Nazis in the Bundestag? Not quite. Yes, Beatrix von Storch, granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister and shooting at illegal refugees believer, is coming to Berlin alongside other Alternative for Germany (AfD) MPs. The tweed-swaddled party leader Alexander Gauland is coming too. He argued that the federal integration minister should be sent back to Turkey, using a verb implying trash. Björn Höcke, the party leader in the state of Thuringia, will not be going to Berlin, however. In January Höcke described Germany’s post-WWII atonement as “re-education” and the national holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame.
The AfD won the former East’s most populous and wealthiest state, Saxony, over Merkel’s CDU. There, the two major parties, the conservative CDU and the centre-left SPD, who together have formed Merkel’s coalition since 2013, won a combined vote share of less than 38 per cent, lower than anywhere else in the country. Yes, amidst the economic and social alienation that the Ossis feel vis-à-vis the more prosperous West, the AfD took advantage.
But that isn’t the whole story. 60 per cent of AfD voters said they were voting against the other parties rather than for the AfD. In one poll, 67 per cent of the electorate reported satisfaction with the other parties, a high figure considering the state of liberal democracy globally. The Economist’s German politics columnist recently termed the AfD “a giant bundle of mutual resentment, tension and instability.” In fact, the party’s former leader, Frauke Petry, the day after the election declared that she wouldn’t be sitting with the party in the Bundestag. Later, she resigned from the party entirely.
Since early last year, it’s become clear that no one knows who’s in charge or what the party’s vision of itself is. Certainly, it’s an ineffectual mess. Though disquieting as the AfD’s third place finish is, the election question you should be asking has nothing to do with Nazis: what does Jamaica have to do with German politics?
“Coalition” is a dirty word in Britain. Reactions to the very idea don’t vary in their negativity. In Germany, they are a welcome necessity. This time, however, it’s going to be different.
In the summer, when the idea of an unprecedented federal Jamaica coalition, made up of the CDU (black) plus the pro-business FDP (yellow) and the Greens, was brought up, the Bild, Germany’s equivalent to The Sun, featured an illustration of a beanie-wearing Chancellor in dreads. Brits may think of Germans as dour efficiency-freaks, but their tabloids aren’t that dissimilar.
Now, Jamaica is the only feasible choice after the SPD declared itself the opposition party after a historically dismal result. And if the Bild was predicting some craziness surrounding the coalition talks, they were right.
The CDU’s more conservative Bavarian offshoot, the CSU, is insisting on an upper limit of asylum acceptances in an appeal to the conservative base ahead of state elections next year. The Greens and the FDP are steadfastly opposing such an idea. Between the Greens and the FDP, flashpoints await on whether and how to phase out coal, petrol and diesel. This all seems to leave the Chancellor as the unwilling circus ring-master. But if you look closer, once again, that isn’t quite the case.
One really has to understand what all these squabbling parties actually want. Since 1949, the CSU has ruled Bavaria for 65 of those years, 51 of those alone, a singular achievement among German states. Possessing this enviable position makes them rather protective of their majority and ruthlessly pragmatic in keeping it, and so, they would be expected to apply this oft-used technique to the coalition talks, as they have before.
During the election campaign and since, the FDP and the Greens have been portrayed as fundamentally mutually-antagonistic. But at their heart, the two parties were after the same voters: metropolitan, socially-liberal, educated sushi-eaters. Different priorities, different conceptions of the state’s role, but broadly appealing ideas targeted at a particular segment of German society, who want both the FDP’s promise of entrepreneurialism and digitalisation and the Greens’ promise of an innovative green economy. They are different parties with different internal dynamics and histories, but a federal coalition involving them could occur in the right circumstances, which are at hand.
In many ways, Angela Merkel epitomises the essential nature of German politics; consensus-building and ever pragmatic. But the current coalition of the CDU and the SPD has taken these characteristics to the extreme.
They have been in coalition with each other for eight of the last 12 years. The governments they have formed have been boring, even by German standards, in their cohesiveness and lack of ambition. A sizeable chunk of AfD voters simply wanted to register their dissatisfaction with the sleepy norm. As Germany’s mammoth car industry seeks to move into an electric future and away from scandal, as a reforming France reaches out, seeking a partner willing to further European integration, as Russia and North Korea pose uniquely vexing challenges, the time is nigh for a German government that doesn’t simply putter along.
Only someone like Mutti could forge a Jamaica coalition and only the SPD can provide a constructive opposition beside the provocateurs of the AfD. The rise of the AfD is worrying, as is the prospective instability of Jamaica, but then again, German politics needed a kick in the behind. Nonetheless, the business of governing the nation at the heart of Europe continues.