Beneath the stability of Merkel, the right and left roil Germany

Election posters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel stand at a main street in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. German elections will be held on upcoming Sunday. The slogan reads “successful for Germany.”
Election posters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel stand at a main street in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. German elections will be held on upcoming Sunday. The slogan reads “successful for Germany.” AP

For those looking to Germany for stability in transatlantic relations and world politics, there is good news and bad news in this Sunday’s elections.

In Germany’s parliamentary democracy, voters elect a new parliament, which in turn elects the chancellor. Angela Merkel, Germany’s stoic head of government since 2005, is practically certain to remain chancellor.

Against this appearance of stability, however, the election will likely lead to greater domestic political conflict and uncertainty, which in turn will complicate Germany’s relationship with the United States.

Merkel remaining chancellor is good news. It signals continuity and stability in Germany and beyond. As a fully committed Europeanist, she is heavily invested in Franco-German cooperation, the bedrock of European integration, and tends to prioritize building EU-wide support for foreign policy initiatives.

For the United States, this means having a reliable partner on the international stage whenever the U.S. and the EU can agree on the ends (even when they might agree to disagree about the means). And Merkel is strikingly good at forging an international consensus when it matters.

The bad news is that it’s far from clear what kind of government Merkel will be leading – and that the more complicated domestic politics after the election might constrain her international leadership.

Polls show with near certainty that there will be six parties with a substantial share of the seats in the new German parliament – more than at any time since 1953. Merkel’s conservative center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian affiliate, the CSU, are expected to get just under 40 percent of the vote. The center-left Social Democrats, for decades the other major party, are expected to get only about 20 percent of the vote this year. Four other parties are expected to get between 8 and 12 percent each.

Merkel could thus remain chancellor by continuing the coalition government with the now weakened Social Democrats, or she could lead a three-party coalition of her CDU/CSU with the free-market Liberals and the environmentalist Greens. Neither option is clearly preferable for Merkel, and with so many parties competing with each other, none of them will be in the mood to compromise on issues about which their voters care. It may therefore be several weeks after the election before we’ll know with whom Merkel will govern.

The composition of Merkel’s government will matter for policy. But for the United States, the election outcome to watch most closely might actually be the vote share for the two parties that will surely not be part of the next government: the “Left Party,” which advocates policies well to the left of Bernie Sanders, and the populist far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany (“AfD”). The stronger these two parties emerge from the election, the more Germany’s government will be preoccupied by domestic policy concerns.

Germany has long sought to ensure much broader participation in the gains from economic globalization, but globalization still has left a significant minority feeling marginalized or outright excluded. This has boosted support for the Left Party and its demands for greater economic redistribution, even if it comes at the cost of economic growth. The Left Party, which most directly competes with the Social Democrats and the Greens, will constrain the next German government’s ability to make any international commitments that might be seen as increasing domestic economic inequality.

Even more worrisome for Merkel will be the rise of the far-right AfD, which is expected to enter the national legislature for the first time. Its surge has been fueled by immigration, which AfD leaders have exploited in Trump-like fashion by playing on voters’ prejudices and fears. Moreover, unlike earlier, short-lived far-right parties in post-war Germany, the AfD and its populist-nationalist positions have gained the appearance of respectability by having several renowned former Christian Democrats among the party’s leaders. The CDU/CSU itself thus faces a serious threat on the right when it makes centrist compromises.

The focus on Merkel as chancellor, rightly interpreted as a sign of continuity and stability, is only part of the story. It will be counterbalanced and possibly undermined by increasing preoccupation with domestic politics and policy. And that, in turn, might complicate U.S.-German cooperation.

Tim Büthe is associate research professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He is writing from Germany, where he also holds the Chair for International Relations at the Bavarian School of Public Policy of the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Büthe can be reached at buthe@duke.edu.