by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, October 29, 2017 — This September, all eyes were on Germany as the republic’s citizens elected a new federal parliament (Bundestag). Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and its sister party with whom it governs in the Bundestag, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won 32.9 percent of the popular vote. While Merkel will serve a fourth term as chancellor, it was her party’s worst showing in federal elections since 1949.
While the CDU/CSU faltered, the extreme right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made significant gains, garnering 12.6 percent of the public vote and receiving the third largest volume of votes cast. The next government will likely be a coalition between the CDU/CSU, Free Democrat (FDP) and Green parties, informally called the “Jamaica coalition.” (The parties’ respective colors are black, yellow – recently changed to magenta — and green, the same colors of the Jamaican flag). The SPD has chosen to enter the opposition.
On October 19, historian Paul Lerner (University of Southern California) moderated a panel discussion at the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies featuring Nico Lange, current director of the Washington office of the political foundation/think tank Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and former political consultant to Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, and Consul General of Germany in Los Angeles Hans Jörg Neumann, former ambassador of Germany to Benin.
The panelists discussed coalition building and compromise in the German parliament, the legacy of Merkel’s immigration policy and the impact of the AfD on German politics. Lange and Neumann agreed that German politicians’ skills in coalition building, together with the social imperative of stability, would produce a working coalition government, but not before the new year.
Merkel’s decision to accept roughly a million migrants in 2015 has created splits within both the CDU/CSU and the SPD and gave the AfD an issue to run on. Although populist parties will remain active during the long period required to integrate the migrants into German society, the speakers concurred that the AfD was riven by conflict and represented a protest vote.
The changing ground of party coalitions
“We do not have the same phenomenon of ‘left versus right’ which the United States has,” where everything the other side says is wrong,” said Hans Jörg Neumann. “In the United States it is often so hard for politicians to compromise, but that is not the case in Germany. Our system is built on compromise.
“Politicians in Germany often negotiate coalitions at many levels,” said Neumann, pointing out that the state, or Länder, governments, often consist of coalitions that differ greatly from the federal coalition. He was confident that there would be no issues in forming a new federal government.
“In 1976, if you were Catholic, we knew you would vote for the CDU, if you were in a trade union you would probably vote for the left, [while] an entrepreneur would likely vote for the right,” Lange said. “This is no longer the case. Voters change their minds all the time in Germany, where there are not two but four — or even six — options to vote for."
“There have always been several parties in the Bundestag, and the formation of grand coalitions has moved many of those parties closer to the center,” explained Neumann. “Even though there are many differences between the parties’ agendas, there is so much common ground to be found that it is fairly easy to form a functional local, community and even federal government,” he said. Nico Lange concurred, observing that coalition building in Germany is led by the idea that “political stability is the most important thing to German citizens.”
“The usual party combinations are not possible anymore,” said Lange. “It’s very interesting for German leaders, who need to find creative solutions and form new coalitions to execute their agendas.”
The expected coalition signifies a shift on the part of the Green and FDP parties, said Lange, who usually form the opposition, while the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — a partner in the CDU’s current governing coalition — has opted to join the opposition in hopes of “rebooting” the party’s image. “The SPD now has the chance to reinvent itself separately from the CDU,” said Neumann.
Anxiety, infighting and the rise of the AfD
Previously unrepresented at the federal level, the AfD now holds 94 seats in the Bundestag in addition to various offices at the Länder level.
“[The AfD] does have seats in 12 regional parliaments, which is noteworthy. But they are constantly fighting among themselves and have very little influence,” said Neumann. “Compare their presence in the Bundestag to the extreme right’s presence in the governments of France, Austria or the Netherlands, and this is a small percentage." He urged the audience and the German public not to overestimate the power of the AfD, saying many people had voted for it out of protest.
Lange was reluctant to call the AfD a right-wing party, saying, “Sometimes with European populist parties, it can be very difficult to distinguish left from right. The AfD is very strong with former Green voters in the eastern Länder, as well as many [voters] throughout Germany who previously voted for the far left,” he said.
The think tank director observed that the AfD had served as a “vacuum cleaner that took up protest votes” from both left- and right-wing voters dissatisfied with the German federal government’s handling of immigration, and warned against speaking too broadly about its supporters “You can label certain people in the party [as extremists], but if you label everyone who voted for them as such, you will only get more protest,” Lange said.
Paul Lerner, Nico Lange and Hans Jörg Neumann at the UCLA Center for European
and Russian Studies on October 19. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.)
Migration and the sea change in Germany
“The core issue in this election was always migration: the fear of people who are different,” said Lange. He noted that with the exception of the AfD, the other parties largely ignored the immigration issue during the campaign. This allowed the AfD to push its “us vs. them” narrative and mobilize a large number of voters, he explained.
“Germany can certainly handle one million immigrants — it is ridiculous to think that [this] number would cause chaos,” Lange said. “The problem itself is certainly solvable, but the perception is that there was no unity and the government was not able to handle this, and this perception was reflected in the election results.”
One topic has dominated the discourse on Merkel’s time in office: immigration. “[Merkel’s decision to increase immigration] has shaped the future of Germany forever,” Neumann said. “This makes some Germans afraid and causes them to question these changes, while others see it as amazing.”
“There is no quick fix to the issue of immigration," said Lange. “It will take years, many partners and it is very complicated.” Because of this, he speculated populists and protest voters would continue to “harass the political system” for the foreseeable future. “In [order to address immigration properly], we will have to address the question of what it means to be a German citizen,” said Lange, predicting a debate and a new law on immigration that will define what it means to be German and how to "become German."
“Migration policy discussion must lead to security policy discussion in the European Union,” insisted Lange. “If you want to create conditions where immigrants can return home, it’s not about changing conditions in Germany. You have to discuss the situation in Iraq and Syria, and how to address violence in immigrants’ home countries. Otherwise, the problem is never solved.”
Neumann reflected that Merkel’s decision had permanently changed German politics. “No matter what we do, it’s quite clear that we have to integrate these people,” he said. “We have to do our best to not have a situation like London or Paris, where there are too many segregated neighborhoods — these immigrants... are here to stay,” he concluded.
Relations with Europe and the U.S.
Because Merkel’s political position has been weakened, Neumann believed that she will have to focus her energy more on internal rather than European matters. While her loss of support is troubling to many in the European Union, the consul general was confident that the CDU/CSU’s coalition partners, as well as many of Germany’s opposition parties, remain pro-EU. “We will continue to support the European idea and European unity — which is more important than ever,” he asserted.
The diplomat went out of his way to emphasize that the U.S. remained a very important partner for Germany. “We know that the United States is the most important partner for us and we need [it to] influence trade and politics," he said. “No matter who is in the White House, in California, in cities and in many other places all over the United States, Germany is making sure this transatlantic relationship will continue.” Nevertheless, he foresaw difficulties in the U.S.-Germany relationship on such issues as climate change, free trade and a vision of the global future.
Neumann was confident that the chancellor would have a successful term. “Merkel has been very important for her party. She has changed the CDU and its perception quite a bit. She has made it a party that, even if one is not a fan, [one] still says Mrs. Merkel does a good job,” he commented.