If there was one big loser in Germany’s watershed national elections Sunday, it was the conservative and extreme right wings of that nation’s political spectrum. The results suggest that Europe may be losing its fascination with the far-right in the wake of the chaos that characterized the Trump years.
There has been little sense that right-wing forces have provided any significant answers for many of Europe’s most intractable problems.
Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens — the latter scoring their biggest ever national election victory — surged more than a combined 5 percent over their results in 2017, the last time elections were held. Meanwhile, the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union coalition of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) saw their results plunge 8 percent. It was the worst showing for right-wing candidates in Germany since World War II; in the previous election, the AfD had emerged as the third-largest bloc in the Bundestag.
These dramatic shifts in the electoral results still leave a host of uncertainties and a road toward potential chaos in a nation that has long served as the anchor nation of the European Union, with Merkel the undeclared but widely acknowledged leader of the continent. With its powerful economy and dominant position, Germany was the country that the weaker, poorer nations on the continent turned to for help during economic crises. It also led the E.U.’s response to Russian provocations, waves of immigration from the Middle East and Africa, and challenges from America throughout Donald Trump’s tenure as president.
Now, after Merkel declined to seek a fifth term, Germany is threatened with its own chaos. It seems unlikely that the right wing will succeed in forming a government, despite suggestions by leaders of the CDU that they would try. The jockeying for position could last for weeks, even months. The Social Democrats, who squeaked out a hairsbreadth plurality, are expected to bring in a newly potent Green Party and the smaller but still significant Free Democratic Party.
During this difficult interregnum, Germany could be left without a coherent government — a held-over Merkel functioning as interim chancellor with little remaining power. This could threaten to turn into a situation not unlike those faced by Italy and even Belgium, which holds the record of 541 days for the longest period of any European nation without a democratically elected majority government.
All this leaves the way open for French President Emmanuel Macron to take over Germany’s position as unofficial leader of Europe ahead of his own crucial election in France in the spring. As it happens, France and Macron are due to assume the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months, and France has already begun laying the groundwork for this period by expanding the use of French as a primary language for E.U. proceedings.
But most evident is the confirmation that, unlike fears at the peak of Trump’s power in the United States while far-right parties and authoritarian regimes surged in Europe, this is not the future that much of the continent intends to carve out for itself.
Back in 2019, Italy’s far-right Lega, led by interior minister Matteo Salvini, was the nation’s biggest vote-getter. In France, Marine Le Pen, who’d made it into the final round of the presidential elections two years previously before losing to Macron, was leading in national polls. Hungary’s anti-immigration prime minister, Viktor Orban, saw his Fidesz party take more than half the vote in deeply contested national elections. He subsequently began governing by decree.
Today, the situation has begun to shift. In France, Le Pen is facing a challenge from a far-right media star, Eric Zemmour, threatening to split a far-right constituency that currently comprises barely a quarter of the electorate. In Italy, Salvini continues to thunder his views, but it’s technocrat Prime Minister Mario Draghi, an economist and longtime president of the European Central Bank, who is now calling the shots in a more temperate manner. And the European Community has begun attacking the right-wing government in Poland over issues ranging from press censorship to the rule of law and control over the judiciary.
Certainly, there were some issues going into Sunday’s vote that encouraged Germany’s extreme right to think it had a chance to maintain its strong position. Immigration was at the top of their platforms, especially in the wake of America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan and its sudden unleashing of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees Germans feared could overwhelm their nation. So far, that fear has not materialized.
But the far-right, especially the AfD, did itself little good by embracing an anti-vaccine and anti-mask agenda. Some observers thought that might help the party in certain regions, but overall, such a platform at a time when Health Minister Jens Spahn was warning of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” clearly did not go down well.
Beyond Covid missteps, the waning appeal of Germany’s right wing is a tribute to the feeling that it’s time to rotate into another approach to the nation’s problems. Indeed, Germany’s Social Democrats have invoked the memory of former West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, who went on to become a much-admired chancellor when he assembled a coalition of his own Social Democrats and Free Democrats and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to link Europe together in a single community. Beyond Germany, there has been little sense that right-wing forces have provided any significant answers for many of Europe’s most intractable problems.
As Germany determines its new coalition, the Biden administration needs to demonstrate that it will work professionally and effectively with whichever government emerges. Since America’s imbroglio with France over a submarine contract, much of Europe is skeptical of the United States and its willingness to deal straightforwardly and openly with its long-standing allies, but a new German government provides an opening for forging strong new ties with European leaders.
Significantly, a center-left government in Germany encompassing the Social Democrats and a newly powerful Green party could play a critically important role in supporting Biden’s environmental initiatives worldwide, his favoring of diplomacy over military force, and his push for an economic agenda reliant on government spending rather than austerity. It will certainly provide no comfort whatsoever to the Trump wing of America’s Republican Party, nor to any similarly inclined political force in Europe.