Whilst Brexit negotiations, snap General Elections and Trump’s latest blunder have been dominating British headlines in recent months, Germany’s media focus has been on its September federal election. With each lamppost, billboard and potential poster spot across German cities and rural villages alike pasted with multiple party adverts each attempting to sway the electorate, Germany headed to the polls on Sunday 24th September to elect their Bundestag representatives for the next four years. With a turnout of just over 75%, events of the globe and closer to home including terror attacks, the refugee crisis and political unrest and protests will have undoubtedly been at the front of every voter’s mind.
Despite being Chancellor of Germany since 2005, Angela Merkel’s support has been dented since her first term, with Sunday’s win a triumph for her party, yet the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) worst election result since 1949. With the CDU receiving 32.9% of votes in comparison to 41.5% four years ago, it’s clear pressing issues in Germany and the government’s handling of those have caused this visible decrease in Merkel’s supporters regardless of her success in securing a fourth term as Chancellor.
One of Europe’s most recognisable women…Merkel has been faced with a myriad of huge political, social and economic difficulties…
One of Europe’s most recognisable women and one of its strongest leaders, since becoming Head of State in Germany, Merkel has been faced with a myriad of huge political, social and economic difficulties including a global financial crisis, the issues caused by Brexit and perhaps most significantly for the nation, migration policy. From a rural childhood in the former German Democratic Republic, Merkel rose to power following a physics degree at the University of Leipzig, and serving as the Minister for Women and Youth in the newly reunified Germany, and previously as Environmental Minister. From here she served as secretary of the CDU for two years before moving up to lead the party and assume office as Chancellor in 2005, at the age of fifty-one.
Whilst some may regard the CDU as a conservative party, it has gradually moved closer to the centre of the German political spectrum. Stemming from the immediate post-war years, the Party is nestled firmly in Germany’s contemporary history. With its strongholds typically in the Southwest and West of Germany, Der Spiegel Online outlines the Party’s main principles, as following those of the social market economy and rejecting socialism, and which sees the government’s role as forming the building blocks for fair competition, low unemployment and social welfare. This year has also seen Merkel’s government take part in a conscience vote to legalise same-sex marriage (a strategic move which allowed Merkel to vote against it), with its outcome meaning Germany became the fourteenth European country to do so. However, it was Merkel’s response to the migrant crisis which has caused the most controversy and perhaps shifted the election results thus far.
Two years ago, with 2015’s growth in numbers seeking refuge and fleeing war, persecution and poverty, the number of migrants was putting an increasing strain on the EU. After the Hungarian government suspended travel from the main train station in Budapest, preventing asylum seekers boarding trains towards Western Germany, shortly, together with the Austrian government, the German Chancellor acted to ‘prevent a humanitarian crisis’ and formed a plan allowing refugees to enter Germany. Whilst many had their doubts, Merkel’s ‘Wir schaffen das!’ (we can do it!) became an often-heard phrase when faced with these doubts.
Yet, despite the humanitarian act, Merkel was faced with opposition. With concerns inside her cabinet and other EU countries anxious Merkel’s welcoming gesture would cause influxes for their nations too, despite requesting a quota to evenly distribute refugees, tensions and attacks on refugee accommodation rose as Merkel’s support fell. Following sexual assaults on hundreds of women on New Year’s Eve of 2015, with many suspected men described as being non-native Germans, populist movements spreading across Germany and Europe meant an increase in supporters of groups such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD/Alternative for Germany), Germany’s far-right party.
Fast-forward to the weekend’s vote and the surprising results and the picture they paint. The centre-left SPD, or Social Democratic Party, which traditionally, like Britain’s Labour Party, represents the interests of the working class and whose support mostly comes from the protestant Northern Germans, due to welfare cuts and formation of the Left Party in 2007, also saw a blow to its polling numbers. Despite its chancellor candidate’s pledge to bring in a German minimum wage, the SPD, the second-largest party, gained only 20.5% of votes, down from 2013’s 23%.
With Neo-Nazi rallies taking place mainly in the East of Germany, this part of Germany has seen a rise of the far-right, with Saxony’s results showing a majority of its constituencies with the AfD as the party with the most voters. AfD may only have been founded a few months before the previous election, but the Party’s highly controversial ideas include challenging the legality of Merkel’s migration policies, increasing border security, pushing back against more EU integration and wanting to alter the pension scheme and law and order. These drastic policies, among others, have faced criticism across Germany and further afield, yet have gained enough supporters to have polled as third party with 12.6% of votes, meaning the Eurosceptic AfD is to become Germany’s first far-right party to win parliament seats in nearly six decades.
For her supporters…there is surely a unanimous attitude towards dealing with far-right ideals and their increase; ‘wir schaffen das’.
The Greens, the Left, Free Democratic Party and others make up the rest of the results, with Merkel’s bittersweet victory meaning she now must form a coalition. With an AfD coalition unthinkable and still shy of 50% together with CDU’s figures, to gain the necessary half, a likely possibility is a CDU/CSU-SDP coalition, which may take several months to negotiate. For now, at least, despite having secured herself as Chancellor for another term, Angela Merkel now faces having to focus on addressing the rise of far-right voters, a task which her experience of more than a decade in office will no doubt be critical in helping her to solve. For her supporters and those who oppose populist movements, there is surely a unanimous attitude towards dealing with far-right ideals and their increase; ‘wir schaffen das’.