Surprise! In American journalism, Sunday's election in Germany was portrayed as an inevitable and well-deserved triumph for Angela Merkel. After all, didn't she more or less singlehandedly set out to shut down Germany's nuclear power plants after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan? And didn't she generously hold out the welcome mat to 1 million "refugees" supposedly from Syria, many of whom were actually economic refugees from Bangladesh, Yemen, Mali, and multiple points in between?
For many journalists, these were admirable decisions, though taken with minimal or no consultation with either German parliamentarians or state governments or with the European Union. Left out of the laudatory notices was the fact that shutting down Germany's nuclear power plants has meant increasing its carbon dioxide emissions (including from U.S.-produced coal) and that the "refugees" allowed inside Germany have produced very many violent crimes while contributing very little economically.
Against these irresponsible and high-handed decisions, Merkel has a reputation (deserved, so far as I know) for adept political maneuvering and for backing economic policies that have served Germany and much of the rest of Europe well; those policies include the entitlements and labor market reforms initiated by the Social Democrats. She has had only minimal opposition as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (although some in its Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union are miffed with her).
Yes, Merkel did win Sunday, and she will remain chancellor as a result. But if the first exit polls are anything like correct (as they were in Britain this year, but not in France), she had a weak showing. It pegs the CDU/CSU percentage of the popular vote at 33 percent, the lowest since federal elections began in 1949. Even worse was the performance of the SPD, the world's oldest socialist party, founded in the late nineteenth century. SPD, which has been the CDU/CSU's governing coalition partner the last four years, got only 21 percent, below the 23 and 26 percent it has won in the last two elections in 2009 and 2013.
It's worth asking if the SPD, which led German governments in 1969-82 and 1998-2005, counts as a major party anymore. Altogether, it looks these two putatively major parties won just 54 percent of the popular vote, as compared to 67 to 77 percent on three of the four elections between 2002 and 2013 (the exception was in the election in the recessionary year of 2009).
What about the smaller parties? The Free Democrats, who generally stand for something like free market economics, seem to have gotten 11 percent, more than double their 4.8 percent in 2013 when their failure to meet the constitutional 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. For many years the FDP effectively decided whether the CDU or the SPD got the chancellorship, for which the much smaller FDP received the award of the foreign ministry. In retrospect, these decisions and those ministers look respectable, but the history raises questions about proportional representation systems that their advocates attempt to parry. Why is it fair — more democratic — that a party with about 10 percent of the vote often gets to determine which of two parties with much greater support heads the government?
The SPD says it will not join Merkel and the CDU/CSU in a coalition government, which is understandable if only because that didn't work out politically for them. In that case, since German parties that meet the 5 percent threshold get representation proportional to their popular vote in the Bundestag, Merkel must find not just one, but two other parties with which to form a government.
One obvious choice is the FDP. And the inevitable other choice is the Greens, who appear to have won 9 percent of the popular vote. Presumably, we will see what European commentators are calling a Jamaica coalition, for the three colors that apparently only Jamaica conjoins into a single flag: black (CDU/CSU), green (the Greens, natch) and yellow (the FDP).There is an obvious tension between the FDP and the Greens which will be hard to bridge, a task which may occupy much of Merkel's time in the weeks ahead. But the Greens have been part of governing coalitions before, notably when the party leader Joschka Fischer was foreign minister in 1998-2005.
The two parties which won't be part of Merkel's (or, presumably, anyone else's) governing coalition are the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) and the Left (former Communist) parties. The exit poll has the AfD at 13 percent, which would make it the third largest party in the Bundestag; commentators had been worrying that it will be the official opposition party (it won't; the SPD will) and that its representatives will be the first such persons to voice Nazi-like opinions in the post-World War II Reichstag. Perhaps they will, and I join many others in finding the AfD noxious. But notice should also be taken of the Left party, which is at least as sympathetic to the odiously totalitarian East German Communism as the AfD is to horrifically odious totalitarian German Nazism. Clearly, neither represents the view of the overwhelming majority of Germans.
In this connection, one might recall that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the second largest party in post-World War II Italy from 1948 to 1992, and its descendant thoroughly democratized party has been in government in Italy off and on over the last 20 years. The PCI was never part of government, but it had something like a veto over public policy in Italy for many years and a protected position in media (it was granted one of Italy's three public TV stations). It moved away from the totalitarianism of its roots, but the extent and thoroughness of that movement was a matter of legitimate debate and concern. Reflexively, American journalists were much more concerned about the fascist party roots of a succession of Italian parties than they were about the communist party roots of the much larger and culturally far more influential PCI; for these people, fascists are (appropriately) enemies, but communists are (inappropriately) just liberals in a hurry.
It's unfortunate that 13 percent of German votes went to AfD and that 9 percent voted for the Left. The latter number is not terribly surprising: the Left has won between 8 and 12 percent of the popular vote starting in 2002, and in the post-unification elections of 1994 and 1998 it won 4 and 5 percent. Almost all of its support comes from voters in the former East Germany.
The AfD vote, concentrated but to a lesser extent in the former East Germany, may seem more alarming because it has suddenly grown; it won just 5 percent of the popular vote in 2013, and in elections before that parties resembling it got just 1 or 2 percent. But the biggest boost to the AfD vote may have come from Angela Merkel and her unilateral September 2015 decision to invite 1 million "refugees" to settle in Germany. Merkel, for all her impressive achievements, including winning a fourth consecutive general election, seems to bear the prime responsibility for the historically low showing of her own political party and for the emergence from obscurity (though not into anything like power) of a party and movement she and decent people everywhere find repugnant. Not an entirely successful record, I think.