A ‘Tectonic Shift’ in German Politics
Germany’s elections on March 13 did much more than raise serious questions about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s career. The election results represented a political earthquake that threatens the very foundation of German politics.
Back in September 2013, the Times ran this headline: “Euroskeptic Party Alternative für Deutschland Strikes Fear in Rest.” The fear that so worried the Times back then was that this new party, AfD, might win a shocking 5 percent of the vote in German elections, which would give it a voice in the Reichstag.
Today, such a result would be shockingly low.
A quick glance over the past few years reveals how dramatic the explosion of this brand-new populist party has been. Since 2013, the AfD has become much more right wing, its rhetoric far more controversial—and its popularity has soared.
Not only did it win a stunning 24 percent of the vote in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt, but it also scored 15.1 percent and 12.5 in two West German states. Although the figures for these two states are lower, they may be more important. Right-wing populist parties have previously had some success in East Germany only to be comprehensively rejected in the West. By breaking through in these prosperous West German states, the AfD has proven that it is far more than just a party of East German protest.
The political shift demonstrated in Germany by these elections goes far beyond Angela Merkel.
In the run-up to the election, Lili Bayer of Geopolitical Futures wrote, “Berlin is facing a multitude of interlocking crises that are contributing to the fragmentation of Europe. … Despite its position as the largest economy in Europe and the leading political power on the Continent, Germany is finding itself unable to effectively address Europe’s crises, and is struggling to maintain its influence in some regions. At the same time, Germany’s economic vulnerabilities are coming to the fore. We can expect many more challenging weeks for Berlin in the months ahead” (March 11).
Europe has a slew of unresolved crises, and they threaten to hit Germany the hardest. Each one will only add to the political instability. The March 13 elections revealed where Germany’s political system is already—yet the crises are only just starting to bite.
“We are seeing a normalization of right-wing populist movements in Germany just like elsewhere in Europe, even if here, it takes on a special form because we can’t ignore Germany’s past,” said contemporary history professor at Mainz University Andreas Rödder, according to Agence France-Presse (March 13; emphasis added). Similarly, German political analyst Wolfgang Merkel told Tagesspiegel, “Until now, right-wing populist or extreme-right parties are considered taboo, considered like aliens in the political sphere.”
“This is a tectonic shift in the political landscape in Germany,” said Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer.
Spiegel sees the breaking of this taboo as part of the rise of a whole new political system. Before the election, it described how Germany’s postwar second republic was giving way to a “third republic.” “Germany Enters a Dangerous New Political Era” was its headline.
“Stability used to define Germany’s political system,” said the article’s quip. “But the refugee crisis has fundamentally changed the country’s party landscape. The rise of the fringe has eroded the traditional centers of power” (March 8).
Here is how the article began: “Seven or eight months ago, Germany was a different country than it is today. There were no controversial political issues demanding immediate action, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership was uncontested. It was quiet and comfortable. But then the refugees began streaming into Europe and the country’s sleepy tranquility came to a sudden end. Since then, disgusting eruptions of xenophobia have come in quick succession, a right-wing populist party is on its way to holding seats in several state parliaments, Merkel has gained approval from the center-left Social Democrats and from the Greens, some conservatives want to throw her out, and the state is overwhelmed. Does anyone know what is happening? What is wrong with this country?”
Ms. Merkel’s career is at stake. But much more than that is on the line. How will these crises change Germany? What will the post-Merkel nation look like—a nation where a borderline xenophobic party can win a quarter of the vote in a major election?
Spiegel is not the only publication sounding the alarm. “It was a night in which you could see, in a few hours, how much the country changed—and one could feel how much it is still changing,” wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The old ways, which determined the political landscape of the Federal Republic for decades, no longer apply. What was once certain is now uncertain. What was once considered impossible now seems likely” (March 14; Trumpet translation).
The Local, an English-language news website that focuses on Germany, published an article titled “Why German Politics as We Know It Is Crumbling.” Talking about the Green Party’s victory in Baden-Württemberg, it reported, “This was the first time in post-1945 Germany that a party outside the big two took the largest amount of votes at a state election.” It summarized Süddeutsche Zeitung’s position this way: “Voters are no longer tribally attached to the two main parties and will switch from one party to the next based on current political issues or their attachment to specific politicians” (March 14).
When Germany’s top news publications warn of the rise of a new era in Germany and the end of the political system that has brought Germany one of its longest periods of relative peace in history, we should all take note.
The Trumpet has long warned of a radical political transformation coming to Germany and all of Europe. Although these German writers cannot see where it is leading, this transformation is already making headlines.