Angela Merkel Won Reelection, But Is She Still the Leader of the Free World?

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Angela Merkel speaks to supporters after a debate on September 24, 2017. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Since Donald Trump moved into the White House in January, many hot takes and think pieces have dubbed German chancellor Angela Merkel the new leader of the free world. This sentiment, echoed over the weekend by Hillary Clinton, reflects the high regard in which American and European liberals hold Merkel: for her statesmanship, for her steadfast rejection of racist and authoritarian approaches to the threat of terrorism, and particularly for her open-door policy toward refugees.

That policy, for better and for worse, has become Merkel’s defining issue. It was a calculated risk from the start, and though she managed to eke out a fourth term in Sunday’s federal election, the backlash was felt both in her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party’s unexpectedly weak showing and in the frighteningly strong performance of the far-right, explicitly xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Leaders of the AfD, which came in third place with 13.5 percent of the vote and will seat Germany’s first nationalist parliamentarians in six decades, are jubilant at their big win, telling supporters they plan to “hunt” Merkel from their perch in the Bundestag and “reclaim our country and our people.” The party had run a distinctly Trump-like campaign: lobbing rhetorical bombshells toward Germany’s immigrant communities, going to war with the media, and suggesting that Germany stop feeling ashamed of the crimes of the Nazis. Like Trump, they remain pariahs among the political class, but they know how to work that to their advantage.

The AfD’s outrageous tactics paid dividends largely because German democracy is suffering the same malaise as its American, British, and French cousins: Voters are increasingly disillusioned with the “elites” of the mainstream parties and are grasping at alternatives as much to protest the Establishment as out of real ideological conviction. While the CDU lost votes to the AfD, so did its traditional center-left rival the Social Democrats, which took under 21 percent of the vote: its worst showing in postwar history.

Yet there is no denying that the anti-immigrant, culture-war message of the AfD resonated on its own terms. It did particularly well in eastern Germany, where residents are poorer and more amenable to the depiction of immigrants as a threat to their livelihoods (and which has a shorter history of liberal democracy and anti-fascist culture than the rest of the country). Like other far-right parties in Europe today, it ran on an outspoken platform of Euroskepticism, opposition to immigration, and fear of cultural dilution. Even if most of the votes it won were protest votes, as Politico’s chief Europe correspondent Matthew Karnitschnig contends, it’s hard to imagine that these voters did not know what kind of people they were voting for.

Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, is considerably more worried than Karnitschnig, writing at the Washington Post that the election reveals “distressing attitudinal shifts … within German society.” In particular, she points to signs that more Germans than voted for the AfD agree with some of its positions on immigration and the country’s approach to its past. To the extent that these attitudes are indeed resurgent in Germany, it draws strength by being the only party advocating the “politically incorrect” position on these issues.

The other indication that immigration really was the issue that won the AfD seats in the Bundestag is that German voters really don’t have much else to complain about: That’s why this election was supposed to be boring. The economy is strong and stable, with the unemployment rate at 3.9 percent. Merkel is as unbesmirched by scandal as a head of state can be after 12 years in office. The E.U.’s approval rating in Germany, never particularly low, rebounded since Brexit in the latest polling from Pew.

Yet while 68 percent of Germans told Pew they held a favorable view of the union, 59 percent disapproved of its handling of the refugee crisis. Other polling shows that the German public is consistently welcoming of immigrants in principle, but concerned about their country’s capacity to absorb more refugees, as well as the migrant crisis’s impact on security and German ways of life. A series of terrorist incidents, including last December’s ISIS-inspired truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people, undoubtedly helped the AfD persuade voters that immigrants from the Muslim world were a liability.

Even Syrian refugees themselves acknowledge that their presence is a big part of the reason Merkel lost so much ground in this election, and while they are relieved at her victory, they find the success of the AfD deeply unsettling (as do Jews), and fear that the election results will prompt the government to tighten immigration controls further to appease the nativists. Politico’s Karnitschnig expects Merkel to also take a harder line on other European countries like Poland and Hungary that have refused to take in their share of refugees, leaving Germany to shoulder the burden of a massive influx.

Whatever Merkel’s plans may be for the next four years, she will likely have a hard time enacting them. The CDU’s weak showing, combined with the SPD’s announcement that it will not form another grand coalition with its traditional rival, will likely force her to cobble together a similarly uncomfortable government with the Green party and the neoliberal Free Democrats, whose competing agendas will tie her hands in many ways. Even for an extremely talented politician like Merkel, such a scenario likely dooms bold initiatives like the eurozone reforms she and French president Emmanuel Macron have been exploring.

The AfD’s success on Sunday also gives pause to those among us who had hoped that the tide of right-wing populism in Europe was abating after nationalists failed to take power in the Netherlands and France earlier this year. The celebration of those defeats was premature to begin with, as neither of those elections delivered a slam-dunk victory for liberalism. Sunday’s outcome is a sobering reminder of how easily fear can drive success for this brand of politics, even in a country as attuned to the dangers of xenophobic nationalism as Germany. It also illustrates the power of jihadism to influence the politics of European societies and animate their most self-destructive impulses.

Clearly, we haven’t seen the last of Europe’s new far right, and as Merkel plots the closing act of her remarkable premiership, the task she faces is to make and win the argument against them. Hopefully, Germany and Europe are not too far gone to hear it.

Is Angela Merkel Still the Leader of the Free World?