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Germany's Merkel squeezed by populists' rise at the ballot box

John MacDougall, AFP | A protester holds up an anti AfD sticker during a protest outside an election night event of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Berlin after the general election on September 24, 2017.

The anti-immigration AfD party’s success at the ballot box was hard for some Germans to swallow. It also put Chancellor Angela Merkel in a delicate position as she explores her coalition options.


Silence. In the great hall of Cologne’s former city hall, the announcement of German general election results on Sunday – and in particular of the success of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) -- left everyone speechless. “What do you expect, we’re in shock,” whispers Jenny, a 27-year-old Cologne resident who cast a vote for the left.

The AfD enters the lower-house Bundestag with a flourish and 93 lawmakers. Merkel’s certain fourth term as chancellor, the Social Democrats’ debacle (with the SPD earning only 20 percent of the vote), the pro-business FDP’s strong showing -- all of that was swept aside by the populist far-right movement’s historic score. “The campaign was dull, but the results are full of surprises; unfortunately, the biggest of them is the AfD,” says Georg, 59, who voted CDU.

‘Populist virus’

A surprise? Not really. “It’s true that we had expected a strong score, but to see it on the screen, and especially so high, it’s still striking,” says Steffen, 34.

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Everyone chips in with their own interpretation. “It’s a lack of education on the part of the voters,” says Hans, a lifelong environmental activist. “The big parties didn’t manage to listen to what the voters were telling them,” says Sabrina, a 19-year-old student who wouldn’t say who won her vote. For Marc, 44, Germany “was contaminated by the same populist virus as the United States or Great Britain. Today, people who are fed up say it with a right-wing vote rather than a left-wing one.” He adds, shaking his head, “The problem is that it is happening here and, when a party like that has success in Germany, we worry more for historical reasons”.

But the observers pull themselves together quickly and turn to the future, if apprehensively. “The AfD’s success is above all a danger for our democratic system because now Angela Merkel is stuck,” posits Steffen. The CDU is certainly not going to ally with the AfD to form a government. Alexander Gauland, the populists’ co-leader, set the tone in his very first speech: “We are entering the Bundestag to do battle with Merkel”.

The ‘Jamaica’ option

But the traditional grand coalition (CDU and SPD, partnered as they had been since 2013) is out of steam. The Social Democrats are tired of playing second fiddle in the government without benefiting electorally. Their candidate, Martin Schulz, appeared determined not to repeat that experience.

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The dominant party in such a scenario would generally look to pursue the third-place finisher. But with the AfD in that slot after Sunday’s vote, it is impossible this time around and the CDU will have to look even further down the list for coalition partners. The only solution left is what Germans call the Jamaica coalition (black-yellow-green, the respective colours of the CDU, the FDP and the Grünen, or Greens). Mathematically, it is a possibility. Together, the three parties have the absolute majority of the Bundestag’s 690 seats.

“This sort of alliance has already worked at the regional level in Hesse and in Baden-Württemberg, for instance,” notes Reimut Zohlnhoefer, a German political analyst.

But the national level is another story. “It could come to an agreement, but I don’t think that alliance can hold on for four years [the duration of a term],” says Jenny.

So the toughest part is still to come, unless the SPD changes its mind about taking a break in the opposition. Meanwhile, Georg sighs, “The AfD will have access to public funds because the party is entering parliament. It’s going to have our money!”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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