On September 24, 2017 Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected to her fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. Despite the existence of multiple prominent parties, her only real opponent was Martin Schulz, whose polling numbers dropped substantially over the course of his campaign. Once a promising candidate, Schulz was soundly defeated, receiving barely twenty percent of the popular vote.
Germany has a multi-party system. Merkel, the leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), and Schulz, the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), have been faced with little competition from the other parties, which include the Left, Free Democratic Party (FDP), Greens and Alternative for Germany (AfD). In fact, the CDU and SPD were the only parties with more than ten percent of the vote until late in the campaign, according to polls, when the AfD advanced and only recently surpassed the ten percent mark.
Following Merkel’s victory in the early September televised debate with Martin Schulz, during which the two politicians spoke about refugee issues and foreign policy, it became evident that the Chancellorship belonged to Merkel. With the election only three weeks after the debate, Schulz could do very little to make up the lost ground.
Despite her election victory, Merkel will still have to deal with a liability: Alternative for Germany, the far-right populist party. For the first time in over 50 years this wing of German political thought will be represented in the German federal government. For a party to be represented, it must receive five percent of national vote, a threshold the AfD easily surpassed, obtaining 13.1% of the popular vote.
Merkel’s policies, specifically surrounding immigration and refugees, have been met with challenges by this far-right constituent base. For example, since the New Year’s Eve 2015 mass sexual assaults in Cologne, which were suggested by police to have been perpetrated by men of “Arab or North African” appearance, some among the German electorate have turned their backs on Merkel. Although no one was convicted, the attacks have been heavily analyzed in the international arena and opinions are split between seeing it as an isolated incident or it being the direct result of Merkel’s loose refugee policy.
Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigrant party, has been drawing increasing support since its founding in 2013. Those who believe the New Year’s Eve attacks were ultimately a result of Merkel’s actions find appeal in AfD’s radical ideals. Their rise is quite surprising due to the lack of popularity and support other European nationalist parties have attracted since the 20th century, especially with the condemnation of nationalism that resulted in the persecution and death of millions following World War II. In recent years, however, the focus on nationalism and anti-immigrant policy has been applauded by many due to the rise in terrorist attacks around Europe, including the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, and Germany taking on more of the burden of the European Refugee Crisis than its European counterparts. For comparison, by the end of 2016, Germany had over 600,000 refugees and 500,000 asylum-seekers, while France only had slightly more than 300,000 refugees and almost 63,000 asylum-seekers.
The AfD has been attracting young, educated voters who agree with the party’s Eurosceptic, nationalist agenda. Founded in support for European Union reform, the AfD has over the years moved its focus to anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic policy. Its party ideals often overlap with the German nationalist and anti-Islam political movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident), which formed in 2014, but AfD politicians often make the conscious effort not to associate with the extremely racist protest group. Along with its xenophobic rejection of Islam and immigration, AfD is a strong defender of the nuclear family, anti-abortion legislation, gender binarism and the protection of traditional, German culture.
AfD leaders Alice Weidel, a former businesswoman who is in a long term partnership with a female immigrant, and Alexander Gauland, a former CDU politician, are an interesting duo. Gauland has called for a ban on Muslims, much like American President Donald Trump, and Weidel has in the past found herself amidst scandal of sending racist emails or allegedly hiring illegal workers. It is not difficult to notice parallels between the scandals and criticism regarding the AfD and the current political climate in the United States.
Germany has a zero tolerance for neo-Nazi ideology. It remains to be seen if, during the next term, there is a resurgence in such radical, racist thinking, much like what has been seen in the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment, neo-Nazism, and nationalism across Europe and the United States,. If such an incident does transpire, how will the AfD react? Given Merkel’s past statements and condemnation of violence fueled by neo-Nazism, for example her calling the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville “absolutely repulsive,” there is no question what her response would be.
Although Alternative for Germany did not win the federal election this weekend, its far-right agenda has found appeal from a surprising swathe of individuals in the country, as indicated by their large vote share. Its presence in the German government is a problem in and of itself, and Angela Merkel will have to cope with the party in parliament during her next four-year term as Chancellor of Germany.