At the beginning of September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger in Sunday’s parliamentary election, Social Democrat Martin Schultz, met for a TV debate. It was not an exciting event.
But it was an accurate reflection of an election campaign that has been lacking in both excitement and a dominating issue. There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement between the candidates, either at the debate or in general. Not surprising, then, that polls indicate Merkel is likely to be reelected to a fourth term, and her Grand Coalition of conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), will continue.
The only real change that Germans can expect after Sunday’s vote is the addition of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the parliament. This is cause for concern.
The right-wing populist party, which currently has no seats in the legislature, has been on the upswing, driven by extremely conservative visions and resentments against immigrants and other minorities. Given Germany’s past, for many years there has almost been an agreement among the electorate that no political party further to the right than Merkel’s should be in parliament. Germans are painfully aware of what happens when extremists are part of the government. This will now change — as will the political debate.
Consider that for the last two years, the AfD has continuously used racist and contemptuous comments regarding Merkel’s refugee policy, creating fears and manipulating the electorate with false allegations and information.
The rise of nationalism — especially after the refugee crisis, Brexit, and the election of President Trump — has also had an effect in Germany. Controversies are fiercer; the atmosphere in the society has darkened. You can almost feel the division, mostly between AfD’s supporters and the rest of the political spectrum. In addition, the distribution of fake news is eroding trust in traditional media. This is all on a smaller scale compared with what is happening in the United States, but still, it is changing the political and societal landscape in Germany.
Though the AfD was not represented in the debate, the four moderators devoted a conspicuously disproportionate part of the airtime to the refugee crisis and the tense relationship with Turkey — favorite subjects of the AfD to attract attention to itself. These are issues that don’t affect the vast majority of Germans. The important questions, such as the labor market or reforms of the social system, were hardly mentioned, though they are most relevant for Germany’s future.
Given the times and the world leaders whom the next chancellor must deal with — Trump and Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — Merkel is indeed the safe haven in stormy times. I would prefer a more progressive government for Germany, rather than another four years under a conservative party or the consensus policy of a Grand Coalition. Nevertheless, the status quo is better than more uncertainties — a thought shared by a lot of Germans.
I remember the evening of the Brexit vote, when many Germans went to sleep expecting that Britain would remain part of the European Union — and the shock the morning after. The reaction after the U.S. elections was similar. The expectation had been that Trump simply could not win.
This time, there will be no rude awakening. AfD members will join the parliament, and while that alone will increase the polarization within the country, no party is likely to form a coalition with them. That is one comforting thought going into election day. The conceivable coalitions that would form will not call for an exit from the EU. They will not expel refugees. Merkel’s steady hand will provide reassurance in a hysterical time. That is good.
Still, there is that 10 percent to 12 percent of the electorate that is expected to vote for the AfD. The party might come in third, which would make it the first party to speak in all parliamentary debates, following deputies of the ruling coalition partners. This should raise alarms in Germany. This party is relatively small compared with other right-wing movements in Europe, but given the German past, it is a shame and a threat.
And what if AfD’s share of the vote exceeds 12 percent? Are there people out there who have not revealed their support for the party when polled? This is something I try not to think about, especially with almost 40 percent of voters still undecided.
My one hope is that once AfD has power, it will fail when it comes to the daily political routine. Then its supporters will see that it’s one thing to give speeches and polarize the electorate, but quite another to govern and get something done. Then perhaps this party’s stay in the Bundestag will be short and easily forgotten in the not-too-distant future.