Four days after the election of Donald Trump, an article in the New York Times opened with the ominous statement “and then there was one.” The piece referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the authors touted as the final pillar of Western liberalism and last sliver of hope against a rising tide of populism. This claim served as a cautionary reminder of the pitfalls of the populist surge and a warning for democratic societies around the world whose fate largely depends on the will of the people, a will which has been steeped in dangerous sentiments in recent years.
Although it has been portrayed by popular media as the climactic event of a year characterized by troublesome political developments, Donald Trump’s election is merely another domino falling in the worldwide trend of twisted populism based around xenophobia — largely seen as a reaction to the effects of globalization. Brexit (and the subsequent resignation of David Cameron), Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines, and the growth of far-right parties in Europe all stunned the globe in 2016, and a simple flip of the calendar to 2017 should not beguile one into thinking this trend has ended. Rather, 2017 represents the final push — a year of “make or break” elections that will shape the future of the world for years to come. If 2016 was a less-than-stellar midterm exam, 2017 is the final paper determining the ultimate outcome of pass or fail. Integral to this moment is Angela Merkel. If the West is to remain a self-identified stable pillar of liberalism and equality, Merkel must win and Germany’s far-right parties must be kept out of the Chancellery. A drastic shift in German leadership is simply too much of a risk given the tumultuous context in Germany and abroad.
Germany’s election, which will take place this fall, does not yet have a full slate of candidates. With a much shorter campaign season than the United States, Angela Merkel was one of the first to announce her candidacy. She represents the CDU/CSU, or Christian Union. Historically, the main opponent of the CDU/CSU is the SPD, or Social Democratic Party, to which Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, belonged. These two parties generally receive the highest percentages of votes in national elections. Smaller parties, such as “die Linke” (The Left), the Green Party, and the Free Democratic Party, are typically awarded much smaller portions.
It is worth stating, however, that the political spectrum itself is far smaller and more left-centered in Germany than it is in the United States — a reality not always made clear in American media coverage of Germany, which paints Merkel as “conservative,” failing to mention that what is considered “conservative” in Germany is still to the left of Hillary Clinton. Thus, despite her comparatively conservative agenda in Germany (contrasted with the Social Democratic policies of the SPD), Angela Merkel’s policies are, for all intents and purposes, comparable to many American liberal platforms. Nonetheless, she has still received considerable criticism from her left-of-center colleagues on political issues such as fiscal policy.
Rather, 2017 represents the final push — a year of “make or break” elections that will shape the future of the world for years to come. If 2016 was a less-than-stellar midterm exam, 2017 is the final paper determining the ultimate outcome of pass or fail.
In recent years, the growth of xenophobic populism has seen the development of a new party in German politics: the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which literally translates to “Alternative for Germany.” The AfD’s current platform includes abandoning the Euro and the European Union, closing Germany’s borders, creating stronger ties with Russia, and reinstituting the mandatory draft. Moreover, the most recent brochure available on the AfD’s website openly proclaims a disgust with multiculturalism and asserts its perceived supremacy of German culture (as well as policy plans to advocate for its promotion and eliminate the celebration of global culture); classifies Islam as incompatible with German society and accordingly proposes a ban on “Vollverschleierung” (an ambiguous term translated as “total covering” that is not particularly clear); issues a determinant statement to rid the German education of is current qualities that lead to “early sexualization” and “gender mainstreaming;” and plans to eliminate gender quotas in the workplace aimed at promoting equality of the sexes.
Furthermore, the AfD is determined to revert to strict immigration policy and disallow migrants and asylum seekers from having access to Germany’s social welfare system. Along with these xenophobic policies comes the statement that “integration is more than just learning German” and a platform that would ban German citizens from holding dual citizenship. The only progressive policies that the AfD stands behind seem to be environmental; in Germany, environmentalism is not a political issue but an agreed-upon cultural norm.
Regardless, the AfD is incredibly threatening. While they are typically viewed as a xenophobic reaction to current events, their social, economic, and foreign policy proposals are deeply troubling. The ideals upon which the party rests allude ominously to those of the Third Reich. The explicit assertion that German culture is superior to all others and the desire to actively teach this in schools is, for example, an echo of notorious German leaders past who blame any perceived systemic societal problems on the outsider and use xenophobia as a way of gaining leverage. Only the specific scapegoat has changed.
