Protestations of Shock and Surprise about German Federal Election Results: Merkel – A Surprise Really?

by Prof. Reinhard Heinisch  

Protestations of shock and surprise in the German and international media about Merkel's "huge defeat" in the parliamentary elections are overblown and misplaced. Unlike the recent elections in the UK, the outcome of the German vote was neither a big surprise nor does it spell the end of Germany as we know it. The success of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is disheartening, especially its strong showing in Eastern Germany and the Southern state of Bavaria – in the state of Saxony it emerged as the largest party – but is no grounds for hysteria.

FIRST Chancellor Merkel was unlikely to run for yet another term in the future, so the election does not fundamentally limit her political career any more than other outcomes. SECOND, she ran a complacent feel-good campaign and was anointed as the inevitable winner months ago. Why should this have particularly mobilized her supporters? Moreover, the lackluster debate between her and her main challenger, the hapless Social Democratic candidate Martin Schulz, only exposed how similar the two main parties actually are and many voters just didn’t see much of a difference between them and thus turned to the alternatives. In fact, all smaller parties, Free Democrats (FDP), the Left, and Greens gained votes. The AfD benefitted the most from the combination of protest sentiment, the salience of the refugee issue, and the decidedly unenergetic campaign by the major parties. We also know that the AfD’S polarizing messages would resonate much stronger in Eastern Germany, given that the far-right PEGIDA movement practically originated there and that the AfD has done very well in regional elections in the East.

The outcome is also not a surprise because it was quite consistent with the polls. We should know by now that right-wing populist parties always do better in elections than in polling because of socially desirable responses among voters. The surveys suggested that in term of voter shares, the CDU was in the low to mid-30s whereas the AfD was expected to win around 10%. That they are now 3 percentage points higher than that should not come as a shock. The AfD is a significant challenge and the party will probably negatively impact the style of debate in German legislative politics. However, one shouldn’t fall into the trap of entrenching the emerging cleavage by labeling AfD’s voters summarily as extremists or “deplorable” but rather continue to expose the programmatic dearth of AfD’s program in policy item after policy item and not let them dictate the agenda. If taking up the agenda were to easily bring back voters, then the immigration-hawkish Bavarian CSU should have done much better. Moreover, one should not be fooled by the ongoing “turmoil” and “chaos” in the AfD or think, as suggested by many media, that this somehow weakens them or even threatens their future. Research on populist parties has shown that splits and divisions are a rather normal and reoccurring process, which makes such parties, in the end, more coherent and stronger. It allows them to position themselves better in the competitive political marketplace as they rid themselves of internal opposition. This enables populist parties to project aggressive polarizing messages and ambivalent claims without fear of dissent from within. The bigger problem for Merkel will be the formation of a coalition government. It is not immediately clear whether this will be possible at all. With the Social Democrats unavailable as a partner, the rather conservative Bavarian CSU, the liberal FDP, and the leftist Greens will have to find common ground. This seems to be almost an impossible task, especially since the voter base of each of these parties is likely to rebel if they were to make too many concessions to each other.