Despite Merkel’s win, the unexpected narrative of election night was the higher than expected support for Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), which took third place behind the two main parties. It is the first far-right group for six decades to win Bundestag seats, which could trigger a significant shift in German’s post-war politics.
The AfD campaigned extensively on immigration, an issue that has grown significantly in salience since 2015 when nearly a million migrants and refugees were allowed into the country by Merkel. Moreover, some elements of the German far right also sought to link her immigration stance to recent terror atrocities — including a truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last year that killed a dozen people.
Nevertheless, while Merkel’s 2015 decision has concerned many in Germany, denting the popularity of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and fueling the rise of the AfD, the latter’s anti-immigrant message did not cut through with the German electorate on Sunday with the same effectiveness that it did during the French presidential election this year. In France, the National Front populist Marine Le Pen — who has already congratulated the AfD on its result — won through to the final round run-off against Emmanuel Macron, and securing about 40 percent of the vote.
Part of the reason the AfD did not connect with even more of the electorate is the sense of relative contentment at the moment in much of the country. Many, although by no means all, Germans still see themselves as beneficiaries of globalization, with unemployment this year the lowest since the reunification of East and West Germany after the Cold War.
This factor was a big driver in Merkel’s return to power, and the key outstanding question now is who her right-of-center CDU and its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) — which collectively secured around a third of the overall vote according to official preliminary results — will enter into coalition with. This question may not be answered for weeks to come; in 2013, it took 86 days for the CDU-CSU to forge a deal with the left-of-center Social Democrats.
While key uncertainties remain, what is already clear is that the Social Democrats (which are led by former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz) will not join a new grand coalition with the CDU-CSU, and the AfD will not be invited. The Social Democrats had been hoping to make significant gains in Sunday’s elections, but the party’s campaign — centered on economic inequality and the increased poverty rate in Germany — failed to catch the public mood and it scored its lowest post-war total of just over 20 percent of the vote.
This means Merkel will need to look to other possible coalition permutations from the six parties who secured more than 5 percent of the vote and will thus have seats in the Bundestag. The most likely is a combination between CDU-CSU, the Greens and the liberal-orientated Free Democrats (FDP), but not the far-left die Linke party.
Amid the rise of the far right and the imminent wrangling over a new coalition, it is easy to forget that Angela Merkel is not only arguably the West’s most influential politician, but will soon have led Germany for almost as long as Otto von Bismarck.
If so, this will be welcomed by those elements of the UK government who believe that a CDU-CSU combination with the pro-business FDP could mean Germany potentially adopts a more sympathetic position to London in Brexit negotiations. Such a stance would be not be supported by Schultz, who looks likely to become the main opposition leader in the Bundestag; he cautioned on Sunday that the new German coalition must “not cede anything” to the UK over Brexit.
This underlines that the nature of the next coalition will matter for international politics, as well as domestic policy. And this is not just because Germany is the continent’s most populous country and largest economy, but also owing to Merkel’s influence and skills.
Although Merkel’s political status is diminished, potentially only temporarily, she remains the most important political leader in Europe, having been head of the CDU since 2000 and chancellor for a dozen years. Indeed, in the era of Donald Trump and “post-truth politics,” she has solid claims to being the most influential leader in the Western world too.
Should she now serve a full fourth term to 2021, she will match Helmut Kohl’s 16 years of office from 1982 to 1998 and surpass Konrad Adenauer’s service from 1949 to 1963 as Germany’s first post-war chancellor. In fact, a full fourth term would mean Merkel sat only behind Otto von Bismarck, who served for almost two decades from 1871–90 during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs, having helped drive unification of Germany.
To put Merkel’s achievements into wider international perspective, four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) and the same number of UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) have already served during her tenure. And Merkel has also already exceeded the previous record of Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest serving female leader which was 11 years.
Taken overall, Europe and the wider world are assessing the international ramifications of the rise of Germany’s far-right, and Merkel’s fourth term. While her re-election will mean much policy continuity, the precise implications will not be crystal clear until it becomes clear which parties she forms her next coalition with.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.