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by Jamie Cater 25th September, 2017

A seismic shock or business as usual?

For an election so vital to the future of Europe, the election in Germany has commanded very little interest in the UK media until now. It is true that Angela Merkel’s fourth successive victory comes as a surprise to very few observers; she has had a substantial lead over her closest challenger, the SPD’s Martin Schulz, for some time and a conservative German electorate has favoured continuity and stability with ‘Mutti’ Merkel at the helm for another four years. However, commentators are now referring to the election outcome as a ‘seismic shock’ in German politics.

The story of the result is not in the re-election of the Chancellor but the success of the far-right AfD. With 13% of the vote, the party has slightly underperformed the expectations of some who were predicting a share of over 15% but has gained a foothold that reflects a frustration with the status quo in Germany. The liberal-minded FDP, who formed part of Merkel’s coalition after the 2009 election and were wiped out of the Bundestag in 2013, have also enjoyed a moderately successful election and will return to the heart of German politics again.

The nature of Germany’s grand coalition since 2013 – Merkel’s CDU (together with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU) and Schulz’s SPD – meant that support for third parties was almost an inevitability. Contributing to the lack of interest in the German election both among the electorate and overseas is the fact that four years of working together in such close proximity has led to a blurring of the differences between the two major parties, with few significant disagreements on substantive policy issues, particularly on Europe. Schulz, a former President of the European Parliament, was an impressive candidate on paper but failed to differentiate himself sufficiently from Merkel to look like her challenger rather than coalition partner. In this context, it is unsurprising that both the AfD and FDP have performed well and the SPD has fallen to such a low point, receiving its lowest vote share for 80 years.

The likely ‘Jamaica’ coalition that will be formed over the coming days between the CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens will not necessarily be an easy alliance, and it will be a challenge for Merkel to balance the interests of the parties invited into her government with some of the political forces that have led to the rise of the AfD specifically. With upwards of 80 seats in the Bundestag, the AfD will enjoy a prominence far greater than that which they have had until this point. Already the FDP have signalled a less liberal position on migration policy, and it is highly likely that Merkel could end up effectively backed into a corner on a policy area in which she may have felt she had weathered the storm.

Combined with this is the dissatisfaction of the CSU with the Merkel project. Tensions have been simmering between the CDU and more conservative CSU for some time, and this election result could be the moment where their differences become much more pronounced. The CSU has shed a large level of its support in this election and will be adding to the pressure on Merkel to shift rightwards on social policy in order to prevent further gains in popularity for the AfD and protect remaining CSU votes. This could add a further complicated dynamic into a three-way coalition with the FDP and Greens.

What does the result mean here in the UK? For the most part, very little will change; Merkel’s Germany remains in a dominant position in Europe and her election for a fourth term as Chancellor still represents more of a vindication of her politics than a repudiation of them. Apart from the 13% of the electorate voting for the Eurosceptic AfD, German voters remain in favour of European co-operation and Merkel is highly unlikely to change her position on the EU or Brexit in light of this result. However, pressure on policy with regard to Europe and migration, and the political instability of what could prove to be a highly fractious coalition, may make the Chancellor a less authoritative figure in Europe than previously.

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