Following the trend of growing xenophobic sentiments around the world, the AfD has gone from a fringe party to one with significant political power. In 2016’s three state elections, the AfD stunned the populace by attaining large percentages of the vote. In the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, a generally more conservative and economically prosperous state than the rest of the nation, the AfD received 15.1 percent of the vote. This result placed it in third, falling only behind the Green Party (30.3 percent) and CDU (27 percent). Most shocking, however, is the fact that the AfD beat out the SPD (12.7 percent). Rheinland-Pflalz, a West-German state of average wealth, also saw the AfD place in third with 12.6 percent, following the SPD (36.2 percent) and CDU (31.8 percent). And, most disconcertingly, in traditionally more xenophobic and less affluent East Germany, the AfD came in second in Sachsen-Anhalt’s primary elections with 24.3 percent of the vote, second only to the CDU (29.8 percent), which managed to win by a narrow margin. The AfD now holds significant lawmaking power in many of Germany’s states, placing it in an advantageous position push for a national insurgence. The 2017 election might hand over a substantial number of seats in the Reichstag to a party that embodies the global trend towards populism and nationalism.
Despite their differences, most major parties in Germany recognize the threat to stability and fundamental ethos that the AfD poses, and are working to prevent its rise to greater power. However, while Merkel’s favorability ratings have oscillated dramatically between 50 and 80 percent during her time in office, the reasonable opposition parties have proved too unstable to offer a viable alternative. The Chancellery and German government as a whole is largely a team effort; Merkel’s cabinet is filled with ministers from many different parties and, unlike in the US—where partisanship often takes priority—lawmaking in Germany rests upon coalitions and parties overcoming differences to work together for progress. Some reasonable opposition parties have reached the point where an exclusion thereof from the Bundestag—likely based on low performance and disorganization—would threaten Merkel’s agenda. The SPD’s poor and inconsistent performance in this year’s state elections suggest that it may no longer be as popular as it once was.
Moreover, choosing a candidate to vie with Merkel for Chancellor in 2017 has been somewhat of an ordeal: Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was believed to be a contender, but recent controversy has deemed him a source of instability for the SPD. Popular SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced that he will seek the German Presidency, a largely ceremonial position, instead of face off against Merkel. In an attempt to focus on the presidential election in February, Steinmeier also stepped down from his post in late January, and was replaced by Gabriel. With such a power vacuum, the SPD selected former president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz as its candidate, banking on his power and personality . Smaller parties like the Greens, “die Linke,” and the FDP will likely see campaigns from the rising political personas of Cem Özdemir, Sahra Wagenknecht, and Christian Lindner respectively, but their support is too low to realistically challenge Merkel.
This political reality leaves Germany and Merkel with a challenge from the AfD. Frauke Petry, party head, has already declared her candidacy and plans to harness recent discontent with Merkel to vie for the Chancellery. The actions of the other parties, particularly the AfD, has placed Angela Merkel in a difficult position: whichever way she goes on the political spectrum, she will be alienating some segment of potential voters. A rightward tilt at the CDU’s recent convention where she expressed sympathy for a burqa ban angered the left, while the terror attack at Berlin’s Christmas Market has been deemed a result of her liberal migrant policies, enraging the right. Frauke Petry and her party have tapped into this anger, choosing Merkel as a scapegoat for all of the problems they perceive to be plaguing German society.
The AfD poses a threat to the democratic values of openness and tolerance that are so vital to maintaining stability in the current uncertain political climate around the world. There is a real risk of reasonable political agendas being factioned among different candidates, an event which will only serve to increase the weight of the AfD’s backing in the opposition. The longer-established parties in Germany certainly have their differences. As in any system, there are critical differences in their political agendas and ideologies. However, the global political backdrop of this election must prompt a prioritization of upholding tolerance, unity, and basic humanitarian principles over smaller factional differences.
In a sense, all mainstream parties in Germany must coalesce to stop the AfD, a true danger that cannot simply be dismissed as an outside phenomenon of the few. If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that this classification—a failure to even indulge the idea that xenophobia and misinformation might prevail—is dangerous. This cannot happen with Germany. Mirroring the ultimate coalitions that form in the Bundestag, voters must unite behind Angela Merkel for Germany to weather this election safely. Criticism of her time as Chancellor—fiscal or otherwise, such as the discontent arising from her migrant policy—is not to be ignored, but should not be manifested in votes for unlikely candidates this election season.
Rather, the election poses the question of national stability, and it would be unwise to take any other route besides the one that supports the woman who has proven her ability to effectively govern Germany. Rejecting Merkel would only give the AfD the leeway it requires to expand and become more influential. Now is not the time to split; it is the time to unite — once stability is effectively confirmed through Angela Merkel’s reelection, the floor can be opened back up for debate. For now, however, the tumultuous global setting demands that German voters stick with the tried-and-true.