If a week is an awfully long time in politics, then the next four years might become an agonisingly long drag for Germany’s establishment. Former allies have turned into foes on a sixpence; political certainties taken for granted for years have been scrubbed away in weeks. Politics is the ultimate game of futurology: a matter of hours is all that separates leaders from making a sensible or a foolhardy decision before the window of opportunity closes for good. Angela Merkel cannot afford another foolhardy decision — the direction of her country and, perhaps, the Western world as we know it, depends on her.
Her party might have won a fourth mandate from the electorate to form a government, but never has their support been quite so underwhelming. A 9% swing away from the Christian Democrats typifies the crumbling faith in a leader whose attention has often focussed outwards beyond Germany’s borders and calmly away from those who caused her too much disagreement. In a country torn ever further apart over controversial topics such as migration and national pride, Mrs Merkel’s policy of waiting out dissent has finally seemed to run out of steam.
You can’t deny that Mrs Merkel could have it worse — she could be a Social Democrat. After their voter share crumbled, the SPD’s accelerated irrelevance has never been clearer; Mrs Merkel’s dominant political presence and the difficulties of attacking a government in which the SPD had been junior partners quickly ended their desires on the Bundestag. Not even a universally-respected Martin Schulz (parachuted in after the resignation of Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel) could lead an SPD with little direction, a crumbling support base, and ever fewer claims to represent the people. Whilst social democratic parties have suffered similar fates across Europe, the SPD’s loyalty to the coalition-style nature of German politics has given them all of the toils and none of the spoils.
At least Mrs Merkel was able to use her record to her advantage — something that should have been her largest asset. The only European economy to ride out the Great Recession, Germans have enjoyed lower unemployment, lower living costs due to a Eurozone extremely favourable to German economic interests, and a powerful manufacturing industry training thousands of young school-leavers every year. Germany was at the top table in global organisations. It held a commanding hand in Brexit negotiations, carried weight in talks with Russia, recently sat eye to eye with the United States. In short, it seemed that the Germans had ‘never had it so good’.
And yet the right-wing anti-establishment Alternative for Germany (AfD) now commands almost a hundred seats in the Bundestag. Almost a hundred eurosceptics in a Eurozone made in their country’s image; almost a hundred critics of mass immigration in a country economically dependent on settlers from across the world (Germany’s population is ageing and stagnating); almost a hundred patriots in a nation seemingly content to forego the complicated trappings of national pride that afflicts nations such as the United States and France. One wonders what made Germans vote so sharply against their instincts — or whether the German establishment ever knew their electorate’s instincts at all?
The op-ed consensus seems to be a mix of a deep suspicion of globalised society and a creeping fear of large-scale cultural and social change following Mrs Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis. This is particularly exacerbated in the formerly communist East. Neo-Nazism flourished in a society unaccustomed to multiculturalism; communities were dismantled by a globalised West picking apart the scraps of the de-nationalised East German economy. Given the extraordinary speed of change forced upon East German society in the three decades since reunification, desperate attempts to cling onto the known are understandable.
But the AfD’s popularity rose westwards too. The Christian Democrats’ Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Unionists, haemorrhaged support in the state to the AfD; the Leftists and the Social Democrats also saw thousands of votes leave them towards the anti-establishment party. People felt undefended and let down by parties that were too preoccupied by globalisation and Germany’s place in the world to be concerned with what being German meant to them. A satisfyingly short soundbite from a voter in the New York Times succinctly described mainstream politics as a ‘uniform mushiness’.
And so Mrs Merkel faces that familiar dilemma: an electorate dangerously split down the middle over the very nature of its society. In Germany’s case, its complicated past raises eyebrows at any attempt to truly move on from its past — fairly or unfairly. In a country so committed to commemorating the lives of Nazism’s victims and atoning for the sins of their political ancestors, Mrs Merkel cannot be seen to embrace patriotism too tightly — she would make a great many enemies both inside and outside of the German political establishment. However, where the pace of social change has accelerated to a speed unreachable by many Germans, all levels of German society must come together to talk through its shared values as a diverse twenty-first century power. Difficult truths on all sides must be aired before bottling them up turns disillusionment into rage.
As we’ve seen so clearly in the causes leading up to Brexit and the Front National’s relative success in 2017’s French elections, the submission of a national identity to ill-developed but widescale political decisions only makes a ‘marginalised majority’ more likely to lash out. As an inwardly suspicious West watches on in eager anxiety for a cue, this question may come to define not just the near-future of Germany, but of the Western world itself. In the short time she has left to establish her country’s next government, Mrs Merkel’s focus must be firmly fixed on the uncomfortable consequences of her decisions on all sections of society. All of the eyes of the world will be on her as she takes her country’s next tentative step along the tightrope.