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Merkel: we were unprepared for refugee influx in 2015 / A glimpse into Germany’s political future

A glimpse into Germany’s political future

Berlin’s state election heralds a new era in German politics.

Joerg Forbrig
9/19/16, 6:19 PM CET

BERLIN — The outcome of state elections in Berlin on Sunday — in which both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, the German capital’s traditional ruling parties, suffered heavy losses and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) was propelled into the state assembly — has triggered yet another round of debate over Angela Merkel’s political future.

Yes, Berlin’s voters have dealt the embattled chancellor another heavy blow. But what is most remarkable is the fundamental shift in the country’s party landscape and political process that this election heralds. Berlin is Germany’s political and social laboratory par excellence. It is a microcosm where the country’s major challenges play out as if under a microscope. So the stability and consensus that have long been Germany’s political trademark may soon be a thing of the past.

The western and eastern halves of the city have yet to fully grow back together. The German economy’s remodeling away from traditional industries toward services and new technologies has yet to take hold, despite Berlin’s status as a start-up haven. The city, once labeled “poor but sexy” by its own mayor, still suffers from social injustice and poverty. And while Berlin is culturally rich — nearly a third of Berliners come from non-German backgrounds — full integration continues to be an uphill struggle. Public administration is notoriously inefficient, as the city’s failure to build a new airport and chaotic scenes at refugee centers show.

Similarly, the politics of the German capital mirror the dynamics of the country at large, and its most recent elections illustrate a dramatic overhaul of the German party system.

Sunday’s poll saw five parties land between 21 and 14 percent, effectively leveling the playing field.

The political scene has traditionally been dominated by two Volksparteien, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Each typically garnered around 40 percent of the vote and alternated in leading governments. Sunday’s poll, however, saw five parties land between 21 and 14 percent, effectively leveling the playing field between the erstwhile dominant CDU and SPD on the one hand, and the Greens, the Left, and the far-right on the other.

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The underlying trend — more advanced in Berlin, delayed elsewhere in Germany — is clear. The era of large catch-all parties based on traditional notions of working class or conservative values and able to accommodate a vast majority of German citizens is coming to an end.

In its place, a much more variable geometry of political parties is emerging. The far-left and the far-right, as well the socially liberal Greens and, to a lesser extent, the market-liberal Free Democrats, are all sizable political forces now.

While this development reflects shifting political sentiments in German society, it also complicates coalition building. Two-party alliances, long sufficient to secure necessary majorities to govern, will have to make way for three-party coalitions. Committing to governing alliances, negotiating their political program, and maintaining these for the full term will be more difficult than ever before. Political processes will be lengthier, coalition programs will be watered down, and snap elections more frequent. German politics will be far less stable as a result.

The Berlin elections also demonstrated that the country’s political fringes have matured into full political forces. In the old Bonn republic, the far-left was effectively outlawed and the far-right only made an occasional appearance. After reunification, Eastern post-communists merged with the Western far-left. On the Right, it was not until the emergence in 2013 of the AfD, triggered by the eurozone crisis and radicalized by the refugee crisis, that a political force gathered country-wide traction.

Now, with representation in 10 of 16 states, the AfD is here to stay. The combined constituency of these political fringes is mirrored by the results of the Berlin ballot: around 20 percent in the west and 40 percent in the east of Germany.

A sizable portion of Germans from both the Right and the Left now doubt, or flat out reject, the country’s political legacies — be it the socially-oriented market economy, cultural and social diversity, or Euro-Atlantic relationship. What’s worse, this radicalism is not confined to rhetoric: during this year’s Berlin election campaign, over 200 politically-motivated offenses were recorded by city police. Society has become aggressively polarized, hemming in centrist and moderate positions and threatening Germany’s dialogue and consensus-oriented political culture.

Ethnic mobilization opens up Germany’s political process to manipulation and disruption by foreign governments.

In this climate, the far-right especially has drawn on ethnicity to attract voters. The AfD’s campaign among the large and conservative Russian-speaking community earned it its biggest wins in eastern districts with large numbers of migrants from the former Soviet Union.

Ethnic mobilization is not confined to Berlin, however. Germany has recently seen large-scale demonstrations of Russian-speakers and Turks staged by governments in Moscow and Ankara, in no small part thanks to their considerable media reach into those communities.

This trend is new to German politics, and highly detrimental to the integration of these minority groups. Worryingly, it also opens up Germany’s political process to manipulation and disruption by foreign governments. This could be especially dangerous during times of international tension — from the refugee crisis to Russian aggression against its neighbors — in which the government in Berlin plays a key role.

The recent vote in the German capital was more than a state election. It was a wake-up call to the fact that German politics is undergoing a sea change that will leave its imprint on the country’s federal elections in 2017 and beyond. Welcome to the Berlin Republic.

Joerg Forbrig is senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin.


Joerg Forbrig

Merkel: we were unprepared for refugee influx in 2015

Published: 19 Sep 2016 15:06 GMT+02:00

Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged Monday that there would be no repeat of last year's "chaotic" border opening to refugees, after a stinging loss for her party in Berlin elections.

'AfD will become Germany’s 3rd largest party. At least' (19 Sep 16)
Merkel party routed in Berlin polls as right-wing AfD gains (19 Sep 16)

Even as she defended the "political and ethical" decision to let in one million asylum seekers in 2015 in the face of a potential humanitarian catastrophe, Merkel admitted mistakes that she would avoid in future.

"If I could, I would turn back time many, many years to better prepare myself, the federal government and all those in positions of responsibility for the situation we were rather unprepared for in the late summer of 2015," Merkel said.

Merkel, who has been in office since 2005, was speaking to reporters after a dismal showing for her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in Berlin state elections Sunday, two weeks after a drubbing for the party in another regional poll.

In an unusually frank opening statement, Merkel said the errors included a long-standing refusal to accept Germany's transformation in the postwar decades into a multicultural society.

"We weren't exactly the world champions in integration before the refugee influx," she wryly admitted, noting that the infrastructure for getting newcomers into language and job training had had to be ramped up overnight.

In the Berlin election, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) harnessed a wave of anger over the refugee influx to claim around 14 percent of the vote.

Merkel's CDU slumped to just 18 percent - its worst post-war result in the city - likely spelling the end of its term as junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats (SPD), who won just under 22 percent.

She acknowledged that her "We can do this" rallying cry during the refugee crisis had become a provocation to many who felt it expressed a glibness about the challenges ahead and said she would now refrain from using it.

But she continued to resist calls from within her conservative bloc to set a formal upper limit for the number of asylum seekers admitted to Germany.

And she struck an optimistic note about the ability of Europe's top economic power to eventually integrate tens of thousands of refugees who stay in Germany, including many from war-ravaged Syria.

"I am absolutely certain that we will emerge from this admittedly complicated phase better than we went into it," she said.

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