Looking for Leadership, German Voters Send a Signal
Chancellor Merkel may not be very happy with the results of Sunday’s state elections in Germany, but she is not any worse off than she was on Saturday. That is not so easy to say about the political party system.
Merkel’s party, the center-right CDU, lost ground in all three states that went to the polls, unable to win in two states and barely maintaining its lead in the third. Her coalition partner in Berlin, the center-left SPD, saw significant losses in two states but hung on to leadership in one. If seen as a barometer of Merkel’s strength, the elections did not fundamentally change her situation in Berlin. But the explosive success of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) in all three states reminded Merkel of how much the refugee issue and related fears have spurred on the blowback she is confronting throughout Germany.
Sunday’s results were not a surprise. Concerns about the increasing numbers of refugees, the pressure on local communities where they are hosted, the fear of social clashes or even violence in those areas—generated in part by protests against refugees—were expected to result in advances by the AfD, just as similar groups have gained traction throughout Europe during the past year. Merkel knew that was coming.
Even so, the overall picture shows that Germany’s political stability is not any more in danger—even with the entry of a right-wing party in state governments—than it was when a left-wing party emerged in the years following unification. Both reflect parts of a political landscape that is fundamentally anchored in a center-left/center-right party spectrum. And Germans are engaged in the political process: this year’s turnout was significantly higher than in previous years. By these measurements, German democracy is strong.
And yet, in party terms, Merkel is seeing an erosion of the political party system that appears to the electorate as neither unified nor coherent. The squabbles between the traditional parties, magnified by the media, have left the traditional reliance on and affiliations to political parties weakened. The result is a confusing picture of voters less confident of both the parties and their political leaders—a confusion that will be reflected in a difficult post-election process to build coherent and capable coalitions of more than the usual two-party scenario.
These elections were seen by some as a referendum on Merkel’s refugee policies, but they were a reflection of much more than that. Indeed, the results were as much a product of different local and regional politics and personalities as of any single issue. The results in Baden Württemberg—the re-election of Germany’s first Green Party minister-president—was a product of his popular personality. Similar results were recorded in neighboring Rheinland-Palatinate, where the Social Democrats won. In Sachsen-Anhalt, Merkel’s party remains the leading political factor. But all that does not dismiss the fact that one party, the AfD, achieved significant resonance with a large number of voters in each state, while already being represented in five other states. And that resonance is based on one issue: the refugee crisis.
As elsewhere in Europe—and in the United States—there is uncertainty and anxiety among voters who feel underrepresented, unheard, and unheeded by established political parties and politicians. That is a dangerous mix. Drawing on Sunday’s state election results, Germany’s party leadership needs to reflect on how they can respond to a changing climate of voters and the issues that concern them. Without that, the emergence of the AfD could be a sign of more troubles to come.
These three state elections demonstrate that there is a need to respond to a changing set of concerns among voters less closely allied with party affiliations and more focused on events and issues—and who will vote for those candidates and parties they believe are listening.
Chancellor Merkel is not about to lose her job as chancellor. But after Sunday, that job has just gotten a lot tougher.