Merkel remains chancellor as German political landscape fragments further

The votes have been cast and counted, and Angela Merkel will continue to lead Germany as Chancellor after her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), won the most votes (33%) in the Bundestag elections. But it was in no way the success Mrs Merkel might have wanted. Her party might have won the most votes, but its performance was below expectations. Nor was the disappointment limited to the CDU. Mrs Merkel’s principal challenger, Martin Schulz, achieved the worst result for the Social Democrats (20.5%) in the history of the federal republic.

The other parties entering the Bundestag are the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) (10.7%), the left-wing Die Linke (9.2%), the Green Party (8.9%) and, for the first time, the populist right Alternative fur Deutschland, which finished third at 12.6% in what for many was the story of the night.

It’s an election result raising plenty of questions. Is Mrs Merkel’s authority diminished? What’s next for German politics? And does the result have any bearing on Brexit?

Decline of the Volkspartei

For the coming legislative period, six parties will be represented in the Bundestag, signalling further fragmentation of the German political landscape. Both the CDU and SPD have gradually lost more and more voters to smaller parties: whilst in 1987, 81.3% of the vote share fell to the big “Volksparteien”, this year only 53.4% of the electorate gave them their vote.

As the SPD ruled out any ambitions to form part of the government as Merkel’s junior partner yet again, the so-called ‘grand coalition’, the alliance of the two major parties, is officially at an end. Mrs Merkel will now enter coalition talks and seek to form a government.

The Bundestag will sit for the first time on 24 October, but that doesn’t mean Germany will have a new government in place by then: there is no time limit for coalition treaty negotiations.

The long road to Jamaica

After their historic defeat, SPD-leader Martin Schulz spoke out against any further participation of his party in a Merkel-led government. Whilst the SPD retreats into opposition to find a new purpose (and to prohibit the AfD from becoming the leading opposition party), Mrs Merkel will have to look to the smaller parties for a new partnership. The Free Democrats would usually be her natural coalition partner of choice, but their combined vote share is not high enough to meet the threshold for forming a government.

Another party is needed to join the team: and whilst some were speculating whether they will reach the required five percent to re-enter the Bundestag, the Green Party might well become kingmaker. On a state level, the Green Party and the CDU have already shown the ability to govern together. In the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, the Green Minister President Winfried Kretschmann is leading the coalition government – with the CDU as a junior partner.

But this so-called “Jamaica-coalition” (deviating from the party’s colours – yellow for the FDP, black for the CDU and green for the Greens) will be difficult to negotiate. The Green Party is a liberal-left, pro-refugee environmentalist party, operating in direct conflict to the CDU’s Bavarian other half, the conservative CSU (Christian Social Union, which is only standing in Bavaria but allies with the CDU in the federal parliament), whose leader, Bavarian Minister President Horst Seehofer, is an outspoken critic of Merkel’s refugee policy and advocate for stricter immigration controls.

The final player, the Free Democrats, are seen as a pro-business, economically liberal party advocating for low-regulation, low state-intervention politics, emphasising the rights and freedoms of the individual. Their politics also have huge conflict potential with the Green’s vision of social justice and active state intervention to achieve environmental goals.

And whilst the Green Party has signalled interest in coalition talks, Free Democrat leader Christian Lindner has not yet excluded opposition as an option for his party. After their catastrophic defeat in the 2013 elections which saw the FDP lose all their seats in the Bundestag, Lindner will be careful to enter a government agreeing to compromises that could potentially undo all his work bringing the party back from the brink.

Still no relief for Brexiteers

Brexiteers hoping to secure an industry-friendly trade deal without having to follow a vast majority of EU rules got excited by the prospect of the pro-business FDP returning to government, but a quick glance in the party’s manifesto will disappoint. Whilst the FDP wants to keep a constructive relationship with the United Kingdom, they also oppose “cherry-picking” and fully support the integrity of the single market. They also support a “Europe of multiple speeds” they hope will lead to the creation of a decentralised, but federally-organised European Union – not exactly a Brexiteers’ dream.

Some have also argued that the insurgence of the populist right Alternative fur Deutschland represents a shift towards Euroscepticism in German politics. But the AfD’s main target during the election campaign was Merkel’s refugee policy, not Europe. For now, the AfD argues for a return to a European Union as a lose union of sovereign states and opposes any deeper integration. In case national sovereignty cannot be guaranteed, an EU exit could be considered in the future. Whilst the AfD’s entry to parliament has caused upset, their future influence might be overstated. It’s highly unlikely that the AfD will have many allies in parliament. No German mainstream party supports withdrawal from the EU or holding a referendum on Germany’s membership and there is no chance that Merkel will extend an invitation to the newcomers for any coalition talks.

Over the next weeks, German politicians will be kept busy with coalition talks and reflecting on the electoral success of a far-right party. Chances are that Brexit will slip further down the agenda in the coming months.