So, it’s finally come to Germany.
The anti-establishment, “we-want-something-else” wave that has produced paralyzed parliaments in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and (most recently) Slovakia washed over three Bundesland (state) elections on Sunday, March 5, sending a signal to Berlin that maintaining business as usual would – even in Germany – bring a potential political reckoning. In all three elections, the sitting coalition was ousted, no matter its political composition. And in all three, the debate over the migrant crisis was the issue.
Americans should understand better than anyone that it’s not easy to compare elections on a state-by-state basis. After all, the three German states that went to the polls on Sunday are very different from one another. Two (Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz) are in Germany’s more economically advanced West, while one (Sachsen-Anhalt) was once part of the German Democratic Republic. Two had been governed by a coalition of Greens and Social Democrats, one by a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. But given the pressures under which the federal government in Berlin is operating these days because of the migrant crisis, there’s no doubt that all three of these elections carry a message for Chancellor Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union of Germany, CDU), Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) Chairman Sigmar Gabriel, and the grand coalition that they oversee together.
First, Chancellor Merkel’s so-far-successful strategy of playing down the danger on her political right is at risk of coming apart. The upstart Alliance for Germany (AfD), which has most clearly carried the anti-establishment, anti-Euro banner and is sometimes woefully difficult to define from the nastier, anti-migrant Pegida movement, was the big winner of the day, reaching double-digits in all three states from a standing start and placing second just behind the CDU in Sachsen-Anhalt (here, the CDU placed first with 36 percent of the vote, but the AfD nipped at its heels with 34.3 percent). The party took votes not only from the CDU and from previous non-voters, but also from the extreme Left Die Linke party, which has now relinquished its role as leading establishment critic. Perhaps more significantly, the party did very well among younger, in particular, first-time voters (as anti-establishment parties have around Europe this past year). The AfD will now be represented in eight of 16 state parliaments, after having been founded only in 2013. With its gains on Sunday, the party has far surpassed the performance of all previous entries on the extreme right of the spectrum and has shown strength not only in the East, but in the West, as well. Despite rumblings from some AfD representatives that the party might be government-ready, party Chairwoman Frauke Petry is clear: the party will stay in opposition because it sees itself as a natural competitor to ‘every other party’ in the mix.
Second, Merkel’s CDU party colleagues are finding it tougher and tougher to hold on against the anti-migrant headwinds. In Baden-Württemberg, a state which the CDU governed for the entire post-WWII period until 2011 (often with absolute majorities) and where it has never placed anywhere but first in a state election, Merkel’s party slipped to second behind Governor Wilfried Kretschmann and the Greens. This was the first outright Green victory in a German state election ever. Now, it is true that Kretschmann achieved this victory to a large extent b positioning himself as a conservative with environmentalist commitments, thereby stealing CDU voters looking to send Merkel a message, but the CDU’s inability to hold Baden-Wurttemberg will surely give strength to internal party critics who want to see a change of course in the CDU.
Third, while most criticism for the handling of the migrant crisis is focused on Merkel and her CDU, her SPD grand coalition partner also took a beating on Sunday, losing 10.4 and 10.9 percentage points in Baden-Württemberg and Sachsen-Anhalt, respectively. In both these states, the party finished in fourth place (and behind the three-year-old AfD) – hardly a result characteristic of the major, national “umbrella” party it once was. Even in Rheinland-Pfalz, where it eked out a narrow win against a CDU which was heavily favored even just a few months ago, it only managed to increase its share of the vote by a half a percentage point over its result in 2011. In effect, it did not win so much as the CDU lost. Many people talk about the decline of the major parties in Germany over the last several decades, but it’s hard by any measure to argue that this decline is shared equally by both CDU and SPD.
Fourth, the traditional, smaller coalition-maker parties – the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – turned in very different results. Although the Kretschmann victory for the Greens in Baden-Württemberg was the headline of the night for the party, its performance in the other two states up for grabs on Sunday was abysmal. The party could not even come close to the levels of 2011 when it benefited from the “Fukushima Effect” that resulted from the nuclear power plant disaster there. In Rheinland-Pfalz, where it was part of the now outgoing government, the party fell from 15.4 percent to just 5.3 percent (almost not crossing the threshold). In Sachsen-Anhalt, it fell from 5.2 percent to 3.3 percent, well under the threshold. The liberal FDP, on the other hand, met with a bit of a resurrection, following its debacle at the national level in 2013. Party Chairman Christian Lindner’s relentless campaigning and some bleeding from CDU to FDP almost doubled its result in Baden- Württemberg and brought the party back into the state parliaments in the other two. The party is looking more and more like a stable coalition partner again.
But the thread running through all these results is this: the anti-establishment wave that has put much of Europe’s political elite under water has now begun to lap over Germany’s political shores. It is almost entirely in the hands of the Chancellor to decide how to counter it as the country moves toward national elections likely sometime in the fall of 2017. Everything about Angela Merkel’s career in politics demonstrates that she is a survivor and manages in what seem impossible situations to find a way forward, not only for herself, but also for her party. Remember that before these state elections, her approval ratings had already begun to drift back up. And – let’s be clear – there currently is no alternative at the national level to a grand coalition led by Merkel and the CDU. Numbers for the party on the national level continue to hover in the low- to mid-30s, while the SPD is far behind in the 20s and no other party currently comes into the picture as a stable coalition partner to form a majority. No matter how great the protest, math remains math. But the rise of the AfD might very well be a phenomenon that can change the equation.