The German Embassy in London threw an election party yesterday, but as the guests gathered round the big screens to watch the exit poll the mood became subdued. Of course diplomats are supposed to be neutral and even German journalists strive to be objective, but off the record everyone here in Belgrave Square was saying the same thing: ‘Anyone but AfD.’
Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s anti-immigration party, has been a thorn in Angela Merkel’s side ever since it was founded four years ago. In Germany’s last election, in 2013, it polled 4.7 per cent – just missing out on the 5 per cent required for representation in the Bundestag, German’s national parliament (a remarkable result for a party that was then just a few months old). Four years on, the German establishment was resigned to AfD entering parliament with over 5 per cent, but no-one thought they’d do quite this well.
Well, no-one except The Spectator. ‘Will this campaign propel AfD to third place?’ we reported from Berlin, a fortnight ago. ‘With all the other parties (and the mainstream media) united against them, it isn’t respectable to admit supporting AfD in polite society. There may be a lot of shy AfD voters out there.’ And so it proved. AfD polled a whopping 13 per cent, and The Spectator won a hamper from the German Embassy for predicting the election result (well, near enough, anyway). However the spirit in Belgrave Square was anything but celebratory. ‘For the first time since the end of the Second World War, real Nazis will sit in the German Parliament,’ warned former Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, as he tried to persuade voters not to back AfD – to no avail. AfD is a broad church, and even its most extremist members can’t be compared to Nazis – but for the Bundesrepublik, a nation built out of the ashes of the Third Reich, it’s still a seismic shock.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats won, as everyone knew they would – but her share of the vote was deeply disappointing, down from 41.5 per cent in 2013 to 33 per cent. The only consolation for Merkel was that her main opponents, Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats, did far worse. The SPD vote is down from 26 per cent to 21 per cent, its worst showing for half a century. Where does the Germany’s centre left go from here? Not into another ‘Grand Coalition’ with Merkel’s CDU, that’s for sure. There’s no appetite in the SPD for such an alliance, in which the smaller party is always cannibalised. Only in opposition can the SPD rebuild its radical identity, which leaves Merkel contemplating an alliance with the Free Democrats (on 10.5 per cent) and the Green Party (on 9 per cent).
This so-called ‘Jamaica Alliance’ (after the colours of the Jamaican flag – black yellow, green – which match the colours of these three parties) could prove far more dynamic than the Grand Coalition of the last four years, in which the centre-right CDU and the centre-left SPD often cancelled each other out. Yet it’ll take a while to put together. The FDP are classical liberals – the Greens are unrepentant lefties. Both parties will demand concessions from Merkel’s CDU, and so negotiations will be protracted. In 2013, there was no German government until Christmas. Best not hold your breath.
Is Merkel weakened? Yes and no. She would have been glad of this result a year ago, but it’s a lot less than she would have hoped for a few months back. She’s back as Chancellor for a fourth time, but she may not serve a full term. By shifting her CDU to the centre, she’s hoovered up votes from the SPD – but it’s opened up her right flank to AfD. She’ll form a government with the Greens and the Free Democrats (eventually) and this government may well be more successful than the Grand Coalition that preceded it. Yet while these three parties thrash out the details of their coalition, all the talk in Germany will be about the ninety seats that Alternative für Deutschland has won in the Bundestag, and the one in eight Germans who voted AfD.