Pity Angela Merkel. Though she has won a fourth term as German Chancellor, she faces severe problems governing in a now fractious and unstable political environment. It is quite a change from the way things looked only a few weeks ago. She went into the election with a double-digit lead in the polls and notoriety as the head of one of the most stable governments among the western democracies.
Indeed, commentators had begun to refer to her as the new “leader of the West.” All of that has now disappeared. Her position is so weak that Germany soon may have a need for another election. Even if she avoids that, and if anyone can it is Merkel, she will still have great difficulty pursuing her former pro-immigrant, pro-EU policies or resisting clear pressure for a more nationalist agenda.
The electoral tally clearly signals these difficulties. A clear rightward shift is evident in who gained. The unapologetically nationalist Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) Party has come out of nowhere to win a remarkable 94 seats in the Bundestag, 12.6 percent of the total. The EU-skeptical and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which had lost its place in the legislature after the last election, will return with 80 seats, some 10.7 percent of the votes. At the same time, an anti-establishment, anti-centrist sentiment clearly shows who lost. While the two left-wing parties, the Left and the Greens, about held their own, retaining about 9.0 percent each of the Bundestag’s votes, the big losers were the two parties of the former grand coalition. Merkel’s own center-right grouping of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU) saw its share of parliamentary votes fall from 41.5 percent to a mere 32.9 percent, and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) saw its share fall from 25.7 percent to 20.5 percent.
Crosscurrents like these will make governing all but impossible. Merkel faces a Herculean task just to form a governing coalition. The center-left SDP, her former partner, has already expressed its clear disinterest in joining a coalition. It has lost big and is more interested now in soul searching than governing. Even if Merkel could talk its leader, Martin Schulz, into reconsidering, the effort would probably prove unworkable in the present political milieu. The anti-establishment push, after all, ran with a slogan that described grand coalitions as a danger to democracy. Nor is the AfD an option. A link to its nationalist and far-right components would make for “bad optics” to say the least. Even if there were no differences on principle, AfD Co-Chair Frauke Petry’s decision to remain out of the party’s parliamentary caucus suggests a future splintering that would make it an unreliable partner.
She has begun to approach the FDP and the environmentalist Greens to make a three-party coalition, but that is far from a workable combination either. On major issues, from energy, to the auto industry, to immigration, to EU integration, the Greens hold positions diametrically opposed to those of either the FDP or many in the CDS/CDU union. Bavarian Premier and CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer has, for instance, already pushed for numerical limits on immigration, while Green Party co-leader Cem Ozdemir insists that such a limit would violate the country’s constitution. Merkel has the option to form a minority government, but, especially with such a small plurality, stability in that situation would hang precariously on almost every Bundestag vote.
There is, then, a good chance that she will fail to form a government or that it will fall quickly. In either case, the country would have to hold yet another election, perhaps within a few months. Indeed, as it looks now, that seems to be the most probable outcome. Even if Merkel’s past political magic continues to work and allows her to continue to govern, she will have little ability to pursue any of her past policies. She might, knowing that this is her last hurrah, choose to stand on principle as she sees fit. But her colleagues in the CSU/CDU would hardly follow along such a heroic path. They have an eye on the next election and, like Herr Seehofer, will push her to concede to at least some to the nationalistic tide, if only to recapture votes from the AfD.