The results from the German general elections are in, giving Chancellor Angela Merkel another four more years in office, and catapulting the extreme rightwing Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) into the Bundestag, but the biggest foreign winner was probably Russian President Vladimir Putin, while the loser was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On the face of it the win for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) means business as usual. She has led Europe’s efforts to contain and punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and is implacably committed to seeing the Minsk II process through, despite the fact that all the concrete deadlines in the document signed at a marathon session in Minsk have been missed. The Minsk process is going nowhere.
However, more recently the German government seems to be softening its hard-line towards Russia, and the new government could be softer still.
Ukraine’s donors are showing signs of “Ukraine fatigue” over the imbroglio that has dragged on for three years now. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier tried to break the deadlock with a formula that awarded concessions for progress on specific steps. More recently his Social Democrat successor Sigmar Gabriel has also been more pro-actively engaging with Russia and even gave Kremlin-sponsored broadcaster RT two interviews just before the elections.
“I’m convinced we need a new detente with Russia, despite the very complicated disputes over the Crimea, and the situation in Ukraine. We cannot tackle global problems without working with Russia,” he said in most recent interview.
As an aside, one of the biggest non-stories of these elections was the complete absence of Russian interference in the campaigns. There were no reports of hacks, funding, or other machinations in the vote, which is not to say that Russia has done nothing but there has been no large-scale attempt to sway voters. Indeed, there was no sign of Russian interference in the recent UK or French elections either – the head of France’s cyber-security service (ANSSI) said the one email dump was probably done by an individual acting alone.
But while the management of German government will remain the same the support staff will be changed.
Under the German proportional representation system the CDU’s “victory” only means they have first dibs on forming a coalition government; the system is so designed that no one party ever wins a clear 51% of the vote and the biggest party has to form coalitions with the other partys and share power. That process can take weeks and there is a great deal of horse trading as the minor partners invited to join a coalition bid for various cabinet positions and concessions to their own electoral agenda.
Following the September 24 results the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP), lead by Martin Schultz, has taken itself out of the game and will not continue the so-called “Grand Coalition” with the CDU. The SDP got off to a good start, briefly challenging the CDU, but due a series of mistakes its momentum fizzled out. The SDP scored its worse result since 1949, taking only 20.5% of the vote.
That means the new government will almost certainly be the so called Jamaica coalition: the CDU’s colour is black and it is likely to share power with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which uses yellow as the party colour, and the Green Party – the same colours as the Jamaican flag. This is the first time a Jamaica coalition will be formed at federal level, although both the Greens and the FDP have been in government coalitions before.
The big surprise from the elections was the strong showing of the AfD, which took an unexpected 12.6% of the vote and will enter parliament at the federal level for the first time – it already has seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 regional governments.
The power sharing will colour the government in other ways. While Merkel will set the agenda she will have to make some compromises to her new partners.
In the first place there may be a change is if the Greens are given the foreign minister's job, following on from Joschka Fischer, who led the Greens and served as foreign minister under SDP premier Gerhard Schroeder’s government from 1998-2005. This possibility is widely expected, with the job falling to the Green Party’s Cem Özdemir, an ethnic Turk.
That would be very bad news for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Özdemir is likely to be even more critical of Erdogan’s campaign to hobble democratic institutions in Turkey. Known for his stance against Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, Özdemir has also vowed to suspend the German government's credits given to investors doing import and export with Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and Germany are already fraught as Turkish officials attempted to hold political rallies in Germany ahead of the recent referendum on a new constitution, as the Turkish population in Germany is so big the postal vote from there has a material impact on the results. The Germans have been reluctant to play host to another country’s politics and banned many of these rallies. On the flip side, Ankara called the German ambassador in to protest against a 10,000 strong pro-Kurdish rally in Cologne on September 16 – a bête noir for Erdogan.
During the campaign Merkel stepped up her rhetoric again and said she had decided to seek an end to EU membership talks with Turkey completely during a television debate with Schulz in September.
Relations with Turkey are bound to get worse, even if Merkel doesn't follow through on her threat, but as a Turk Özdemir may bring some more nuance to the relationship.
The relationship with Russia, however, will probably improve. Though Özdemir has also been firm on sanctions, Christian Lindner, who heads the FDP and will also take one of the top cabinet posts, has said explicitly that he wants reconciliation with Russia. He has suggested that he will concede Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and wants to end the sanctions regime – views he shares with the AfD among others.
Lindner is echoing a view that ran through many of the party platforms, except the SDP and CDU, that America is to blame for the Ukrainian conflict and the situation in Syria.
There was also a great deal of Euroscepticism, with several parties calling for a scaling down of Germany’s role or even a revision of the EU treaties.
AfD’s rise is part of a wider trend of rightwing parties winning the ear of more Europeans. The Ukrainians are particularly alarmed at this trend as these rightwing movements are often aligned with Russia.
In Kyiv analysts were unnerved by the German result. “Nationalist parties that are aligned with the Russian government are continuing to ride the anti-immigrant momentum in the West. Combined with other political factors, we could see attempts to relax sanctions over the Ukrainian occupation (as proposed by the Alternative for Germany and Free Democratic Party) at the EU level next year,” Zenon Zawada, an analyst with Concorde Capital in Kyiv said in a note. “Yet the pivotal moment for sanctions against Russia, in our view, will be the 2019 parliamentary elections in Ukraine. A strong performance by Russian-oriented parties could make Europeans more open to relaxing Ukraine-related sanctions."
This is an increasingly likely scenario as Poroshenko’s popularity has fallen into single digits and his attacks on the civil society that put him into office, coupled with his palpable failure to tackle corruption, mean that he will struggle to keep his job in 2019. At the same time the fiasco of stripping former Odesa governor and ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili of his Ukrainian nationality and his subsequent return to Ukraine has only undermined the president’s authority further. Given that all the opposition leaders expected to run against him are all running neck and neck, according to the latest polls, the chances that a strong pro-Russian candidate becomes the next president of Ukraine is far from inconceivable
Merkel herself, who is famous at home for stealing any idea from any party that she thinks will improve her position, has taken a few steps down this road too. She returned from her last meeting with US President Donald Trump saying that “Europe is on its own now,” a shocking slight on the US president and an extremely unusual statement by a German chancellor, who have traditionally been extremely shy of taking centre stage in international politics.
Finally, the entry of the AfD into federal level politics has driven all of German politics to the right, which is to Russia’s advantage. In the last elections in 2013 the CDU was shy of using the German flag and the main image was simply a picture of Merkel’s hands. This time round the German flag featured prominently in the CDU’s ads and Merkel played on more nationalist themes.
All the political parties have suffered from the AfD’s rise with the CDU losing a million votes to the AfD and the SDP losing half a million. But the party’s problem is it made its biggest gains from taking 1.2mn votes from people that usually don't vote at all.
That puts AfD on a sandy foundation. It can get the protest out for this election, but it is unlikely they can repeat this success at all elections after this. Moreover, the party is seen to be a one-trick pony, playing on xenophobia and terrorist fears. The AfD has to find a more permanent platform if it is to keep its seats.
The party is actually a two-headed beast founded by self-styled liberal-conservatives, and only later acquired the more radical and racist national-conservative arm. This dichotomy is apparent in the party’s twin chairman structure. While Alex Gauland, who is co-head and represents the national-conservatives, is openly racist and has insulted Oezdemir using racial slurs on the Bundestag’s floor, his co-chair is Alice Weidel, who is a former investment banker and openly gay. It is this softer side of the party that could be used to build a more permanent political machine.