After the election, Germany’s democracy faces its hardest test since 1949

Christian Democratic Union CDU party leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference at the CDU party headquarters, a day after the general election (Bundestagswahl) in Berlin, Germany September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach - RC18EF193060
Editor's note:

The recent vote in Germany, which was for months thought to be a firm bulwark against the populist wave, will be seen as an encouragement by populist movements who lost traction in this year’s elections in the Netherlands and in France, as well as by the alt-right in the United States, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Germany, my country: It is a somber day for you, for me and for democrats across the West.

In Germany’s earthquake national elections, a radical right-wing party entered the federal legislature for the first time in more than half a century. Founded in 2013, Alternative for Germany (AfD) failed to pass the 5 percent threshold in that year’s elections. But it has now gained nearly 13 percent of the vote, becoming the third-largest force in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament.

The governing parties of the current grand coalition—Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of her challenger Martin Schulz—were both brutally punished: Merkel was dealt her worst personal result at 33 percent; the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU and the SPD saw their worst-ever outcome since 1949. Small parties, meanwhile, benefited overall: The Liberals returned after a four-year hiatus at 10.7 percent, and the Greens as well as the Left Party at around 9 percent. Voter turnout, at 77 percent, was significantly higher than four years ago—but that did not help the democratic parties.

Map of German election results.

This is a caesura in German postwar history. In her fourth term, a weakened Merkel will have no other choice but to painfully forge an unprecedented, difficult three-way coalition between her CDU, the Liberals (FDP) and the Greens; the SPD has already ruled out another grand coalition. The Liberals have made it clear that they want a much more restrictive immigration policy and are skeptics on European Union integration—a blow to France’s young president, Emmanuel Macron, who had set his hopes on a renewed Paris-Berlin partnership to reinvigorate the E.U. The Greens’ leadership will be wrestling with a fierce fundamentalist left wing that would rather be waterboarded than compromise. So expect coalition negotiations to last until December at least—and an introverted, conflicted Germany that is barely present in international debates.

At the same time, this outcome sets up a fight for Merkel’s succession and a harsh power battle between her own camp of moderate modernizers and those in her party who want to chart a much more hard-edged conservative course. It will darken the tone of German political debate, polarize the country and possibly change the political party landscape forever. The future of social democracy in Europe is more in question than ever.

Yesterday’s vote in the country that for months was thought to be a firm bulwark against the populist wave will be seen as an encouragement by populist movements who lost traction in this year’s elections in the Netherlands and in France, as well as by the alt-right in the United States. The Kremlin, whose official and unofficial propaganda organs were vociferously promoting the AfD, must be beside itself with joy.

Let there be no doubt about it—the AfD is no alternative for any democrat. It is a party bent on disruption and destruction. It seeks to tear down my country’s postwar centrist consensus, its postwar commitment to atonement for World War II and the Holocaust, and reconciliation with their victims. Its program is nationalistic and xenophobic, anti-European integration, anti-NATO, anti-Western, anti-Muslim and overtly pro-Russian.

AfD’s leadership—once content with discreet dog-whistling signals to the extreme right, and with refusing to distance themselves from the party’s most Islamophobic and anti-Semitic elements—managed to nearly double the number of its supporters within a month with a ferociously aggressive, deliberately taboo-breaking campaign waged on all fronts. On social media, it developed a commanding presence (supported, it seems, in the final stretch by repurposed Russian bots). On the street, the AfD made sure to send jeering and howling protesters to each and every one of the chancellor’s appearances. In his first post-victory speech on national TV, party leader Alexander Gauland promised to “hunt down the government” and to “take back our country.”

My parents, who are now both dead, would have been horrified. My father, born in 1927, was drafted into the Wehrmacht at 16; my mother, born in 1933, was bombed out of Berlin as a child. They were part of a generation who despised the Nazis and rebuilt their country as a strong democracy so that it would never again succumb to totalitarian temptation. They would have been dismayed to recognize, in the language and the ideas of the AfD, deliberate references to Germany’s darkest age. I cringe with shame to think how Jews and Muslims living in Germany must feel today.

And yet—it’s important to look at the exact reasons that people voted for the AfD. Germany has been spared major terrorist attacks, it boasts full employment and record surpluses; and the uncontrolled inflow of refugees has slowed to a trickle. But more than two-thirds of respondents in exit polls said they were concerned about terrorism, crime and immigration, showing that they remain worried about integrating the more than a million refugees that are likely to stay in Germany. Revealingly, two-thirds of AfD voters said they had cast their vote as an act of protest rather than as an act of conviction.

This, sadly, speaks volumes about the grand coalition’s—and, yes, Merkel’s—inability to speak to and calm ordinary Germans’ concerns about the ability of institutions and civil society to cope with historic challenges. The AfD pulled in 1.2 million new voters, half a million votes from the SPD and nearly a million from the CDU.

But it also shows the way out of this debacle.

The 94-strong party grouping of the AfD in the next legislature will contain many members with no experience even in local government. Its leadership has spent much of its four-year existence with vicious infighting. Experience with the AfD’s performance in the European parliament and 13 of 16 state legislatures has shown that it is mostly neither willing nor able to engage constructively on the business of legislation and governance.

Still, the fight is the democrats’ to lose. Politicians, media and civil society must learn to resist the AfD’s constant attempts to trigger them with polemics and distract them from solving problems. They must learn to fight the enemies of democracy on issues, not on slogans; on merits, not on morals. And they need to address the concerns that drove nearly 13 percent of German voters into the arms of a radical right-wing party—but not by adopting its positions. This has to be the end of the sleepwalking complacency that has so often irritated even our friends.

Without a doubt, this is the hardest test for German democracy in my lifetime, perhaps of the republic’s postwar history. It will take a huge effort, but I believe our institutions and our civil society are strong enough. We owe it to ourselves, to our neighbors and allies, and to fellow democrats worldwide.