Germany’s hollow political establishment pays the price

Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel shake hands on election night
Martin Schulz (L) and Angela Merkel – the German election’s two big losers (source: dpa)

The CDU/CSU under Chancellor Angela Merkel has again emerged from Sunday’s general election as Germany’s strongest party. The victory looks more like a crushing defeat, however, as its 33 percent support in the early returns would be the party’s worst result since 1949. The CDU/CSU’s partner in the grand coalition, the Social Democrats, fared just as poorly, polling 20.5 percent, the lowest in their postwar history.

This was to be expected. Both parties had little in the way of vision to offer the voters. The much-publicized debate between Ms. Merkel and SPD leader Martin Schulz was a totally empty exercise, showing little real difference between the two candidates. This was because both were careful to avoid staking out clear positions while trying to cater to everybody.

Lacking a positive program, both mainstream parties tried to create a bogeyman to scare voters, turning denigration of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) into their main issue.

The AfD was founded in 2012 by a group of free-market economists critical of the way the euro area handled its fiscal crisis. While the original party leadership was very sensible and ideologically neutral, Ms. Merkel immediately branded them as right-wingers. As a result, the original founders were ousted, and the AfD turned rather nationalistic. Now, with 12.6 percent of the vote, it will be the third-largest party in parliament.

If the major parties avoid taking positions and muddle their programs to seduce the voters, democracy fails

Some very good news is the return of the liberal FDP to the Bundestag with a 10.7 percent result. Whether they end up in the ruling coalition or the opposition, the Free Democrats can be counted on to defend sound economic policy.

Democracy thrives on the cut and thrust of political debate. If the major parties avoid taking positions and muddle their programs to seduce the voters, democracy fails.

New situations

The AfD’s success does not mean that Germans have become nationalistic, populist or antidemocratic. It is a sign of popular frustration with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. Both parties have abandoned their principles in favor of expediency, as became painfully obvious during the Merkel-Schulz debate. The Christian Democrats have abandoned Christians, and the Social Democrats have betrayed working people, both blue-collar and white-collar.

The AfD, with its 12.6 percent support, poses no threat to democracy. It can rather be seen as an opportunity to make Germany’s parties stick to their principles. The real danger to German democracy and to the rule of law is the lack of courage, vision and statesmanship in the country’s two establishment parties.

Interesting coalition talks will be forthcoming. These negotiations might be the biggest challenge of Chancellor Merkel’s long career. Failure cannot be excluded. This possibility could create unexpected new situations, which might not necessarily be a bad thing.

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