Merkel Wins but Faces Heavy Odds in Congress

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BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 24: German Chancellor and Christian Democrat (CDU) Angela Merkel speaks to supporters while standing next to leading members of her party, following initial federal elections results. Die Mitte means "The Middle" in German.

On September 24th, 2017, Germany held their 19th federal election. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the plurality of the vote for the fourth cycle in a row, ensuring the reelection of incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel. Despite this victory, Merkel’s control over Germany remains tenuous. The CDU/CSU lost 65 seats in the Bundestag, the German equivalent to the House of Representatives. However, the greatest blow to Merkel’s power came from the second-largest party in Germany and her main rival: the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).

The political structure of the German Bundestag, on the other hand, is nothing like the U.S. Congress. Unlike our (predominantly) two-party system, one of which almost always wins an absolute majority in one or both houses, seats in the Bundestag are currently split among six different parties, none of which control more than 50% of the 598 seats. Therefore, the winning party must form a ruling coalition in order to reach the majority. For the past several election cycles, Merkel has allied her CDU/CSU with the SPD, giving the coalition roughly 65% of the Bundestag. However, Martin Schulz, the leader of the SPD and Merkel’s primary challenger for the chancellorship, announced last week that he would not agree to the so-called “Grand Coalition” between the two parties.

Without the support of the Social Democrats and in need of a strong ruling alliance, Merkel now faces a difficult choice. She must decide which of the remaining four parties to ally with in order to form a governing coalition. One popular choice, supported by political analysts and many of the German people, is a three-way alliance between the CDU/CSU, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Green Party, coined by proponents and critics alike as the “Jamaica Coalition” (due to the color schemes of the parties). Negotiations between the three parties are still underway, as this coalition has never been formed on the national level and compromises must be reached on numerous policy issues to ensure unity and stability within the ruling coalition. It would not be easy, however, for Merkel to govern a coalition of parties with such wildly differing political views. Although both the FDP and the Greens have expressed their support for joining Merkel’s coalition, the two frequently campaign against each other, and have opposing stances on many issues. If Merkel decides to pursue this alliance, she will have to convince these two rivals to put aside their differences and work together.

Despite all this turmoil within the Bundestag, the news that most shook Germany, and the world, was the staggering victory achieved by Germany’s far-right populist party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Only receiving 4.7% of the vote and therefore no seats in the Bundestag in 2013, support for the AfD almost tripled in this election, winning a plurality in the state of Saxony and making them the third largest party in Germany, ahead of both the FDP and the Greens. This marks the first time since its foundation in 1949 that a right-wing nationalist party has held seats in the Bundestag. AfD campaigned on a hardline anti-immigration and Eurosceptic platform, bitterly contrasting Merkel’s welcoming stance towards refugees and her prominent position within the European Union.

The success of the AfD mirrors similar anti-E.U. movements across Europe, such as Brexit in the U.K. and the campaigns of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders of France and the Netherlands, respectively. Their rapid growth since 2013 and expanding presence in the eastern states is deeply concerning for many Germans who see increasing similarities between the rise of the AfD and that of the Nazi Party in 1933. It remains to be seen how the country and its leadership reacts to this radical development. The next few months will set the tone for the future of German politics and could impact Europe for decades to come.