Angela Merkel wins again - but faces the challenge of her political life (9/26)     Print

markusziener2015By Markus Ziener, Berlin

As Angela Merkel rose to speak during a debate, she was cut short by a representative of the new right-wing party AfD. “I think it is my turn, with all respect,” Jörg Meuthen, Speaker of the Alternative für Deutschland, shot back. Merkel, visibly irritated over the call to order, caved in. Meuthen then continued to speak - and all of a sudden the German chancellor looked reduced to only one of many party leaders that had gathered around a table in a TV studio. Merkel, for years the undisputed Chancellor and political leader, had just suffered a put-down. And with that, it seems, also some of her gloriole dimmed.

That scene from election night was symbolic for the situation Merkel now finds herself in. Although Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union came out as the strongest party, they lost significant support. With only 33 percent of the electorate voting in favor of Merkel, the party had its weakest showing in decades. Moreover, for the first time a right-wing populist party, the AfD, made entry into the parliament with a stunning 13 percent. At the same time, Merkel’s coalition partner SPD, the Social Democrats, was scaled down to 20 percent. After the results came in, the SPD immediately announced it would leave the current coalition. After that tectonic shift, Merkel is now forced to forge an alliance with such diverse partners as the unruly Greens, the resurrected Liberals and the often stubborn and much more conservative sister party CSU from Bavaria.

The CSU in particular will make life hard for the Chancellor. The conservatives from Bavaria almost always garner more than fifty percent of the regional vote. But with a depressing 38 percent this time around the outlook for the state elections next year is rather grim. The CSU has lost a lot of support to the AfD - which fuels criticism that Merkel has moved the party way too far into the center, making way for the AfD. Franz-Josef Strauss, legendary head of the CSU, once stated: “Right of the Union there shall be no democratically legitimized party.” Now, with the emergence of the AfD, this is exactly what has happened.

Strong headwinds for Merkel can be expected to come not only from the sister party in Bavaria but also from the conservative wing in her own camp. While Merkel with her social democratic policies has taken the breath out of the SPD, she at the same time has alienated the traditionalists within the CDU. The main question now will be how Merkel is going to react to the erosion of the base on the right: A. Striking a more nationalistic tone when it comes to defending German interests and the Euro? B. Tightening refugee policies and introducing a ceiling regarding the maximum numbers of refugees allowed in? Or C. Will she stay the liberal course in order not to lose the Green Party and the liberal crowd within the Christian Democratic Union. What Merkel has to master is nothing less than a tightrope walk.

However, there is hope that Merkel in her calm and composed manner will somehow navigate even this slightly awkward coalition through rough waters. The rise of the populists could even work as a disciplinary force and keep the coalition from bickering too much. At the same time it cannot be ruled out that the populists will suffer from tough infighting. The day after the elections, Frauke Petry, a prominent and more moderate AfD politician, announced that she will not be a member of the future parliamentary fraction of her party. Now the big question is: Will Petry form a group of her own and take some of the newly elected AfD deputies with her?

However difficult the situation now may be - there is still a lot of good news. Thirteen percent of Germans voting for the AfD also means that 87 percent did not back right wing populists. Merkel’s coalition partners all support free trade, a strong and united Europe and close ties with France. On foreign and security policy the new government will not deviate from the path pursued to date. It will continue to be strong and critical towards Putin’s Russia and sees - despite all the negatives with the Trump administration - transatlantic relations with the U.S. as a pillar of its foreign policy. In fact: There is even a chance that the new coalition will bring about some of the changes Merkel lately was too tired to tackle.

Markus Ziener is a Journalism Professor and former Washington and Moscow correspondent for German Business Daily Handelsblatt