Merkel's Win is Bittersweet for Europe
Following Brexit and the election of Trump, Merkel has widely been touted as the leader of the Western liberal order. The parliamentary election that was held on Sunday, then, was watched by many across the globe.
Its results tell a cautionary tale that populism is by no means gone. Although Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor, she did so on a more fragile parliamentary base. Her side (an alliance of the CDU and CSU) saw their voter percentage fall to 32.9% - down from 41.5%. This is the worst result since 1949.
Her former coalition partners, the socialist SDU, were hit similarly hard with a vote share that had not been seen since 1933. The far-right party AfD, however, saw their vote share grow to 13%.
Both the SDU and the CDU lost votes to the populist right. This comes after the AfD became the first far-right party in more than half a century to enter parliament. This is widely believed to be down to Merkel’s governing policies which involved allowing more than 1 million migrants into the country.
It is because of these policies that the SDU has vowed to become an opposition party to Merkel’s government. This leaves Merkel in a difficult position.
To achieve a majority in parliament she’ll now have to enter into a three-way coalition with the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). This comes as the Germain legislature has become more fractured, with 6 groups rather than 4.
Over the next for years, Merkel faces a different world to the twelve years prior. No more will she be able to fall back on cushy coalitions. Rather, she faces a trickier political landscape. Her coalition partners, for instance, have opposing priorities when it comes to Europe. The Greens said on Sunday night that a “stronger Europe” was their priority, the Free Democrats are reluctant to endorse policies that integrate European nations further.
The coalition she’s likely to adopt, called by Josef Joffe - publisher-editor of Die Ziet - as “highly unstable”, has never been attempted on a national level. This combined with the legislature’s fractured nature has consequences on both a local and national level.
Outside of her coalition, Merkel also faces challenges from the AfD who now have a greater vote share, and also from the SPD. During the coalition, the socialist party (SDP) were damaged by Merkel’s policies and will want to come out in force as an effective opposition.
The loss of votes to the AfD is unsurprisingly likely to impact Merkel’s migration and border policies. The AfD has criticised Merkel’s defining policies and also called for the closing of Germany’s open-border policy as part of the Schengen Agreement.
Whilst Merkel is highly unlikely to shut the borders and bow to AfD pressure, she is likely to open up to new ways of stemming migrant flows. Her deal with Turkey in 2016, according to analysts, was successful in reducing tension with voters. Moreover, other parties are generally supportive of the open-border policy. Merkel is hence likely to try new avenues such as greater pressure on neighbouring EU partners to take more migrants.
Aside from migration, Russia is another area on which Merkel faces challenges. Her tough stance against Putin following Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula gave rise to a united European voice against the Kremlin, however the AfD and the SDP are more supportive of Moscow (for different reasons).
The SDP are calling for the lifting of some sanctions on Russia as part of a greater effort to improve relations. The AfD are supportive of Russia with the belief that the nation can play an important role in controlling migrant flows - the party’s defining issue. This may give rise to a splintered voice coming from Germany when it comes to Russia aggression. As a result, the united European view is damaged.
It is too early to tell what the precise impact of Merkel’s fourth term will be on German and European politics. What’s clear, however, is that although she remains the leader of Germany, she retains the title with a defensive stance. That has impacts her ability to be an effective global leader.