By Injae Lee
In the past year, the free world has stoically endured several elections and their unexpected results. Controversial and widely unpopular Donald Trump and his Republicans seized control of the U.S. presidency and Congress. Impeached South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s Liberty and Justice Party in Korea crumbled as Moon Jae-in and his opposition Democrats rode a wave of popular fury to securely capture the presidency and the National Assembly. Firebrand opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund Labour party, reinvigorated by Prime Minister Theresa May’s missteps, gave the Right Honourable and her Conservatives a bloody nose in the British snap election. Political novice Emmanuel Macron and his En Marche! movement seized the National Assembly and the executive office by landslide margins. All of these elections, and several more in the past year, rode on the waves of populism - on both left and right - that has rocked the globe. Perhaps weary of such instability, many hoped that the German election would provide a return to stability. In some ways, their hopes were fulfilled. The German election was a relatively quiet affair, and die Deutschen gave Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats both the largest share in the Bundestag and her mandate to rule once more. However, the promise of stability ends there. With a weakened presence in Parliament and the return of the far-right over seven decades after the fall of the Nazis, Germany, once a beacon of progress, sees its future clouded by uncertainty and fear.
For Angela Merkel, the election is her most impressive victory and her greatest defeat. The refugee crisis of 2016 almost tanked her political career, yet she survived, and Germany slowly began to accept and assimilate refugees. As the refugee crisis wound down, a more serious threat to Merkel’s chancellery rose-the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel’s Christian Democrat (CDU) party had controlled the government in the Bundestag only through a grand coalition with the second-largest party, the SPD. However, the Social Democrats, tired of constantly coming in second to their senior CDU partners, rebelled. Party members unanimously chose Martin Schulz, the charismatic former president of the EU’s Parliament, as their candidate for chancellor. Early polls showed Schulz and his SPD having a slight edge over Merkel and her CDU, and it seemed that the man could cause another tremor in the politics of the free world. Yet, as election day neared, the Social Democrats fizzled, faced with the awkwardness of criticizing the policies of the very coalition of which it is kingmaker. Schulz’s lackluster performance in his televised debate with Merkel did not help him either in securing control of the Bundestag, and when the polls opened on September 24th, the results were clear. Schulz and his Social Democrats suffered their worst result since the Second World War, garnering only 20% of the vote. However, Merkel and her Christian Democrats fared little better, winning only 32.5% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election and the worst result for the CDU since 1949. While Merkel has achieved an unprecedented fourth term as chancellor, cementing her legacy, the challenges she faces has left both her supporters and critics wondering what exactly that legacy will entail.
Merkel faces a tough term moving forward. The grand coalition that had handed her a majority has dissolved, with Schulz and his SPD now going into opposition. To further complicate matters, Merkel now faces an enemy thought to have been vanquished in Germany long ago--the far right. The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a far-right, anti-immigrant party, has entered the Bundestag as the third party, with 12.6% of the vote. While their influence is small, the very presence of the AfD is ominous - a party many have called “neo-Nazi”, riding the waves of anti-immigration and anti-globalization, has the power to topple yet another government. While all parties have openly ruled out working with the AfD, their presence could undermine Merkel’s agenda. Trapped between the SPD’s opposition and the AfD’s extremism, Merkel has but one option. The Chancellor has been forced into seeking what is known as a “Jamaica Coalition,” a coalition government between her Christian Democrats, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who have returned to the Bundestag after some time out of power, and the progressive Green party. The Jamaica Coalition is known as such because the colors of the three parties - black for the CDU, yellow for the FDP, and green for, well, the Greens - comprise the flag of the Caribbean island nation. However, while Jamaica is known for being cheerful and sunny, Merkel’s political future seems anything but. She may have weathered the populist storm better than the political establishment in fellow democracies, but as she moves ahead into a cloudy future, all eyes are on the infallible Chancellor to hold the tide, stay the course, and keep north.