Germany’s election on Sept. 24 was remarkable for a country that has been defined by stability and rationality for the past decades, particularly under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stewardship. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) stole the show with a strong showing of 12.6 percent of the vote, worrying many. This recent trend of outside parties challenging the long-standing political paradigm is not unique to Germany; it is a continuation.
In many respects, the 2017 German federal election was as vanilla as those in the recent past. Angela Merkel was elected to a fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, won the most seats. Angela Merkel will become a fourth-term Chancellor, holding the position since November 22, 2005. To those familiar with German politics, this is as predictable and bland an outcome as imaginable.
But that is not the full story with this election. Chancellor Merkel’s party, the major center-right party in Germany, has been in power for most of post-WWII period. Despite winning a plurality of the vote, the CDU/CSU has received its worst vote share since 1949, receiving 32.9 percent of the vote, this being down 8.6 percent from the last parliamentary election in 2013. The CDU/CSU will receive 246 seats in the Bundestag, down from 311 in the previous parliament.
This story is also true for Germany’s main center-left party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The political and ideological counterpart to the CDU/CSU, despite the two parties forming coalition governments in the past, also had its worst election since WWII, gaining only 20.5 percent of the vote. This is down from the 25.7 percent share of vote in the in the 2013 election. The SPD will receive 153 seats new parliament, down from 193.
For the American reader, a parliamentary legislature needs some context. From an American point-of-view, the Bundestag is like the House of Representatives and must pass through legislation by a majority vote. However, there is no Executive Branch in Germany to counter-weigh the legislature so any bill that is passed through the Bundestag becomes law immediately.
Another element of the parliamentary system is the need for a majority control of government. The Bundestag has 709 seats which requires a 355-seat minimum threshold to “form a government.” It is very rare for a single party to gain that many seats. They must enter a coalition with one or more parties to effectively pass legislation. Fifty-one percent of the seats give a party or a coalition of parties’ 100 percent of the power. One last caveat, but one that is incredibly important for this election, is that a party must receive at least five percent of the vote to gain seats in the parliament.
To most media outlets, the headline story of the 2017 German federal election is the strong showing of AfD, a party which, among other things, pledges to protect German culture and restrict immigration from predominantly Islamic countries. Many German citizens and international observers are worried about the party’s success, as it stands in opposition to contemporary political dynamics. AfD wants to restrict immigration, remove Germany from the Euro (a currency shared among 17 of the 27 EU member countries; this number excludes the UK, which is in the process of leaving the EU). Receiving 12.6 percent of the vote, AfD will receive 94 seats in the Bundestag where it previously had none.
Despite holding roughly 13 percent of all seats in parliament, AfD will be rendered powerless. Every other German political has vowed to not cooperate with AfD in forming a coalition government. The 2017 election was quite an accomplishment for a young party. Formed in February 2013, AfD received 4.7 percent of the vote in that year’s election, failing to meet the five percent threshold and locking it out of political power. In the inter-election years, AfD has slowly built its political following, exploiting events like the 2015 refugee crisis, where Germany absorbed roughly one million refugees over the course of a year, as well as capitalizing on voter resentment of Chancellor Merkel’s long reign.
While there is something catchy and eye-opening about right-wing political parties in Germany, it must be understood that AfD is not a reincarnation of Nazism. AfD is a very young party that is currently in the midst of a leadership vacuum. AfD’s chairwoman resigned from the party after the results came in during what was supposed to be a celebration. The party is grappling with fighting over which direction it should go policy-wise and who should lead it going forward. Pairing this with the fact AfD will have severely limited political power in the Bundestag, it is likely the AfD will be a group of rabble rousers on the edges rather than the party setting Germany’s political agenda. The real story here is the global continuation of voter discontent, even in such a stable country as Germany.
Germany, the strongest economy in Europe and the de facto leader of the EU, has provided a prosperous economy along with political stability for its citizens for decades. Yet, consistent with the global trend of rejecting political norms, like the United States’ election of Donald Trump and the UK’s choice of Brexit, German voters have rejected the two parties for their alternatives. Some of these alternatives are represented by AfD, the eponymous Alternative for Germany. But the collapse of the two major parties have also brought a new party into the mix– the centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP).
The FDP received 10.7 percent of the vote and 80 seats in the Bundestag. Like AfD, it missed the 5 percent threshold in 2013 leaving it without seats. This election is a different story though, as FDP’s showing is almost as strong as AFD. It will also have the ability to join a coalition government, which AfD does not. Much of the loss of seats from CDU/CSU and SPD has gone to a centrist party, not just the right-wing party AfD. The media has done a poor job portraying this fact. Realistically, FDP is in a much better position politically than AfD. Two other smaller parties, the Left and the Green Party, improved slightly from their 2013 positions. They have grown to 69 and 67 seats from 64 and 63 seats in the previous parliament. The two major political parties lost ground while all of their displaced seats have gone to smaller, alternative parties.
Contrary to the hysteria, there will be no Fourth Reich or Nazi revival in Germany. However, that doesn’t mean that this election is unremarkable. On the contrary, it is shocking to see the upheaval in the previously stable German political arena. The two dominant parties have lost over 100 seats collectively and they each feel pressure to appease the new section of voters that sought alternatives such as AfD and FDP. The political tremors felt across the world, from the United States to the United Kingdom, Philippines, Hungary and France – just a few examples – are working their way into Germany. The malaise of politics as usual has infiltrated the German electorate. Angela Merkel will have a harder time than ever forming a government and reaching out to the citizens she represents. The important question– who will be the next country to challenge its longstanding political norms after feeling the weight of voter dissatisfaction?