Merkel’s ‘Poisoned Victory’ Signals Change of German Party Elites

26.09.2017

The record low results of mainstream parties in the recent German parliamentary elections suggest that a generational shift must occur there, so that parties can adequately respond to voters' requests, believe participants in the Valdai Club expert discussion titled  “Germany, Europe and the World after the Elections to the Bundestag: What Will Change and How”.

Last Sunday, for the first time in Germany’s post-war history, the Bundestag became a six-party parliament with two parties, Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left (Die Linke), considered non-systemic and populist. Despite the formal victory of the CDU/CSU ruling bloc, which got 33% of the votes, the new prime-ministerial term is likely to be Angela Merkel’s last, participants in the expert discussion, held at the Valdai Club Conference hall on September 25, believe.

Mirko Hempel, Director of the Russian branch of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), identified four main results of the voting. First, this is a tectonic shift in Germany’s party system, an unprecedentedly high number of parliamentary parties for the last decades. Second, for the first time after WWII, a right-wing party (Alternative for Germany), got seats in the parliament. Third, the victory of Angela Merkel can be called “poisoned”, as both mainstream parties together lost 40% of the votes, a margin that seemed impossible before the election. Fourth, according to the expert, Germany is experiencing a double split in society: between those who approve refugee policy and those who are against it and between East and West Germany. According to Hempel, the main lesson of the past elections for the political class is that fears of the population need to be taken seriously, and the political class has not understood that “we who better what is good for you” does not work any longer.

The result of the Alternative for Germany should not be overestimated, Nikolai Pavlov, professor at the Department of History and Politics of European and American countries of the Moscow-based MGIMO University, believes. “AfD will be a pariah in the Bundestag,” he said. “This party cannot really influence policies.” According to Pavlov, in the medium and long term, the party will begin to lose influence if the voters’ sentiments are stabilized.

Hempel and Pavlov agreed that the vote for AfD was a protest action, as those who had voted for both mainstream parties now voted for it. In this regard, the question arises whether the leading parties are able to overcome this crisis of confidence. According to Pavlov, the Social Democrats lost largely because of the lack of a worthy leader. Frank-Walter Steinmeier would have been “an excellent candidate,” he said, but Chancellor Merkel, seeking to remove strong competitors from the rival party, contributed to his election as president of Germany, and he dropped out of the contenders for the role of the SPD leader.

According to Hempel, the SPD leader will be determined in the next 2-3 days. Meanwhile, the present party leader Martin Schultz said on Sunday that he does not intend to leave his post. “I have full support to lead the party,” he told the ARD channel.

As for CDU/CSU, it is obvious that the election results were a personal defeat for Chancellor Merkel, Pavlov said. According to the expert, this will be her last term as prime minister. The problem is that Merkel has not designated a successor and her position is in a way similar to the one in which Konrad Adenauer found himself to be: as the expert recalled, West Germany’s first chancellor was called a “spreading tree, under which nothing grows.”

In general, it is obvious that both leading parties need a generational shift so that they can adequately respond to voters’ requests, the experts said. The last election campaign was primarily aimed at people over 40, the next time it will not be possible to hold it in that way.

Much of the discussion was dedicated to Germany’s future foreign policy and, in particular, to relations with Russia. Pavlov stressed that the constants of German foreign policy have always remained unchanged. The first priority is the European Union, followed by the transatlantic relations, the Bundeswehr and peacekeeping, and only then, relations with Russia. According to the scholar, there will be no strategic changes on the Russian direction, no matter who becomes the foreign minister.

As he was speaking of Germany’s foreign policy, Hempel pointed to the need for a more pragmatic approach. “We need to refocus our foreign policy to other instruments: more dialogue, forming even temporary coalitions, which may be not possible to think of today,” he said. According to the expert, while the countries of the European Union are split on a number of issues, in particular, on the migrant problem, the Franco-German tandem cannot be expected to overcome all the crisis phenomena. “We need more instruments to react to crises,” he said.

Speaking of the Russian-German relations, Pavlov asked to remember that the Germans had abandoned classical bilateral diplomacy. In international relations, Germany acts as a member of the leading international organizations – NATO, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank – and not on its own. Russian diplomacy needs to keep this in mind, since attempts to reach bilateral dialogue have been unsuccessful. At the same time, it is obvious to all German leaders that security in Europe cannot be guaranteed without Russia or despite its will, the expert said.

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