This week's election result sent shockwaves around the world, but the hand-wringing is overstated, writes Sholto Byrnes
Why the rise of the far-right in Germany means the country is becoming 'more normal'
The concept of history – and its associated adjectives and adverbs – are in danger of being seriously overused and misused in the aftermath of the German election. Angela Merkel has “made history”, we are told, for being the third chancellor to have won four national elections in the post-war era. Really? Being the third person to do anything strikes me as not so lustrous, especially in a limited time frame. Most of us can name the first man on the Moon, and the second. How many can recall the third? If anything, Mrs Merkel's victory will be recorded in the history books for a less creditable reason: her alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) won only 33.2 per cent of the vote, their lowest share since 1949.
The election of 94 lawmakers from the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), on the other hand, has apparently shattered a “historic” taboo. Not since before the war has the far-right sat in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. This is the first time such a group has succeeded in overcoming the five-per cent hurdle that was meant to keep out fringe groups, and they did so clearly, winning 12.6 per cent of the vote.
It is certainly no cause for celebration that a party that preys on fears of immigrants and Muslims should appeal to a significant number of Germans (and in the old East, the percentage was much higher, at more than 20 per cent). It is to Mrs Merkel's credit, however, that she had shifted her party sufficiently to the centre that it could be outflanked on the right, disobeying the dictum of the late CSU leader Franz-Josef Strauss, who once said “To the right of us, there is only the wall.”
At the risk of making AfD politicians sound mundane – which they are certainly not – their election is at the same time a sign that Germany is becoming a "more normal" European country. It may be distressing that bigotry is so widespread throughout that continent, but most of its countries have far right parties, quite a few of which do far better than the AfD. Some have participated in government. Austria almost elected a far-right president. Marine Le Pen won 35 per cent in the second round of the French presidential election.
So the hand-wringing and the dire references to history are both overdone (the AfD is, in any case, in disarray after the news that party co-leader, Frauke Petry, has quit both her position and the AfD). The resurgence of the liberal Free Democrats, for decades the junior partner in both the Social and Christian Democratic governments, has, meanwhile, been underplayed. Wiped out in the Bundestag in 2013 after failing to meet the five percent hurdle, under their charismatic young leader, Christian Lindner, they have since returned strongly, with 10.7 per cent of the vote.
As the Social Democrats have gone into opposition after their poor showing (they were previously in a grand coalition under Mrs Merkel), reaching a majority necessary to sustain government will not be easy. The numbers require the CDU/CSU to ally with more than one party, and while the Free Democrats are an obvious choice, the only other suitable contender, the Greens, would not make the most natural of partners. Negotiations could take months, although again, that is not unheard of in other European countries.
Mrs Merkel’s attention will need to be more focused domestically, not least on forming her government, while her almost-certain new partners, the Free Democrats, are far less keen on further European integration and expanding the eurozone budget than were the Social Democrats. This may be a blow for France’s Emmanuel Macron, but for all those who think the EU’s problem is that it does too much with too little accountability – and that it ought to review what it currently does and do it better before being more ambitious – that is good news.
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The EU needs to listen more to its member states, rather than bully them, if their democratically elected governments choose paths of which Brussels and the European Commission disapprove. Mrs Merkel has always been cautious in her EU interventions, but a slightly weaker Germany could, just could, persuade the bloc to act in a more accommodating manner towards Poland, Hungary and the less liberally inclined Eastern European countries. Treating their heads of government like wayward children is precisely the kind of behaviour that encourages scepticism about the bloc and plays into the hands of populists.
Chastened by the loss of votes, Mrs Merkel has pledged to reach out to AfD supporters. “We want to win back AfD voters by solving problems, by taking account of their concerns and fears,” she said on Sunday night. Understanding them and addressing such concerns related to social exclusion, poverty and lack of opportunity (real and perceived) would not only be fine, it would be her duty. A lurch to the right, however, would not.
Quite apart from the fact that it would fly in the face of allying with the Greens, it could not undo what undeniably caused the shift in support to the AfD: Mrs Merkel’s decision to open the country’s doors to nearly a million refugees and asylum-seekers in 2015.
Her compassion and her political bravery were of a magnitude that the word “historic” is, for once, truly apt. She has suffered the consequences, and power now ebbs from her because of that one magnificent gesture. It will be for others to take the baton from her and defend the values associated with that decision – even if it led to new foes rising up. “Mutti” Merkel would have fought them. So should her successors.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia
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