As expected, Madam Angela Merkel managed to secure a fourth-term as German Chancellor but the result was a far cry from her triumph four-years ago. Her party CSD (Christian Democratic Union) lost about 9 percentage points in vote share, bringing down their vote share to almost 33 percent which is their worst show since 1949. In a major shake-up, a record number of seven political parties secured seats in the Bundestag (the Lower House of the Legislature), including the extreme-right wing ‘Alternative for Germany’ or AfD. Merkel’s victory was expected but there are several challenges looming ahead for both Germany and the rest of the Europe.
Merkel’s victory is a reaffirmation of faith in Chancellor Merkel’s leadership. She has been a non-flashy and consensual leader, that is the style with which the German people are comfortable with. Due to the stepping back of other European leaders, Chancellor Merkel has emerged as one of the tallest leaders of the Europe, especially at a time of rising Euroscepticism and economic sluggishness. Despite her confidence and charm, she is facing the challenges of a fractured mandate and the rise of extreme-right wing nationalist parties in the German society.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 which spurred the Eurozone crisis and the Greek debt crisis, has been looked as the starting point of feeble-mindedness of the electorate in Europe, as the rise of right-wing populist parties gathered steam through it. The Ukraine crisis and the sectarian conflicts in the West Asian region (Middle East) which led to the refugee crisis, compounded the troubles in the shape of incorporation of xenophobic ideology in Europe. But as evident from the electoral results in France, Netherlands, Austria and now, Germany, the right-wing populist parties may be a political factor, but their influence in Europe may be overstated. The people in Europe have denied them a safety cushion to pursue their nationalist and xenophobic designs in their respective countries. It is also to be noted that the efforts by these right-wing populist parties to include the exclusionary political issues such as anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia into the mainstream political discourse was denied by any established political party in Europe. Despite this bright hope of European integrity, a gloomy picture in Central and Eastern Europe should not be forgotten (such as in Hungary and Poland) where these extreme-right wing parties have managed to secure overwhelming power for themselves. Therefore, the North-South, East-West divide in Europe needs to be bridged in future for the sake of Europeanism.
A noteworthy trend has been observed in the German elections where the extreme-right AfD has managed to increase its vote share not just in Eastern Germany, but in the West Germany too. This is a troublesome trend which has been witnessed since the Second World War. The so-called neo-Nazis who were confined to the East have managed to spray the seeds of their ideology to the West also which has motivated exclusionary trends in the otherwise peace-loving liberal region.
The combined vote shares of the radical left party (Die Linke) and the extreme-right wing AfD comes out to be about 22 percent, which is a significant portion of the German population. This radical ideology (of either left or right wing) is the result of the economic stagnation of the past decade which has pushed Europe to the extremes of a continuum. There are signs of economic recovery in Europe, particularly in Germany, hence, if this economic revival creates employment opportunities for the European population, these radical ideologies would peter out. In case of a longer gestation period for this economic recovery or failure of it to create employment opportunities for the people, then this combined vote share might increase and ultimately affect the political discourse of the mainstream political parties in Europe.
It would be unfair to blame the economic concerns alone as there are other issues such as immigration, identity crisis (perceived or real), flaws in the decision making of a democratic system (especially in Europe) and most importantly the idea of Europeanism as an elitist construct. For instance, when President Trump came into power, the US economy was not in complete doldrums, hence, we cannot single out economic issues as the prime target for the rise of these radical or extreme ideologies in a society. The general disaffection amongst our people is sensed by such forces and political capital out of it is made to build their own space in the existing system.
At the moment, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is the preeminent choice for Chancellor Merkel to stitch a coalition with. They have joined hands earlier too, so the bets are placed on this coalition again. But the support from FDP may not be enough for the CDU and it may also need support from the ‘Greens’ (Grüne). The Greens (pro-European and ecological friendly) may not be very comfortable with the partners of CDU i.e. the CSU (Christian Social Union) because of their conservative (right-wing) stance towards political issues. Madam Merkel is very efficient in building coalitions but running a coalition Government with divergent outlooks would be a test of her leadership.
With an improvement in the economic situation, social stability and the victory of pro-Europeanism in France and Germany, the path for upcoming institutional reforms in the European Union seems realistic now. There have already been discussions over a joint defence mechanism for the 27-member grouping (excluding Britain after Brexit), amalgamation of the position of President of European Council and European Commission into one, a common Economy Minister for the EU or at least for the Eurozone countries, more fiscal coordination, a common asylum policy within the Union and many other projects which were in limbo from the past decade might get a gentle push now. The road ahead for such integrative projects would not be smooth enough as they may invite friction from the Eurosceptic political forces. Despite such opposition, it is being hoped that these ambitious projects may see the light of the day in the next few years.
The clouds of uncertainty over Europe may be vanishing today but we cannot rule out future thunderstorms as the new sources of disaffection are building in the Mediterranean Sea, the issues of which have not been adequately addressed yet. The Franco-German alliance must focus on circumscribing the forces of Euroscepticism through increased economic cooperation, fast-tracking of institutional reforms and most importantly by bridging the North-South and East-West divide among the EU bloc.