German Chancellor Angela Merkel easily won a fourth term in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, but that doesn’t mean she can expect smooth sailing over the next four years. On the contrary, the simultaneous rise of a right-wing political movement adamantly opposed to the liberal democratic order Ms. Merkel stands for has shaken up German politics more thoroughly than at any time during the previous seven decades. She has got her work cut out for her.
The parliamentary waters Ms. Merkel must navigate have been unexpectedly roiled by the surprising third-place showing of the radical Alternative for Germany party, which waged a relentless campaign criticizing Ms. Merkel’s handling of the immigration crisis that has swelled Germany’s population by nearly a million refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. The populist, nationalist fervor the AfD gave voice to allowed it to win 13 percent of German votes, mostly at the expense of Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic bloc and the country’s left-leaning Social Democrats. More disturbing, the radicals’ victory marked the first time since the Nazi era that members of a right-wing, authoritarian party have been elected to Germany’s parliament. Strong showings by populist nationalists in recent elections in Britain, France, the United States and elsewhere may have portended challenges to internationalism, but it takes on a startling edge in Germany, given the nation’s history.
That development poses enormous challenges for Ms. Merkel, who must now seek to cobble together a workable governing coalition that doesn’t include either the AfD or her erstwhile allies among the Social Democrats, who have announced they will not join the government but will lead the loyal opposition instead, presumably to prevent the nationalists from dominating that role. As a result, Ms. Merkel will somehow have to persuade an unlikely duo of smaller parties, the environmentally conscious Green Party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party, to enter into coalition with her center-right bloc — even though the Greens and Free Democrats often hold ideological and policy views that are diametrically at odds with each other.
That’s why Ms. Merkel’s task of forming a stable government could turn into an ordeal of almost Byzantine complexity that might take months to complete even under the best of circumstances. Yet she has no choice but to try, not only because she is charged with maintaining Germany’s position as Europe’s strongest economy but also because it falls on her more heavily than any other European leader to defend democratic values and the rule of law, both of which are increasingly under attack by authoritarian strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Someone has to push back against their bullying tactics and, sad to say, our own President Donald Trump doesn’t seem up to the task.
Meanwhile, the chancellor’s ability to lead in efforts to strengthen the shaky European Union is unquestionably diminished. French President Emile Macron has been moving forward with economic reforms designed to set the stage for further economic cooperation with Germany, but Ms. Merkel’s ability to make a deal is now challenged by her own domestic political troubles.
After 12 years as Germany’s chancellor Ms. Merkel is a seasoned politician with a common touch that has earned her the respect of German voters, if not always their loyalty. One of her first acts after winning the election was a pledge to take a hard look at why so many of her former supporters had drifted away to Alternative for Germany’s angry embrace and to bring them back into the centrist fold. (Social Democratic leaders voiced a similar intention to learn why their party suffered its losses.) Given her age (63), this could be the last time Ms. Merkel stands for election, but she surely will do everything in her power while in office to address the concerns that caused the political moderates who make up her base flee to the extreme right.
As German chancellor Ms. Merkel has become Europe’s most noteworthy political figure and, for all practical purposes, the leader of the European Union in all but name. Yet the challenges she faces starting out her fourth term in office are unprecedented. Ms. Merkel, who takes pride in her pragmatic approach to governing, will need all her political acumen and negotiating skills to lead her country — and the rest of Europe — through the tumultuous times that lie ahead. Nothing less than the post-war democratic order is at stake.
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