kingdom.

The CSU—the Bavarian wing of the CDU/CSU political alliance—wants the next ruling coalition to back a cap on migrants. Merkel has so far resisted this demand, and Graef doesn't think a cap will be part of the next coalition agreement, since it would violate the individual right to asylum in the German constitution. The CSU's push could, however, lead to increased efforts with other EU members to create "reception centers" in North Africa to intercept migrants before they get to Europe .

If the Jamaica coalition comes to fruition, Merkel will have to balance the CSU's restrictionist demands with the Greens' pro-immigration agenda. And that won't be her only balancing act. "She will face similar challenges with regards to employment and housing policy, taxation and environmental policy, areas in which especially the FDP and the Greens are opposed in many questions," Graef says.

Merkel herself says her goal is to win back AfD voters by offering "good politics." She has been adept as chancellor at offering voters what they say they want. What that, or "good politics," will mean this time remains to be seen.