German democracy is slowly eroding, and it all comes back to Angela Merkel stepping down as chancellor. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but the premise still stands: Angela Merkel’s relinquishing of power has extremely negative connotations for German democracy.
Merkel was the German Chancellor for sixteen years, and her influence on German politics was a level of stability unmatched due to her strong belief in protecting German interests while promoting the European Union. However, the stability truly came from the trust the German people felt in her party, the Christian Democratic Union, who “most analysts agree […] would comfortably win the next elections if she were running for a fifth term” (Matthijs 2021). Perhaps it is a sign of her lasting impact on German politics that the party was able to stay in power for so long; according to Bremmer (2021), “her party is in historic decline.” The CDU has begun to lose dreadfully to its rivals, even as Merkel’s approval rating is at 80 percent as she leaves office. While this is a sad statement for the once powerful CDU to end on, it does not necessarily mean German democracy is eroding.
How, then, does Merkel stepping down have negative connotations for German democracy? Though her legacy is one that will overshadow many chancellors to come, the problem lies in the Germany she helped create- the one she leaves behind. Merkel was a powerful chancellor, but she was also a controversial one. Her open appreciation of the European Union and Germany’s part in it, as well as her opening of the country to “more than one million migrants” in the 2015 refugee crisis, led to a more populist undertaking in German politics (Bremmer 2021). The populist rise in Germany is worrisome due to the country’s history of dictatorship and the horrors associated with Nazi rule- the worst of those being the Holocaust, a genocide-, but it is no surprise that the rise coincides with the stepping down of a very powerful chancellor. With Merkel’s departure imminent, the far right in Germany is waiting in the wings for the transition of power.
The particular far right party that has made an attempt to fill the void of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is the Alternative for Deutschland Party, or the AfD. The party has been known for its anti-immigrant stances and often dismisses the true horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi occupation, but these stances seem not to bother many German citizens as the Holocaust fades from collective conciousness and immigration continues to be an issue (BBC 2020). Following the 2015 refugee crisis, in which Merkel opened Germany’s borders to more migrants than some German citizens approved of, the people looked for a new savior, one that was not the current political parties. To them, the current parties did not give them a voice, and they desperately needed one. They found it in AfD, who received thirteen percent of the vote in the 2017 national elections, giving them a spot in the Bundestag (Mushaben 2020). This election was historic for the state; for the first time since 1949, a party with “neo-Nazi adherents” held a place in parliament. Mushaben (2020) explains that the far right, but especially AfD, saw this breakthrough as a “revolt against Merkel;” that is, the fringe party sees itself as the antithesis to Merkel’s CDU.
It could be said that the democratic processes in Germany are actually perfectly intact due to the election of the AfD to the Bundestag; the people, after all, still have the right to elect who they choose. However, the election itself is not the problem. German elections are doing quite well in allowing the people to have a voice, where political discontent was shown in the loss of CDU-CSU votes. The coalition dropped from 33 percent to barely over 24 percent in the span of a few years, a clear sign that the German people are angered (Bremmer 2021). Rather, it is the message driving the party and their voters that shows how German democracy is eroding.
German voters no longer feel heard by their politicians, finding that the status quo no longer works for them (SPIEGEL 2016). Now, the fight is between the “defenders of fundamental values and those who call them into question” (SPIEGEL 2016). The AfD is definitely the party who calls fundamental values into question, with their blatant hate speech and anti-immigrant views challenging German politics at every turn. The people like this, seeing the AfD as a hopeful new face. However, when the threat of neo-Nazism accompanies a party, the dangers of that party only grows.
Angela Merkel made choices as chancellor that will no doubt impact the way German chancellors govern for decades to come. However, it is her choices- specifically her stepping down as chancellor- that have allowed far right parties to step into the power vacuum she has left behind. Though it currently seems uncertain if far right parties will succeed in German politics, the truth is clear: if it were not for the relinquishing of power by Merkel, the AfD would not have gotten such a leg up in the elections.
BBC. (2020, February 11). Germany’s AFD: How right-wing is Nationalist Alternative for Germany? BBC News. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37274201.
Bremmer, I. (2021, September 28). Angela Merkel’s legacy is saving and strengthening Europe. Time. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://time.com/6102034/angela-merkel-legacy/.
Cliffe, J. (2021, June 15). Why the rise and decline of the AFD party in Germany is a parable for our Times. New Statesman. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2020/10/why-rise-and-decline-afd-party-germany-parable-our-times.
Matthijs, M. (2021, September 17). Merkel’s legacy and the future of Germany. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/merkels-legacy-and-future-germany.
Mushaben, Joyce Marie. 2020. “A Spectre Haunting Europe.” Berghahn Journals. https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/gps/38/1/gps380102.xml (October 18, 2021).
Spiegel, D. (2016, November 23). German democracy eroding amid populist rise. DER SPIEGEL. Retrieved December 1, 2021, from https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/german-democracy-eroding-amid-populist-rise-a-1122271.html.