German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Germany has just narrowly escaped a swing to the right even as it held its ground cautiously with a moderate party winning the polls. Having said that, polarization remains rapidly on the rise and the winds of change are gradually blowing in from Europe.

The road ahead may remain uncertain in the coming days for Germany, as even if Angela Merkel brings together what is being called the “Jamaica Coalition”, it may not prove to be a sustainable long-term arrangement.

Constituting an unlikely coalition, the CDU/CSU, Greens and liberal Free Democrats signify three different points of view, while the green, black, and yellow colors of these allies are the same as in the Jamaican flag. The only other option is the center-right yellow and black coalition of the Free Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), so Germany has now entered an experimental phase in contrast to its previous stability.

It is at a virtual crossroads as the far-right political force of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has pulled through as the third-largest party in the country and is bound to influence new policies as well as prove to be an impediment for the liberals.

Economic stability provided by the Merkel government in the past decade was the major reason for victory and proved to be its saving grace. The election campaign focused on reminding Germans that they had Europe’s strongest economy, only 3.7% unemployment, and the fastest-growing GDP among the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

In today’s Europe, Germany symbolizes stability, especially after the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, even though it has swerved precariously toward the right and brought right-wing extremism firmly into the folds of the establishment.

All is not well ahead, as The Wall Street Journal’s Anton Troianovski suggests: “The election result signaled a sudden turn for a political system whose relative stability has underpinned the European Union in recent years as it lurched from crisis to crisis.”

The fact remains that for Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc it was the worst result in the past 70 years. The present scenario calls for all of her political chutzpah to make the Jamaica Coalition work, even as ultra-nationalists proclaim it is a new dawn for them.

This could prove to be Merkel’s choppiest fourth term, and it has come about in reaction to her humanitarian decision to let nearly 900,000 refugees into Germany in 2015. A coalition partner for the last four years, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), blames her for its disappointing results and has chosen to sit in opposition instead.

Announcing this decision to supporters, SPD leader Martin Schulz said: “Taking in so many refugees split the nation, that has become clear. We didn’t manage to convince a segment of our society that our country is strong enough to handle the task.”

Meanwhile, there is also pressure on Merkel from groups of industry heads to go ahead with the new coalition so that the economy remains unaffected. Dieter Kempf, president of the BDI industry association, explained, “Our companies need clear signals. Now it’s all about averting damage to Germany as a place of business.”

Clearly reflecting the anxiety prevailing in business circles, it is a relatively new experience for them to experience change after the stable majority power rule in the past decades. Added to this are the constant undercurrents on the political scene in Europe, even though Germany has largely escaped the populist wave for now.

Taking a strong stand from the beginning, prominent far-right leader Alice Weidel proclaimed, “It’s a good day for democracy for Germany and for Europe,” and promised to call for the setting up of a committee to “investigate” Merkel’s decision to take refugees.

Practicing a nouveau approach to nationalism, the AfD wishes to celebrate the Nazi chapter in history instead of apologizing for it. It remains to be seen how much mileage its right-wing anti-Islam, anti-immigrant agenda gets, but it may prove to be a major stumbling block for Merkel, as it has vowed to “hunt” her.

Highlighting the drastic divide, AfD leader Alexander Gauland remarked that Germans should “have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars”. Winding up his speech with words reminiscent of US President Donald Trump, he said: “We’re going to get Germany back.”

The AfD largely benefited from a hitherto untapped vote-bank, as many of its voters cast ballots for the first time. However, the left does not plan to take the new ideology lying down, and protests took place outside AfD party headquarters in Berlin.

Notwithstanding the political upset, Merkel is poised to assume the mantle of the country’s chancellor, placing her in the same league as predecessor Helmut Kohl, who remained in office for 16 years. Where the economy is concerned, Merkel has delivered, and if nothing serious rocks the boat, she remains all set to deliver in her new term ahead.

As aptly summed up by Sudha David-Wilp for Foreign Affairs, “Unlike the course corrections that she will need to make on energy, immigration, and security, Merkel has the wind in her sails when it comes to the German economy.”

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi