On February 10th, Germany’s political future was left wide open after Angela Merkel’s expected successor and current party leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, confirmed that she will step down as CDU leader. She was the expected next-in-line to become chancellor in 2021 (Kirby 2020), even coined as “Mini-Merkel” by the media. The announcement has reinforced a sense of growing political uncertainty in Germany since Angela Merkel’s decision to not seek reelection after 14 years as chancellor (Henley 2018). The decision will also have significant consequences for the rest of Europe. Merkel and Germany have acted as the de-facto leaders of the Europe Union, and are needed more than ever as other members of the EU are looking for leadership in a post-Brexit Europe (Bennhold 2020).
The difficult succession struggle will expand the growing power of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), reminding many of the rise of the Nazis. The political uncertainty left in Germany coupled with the growing dominance of the AfD begs to question: can democracy prevail if potentially dangerous extremist parties become the ones to call all the shots? If Germany’s dominant parties work with AfD and allow extremists to dictate their political decisions, there will be consequences for the state of democracy.
To understand the significance of Kramp-Karrenbauer stepping down for the far-right, Germany’s complicated electoral system must be understood. Germany has a mixed member proportional system, where the “PR seats are awarded to compensate for any disproportionality produced by the district seat results” (Reynolds et al. 91). Specifically, every four years, voters elect members of the Bundestag (legislative branch of Germany) by casting two votes: one for a candidate in their constituency and the other for a political party (Schulze 2017). This inevitably leads to some parties becoming more strongly represented than they should be. Thus, there are “overhang” and “balance seats” that ensure every candidate who is elected gets a seat and political parties are proportionally represented based on the number of votes they received (Schulze 2017). The representation of multiple parties in parliament means the ruling party must form coalitions with other parties, which played an especially important role after the 2017 election.
Although the election in 2017 had resulted in CDU winning the highest percentage of the vote (33%), it was CDU’s worst return since 1949 (Henley 2018). Meanwhile, AfD—previously unrepresented in the Bundestag—became the third largest party with 12.6% of the vote (Henley 2018). Merkel was able to renew a weak and unpopular coalition with the Social Democratic party (SPD), but the election revealed the extent of voter frustration with traditional parties and the extent of political fragmentation. As a result, Angela Merkel announced she was stepping down as the leader of CDU and would not seek reelection as chancellor. According to the IDEA handbook, the proportional representation aspect of the mixed proportional representation system allows for a stage in the legislature for extremist parties, providing them a public platform to gain more support (Reynolds et al. 59). Thus, the electoral system in Germany could have inadvertently allowed for the troubling rise of Alternative for Germany, possibly contributing to Merkel’s decision to step down after so many years as the leader of Germany and contributing to her successor’s decision to resign as head of CDU.
The announcement by Kramp-Karrenbauer to step down echoed Merkel in terms of the role that the AfD played. On February 5th, a local chapter of the Christian Democratic Union voted with AfD to elect the governor of Thuringia, Thomas Kemmerich, violating a CDU policy against allying with the far right (Bennhold 2020). The vote exposed the lack of authority Kramp-Karrenbauer had over CDU, setting off five days of political turmoil that ended with her resignation (Bennhold, “Germans Unnerved by Political Turmoil That Echoes Nazi Era”). It also exposed to many Germans how the electoral system can be manipulated in a fundamentally undemocratic way. Thomas Kemmerich, whose Free Democratic Party barely reached the 5% threshold, was able to electorally maneuver his was to governor with the help of AfD and CDU (Kuras 2020).
While the conditions of Germany today are nothing like that of Weimar Republic Germany, many issues seem to mirror each other from them and now. For example, last year, there was an attack on a synagogue in Halle and the murder of Walter Lübcke, a local politician, by a right-wing extremist (Bennhold 2020). The vote in Thuringia also brought up dark memories for many as over 90 years ago, the Nazi party won its first election in Thuringia with the help of conservative parties (Bennhold, “Germans Unnerved by Political Turmoil That Echoes Nazi Era”). The horrifying events have carried echoes from the rise of the Nazi party, bringing up questions about the strength of democracy in the face of extremist parties. It also brings into question the future of the Christian Democrats: will they join forces with the far right or continue their policy of non-collaboration? On one hand, CDU needs to work with AfD to get things done. However, resorting to working with extremist parties says a lot about the state of Democracy. Alliances with the far right also have the effect of legitimizing and further empowering these extremists (Bennhold 2020). The Alternative for Germany Party clearly has a hold on the right if it can cause two powerful CDU leaders to step down, creating a dangerous precedence in Germany.
Across Europe, there has been a rise in extremist parties that often tout undemocratic views. So, what does this say about the prospects for democracy, if Germany, one of the most developed and economically powerful countries, is also witnessing the same extremist rise in the form of Alternative for Germany? Democratic backsliding is taking place in countries all across the world (Cheeseman and Klaas 3). If the Christian Democratic party does not watch out, it can happen in their own backyard with them as an accomplice.
Bennhold, Katrin. “Germans Unnerved by Political Turmoil That Echoes Nazi Era.” The New York Times, 7 Feb. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/world/europe/germany-thuringia-afd.html.
—. “Merkel’s Chosen Successor Steps Aside. The Far Right Cries Victory.” The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/10/world/europe/annegret-kramp-karrenbauer-resign.html.
Bennhold, Katrin, and Melissa Eddy. “Merkel’s Party Picks Successor in Her Image: Wry, Moderate and a Woman.” The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/07/world/europe/germany-cdu-annegret-kramp-karrenbauer.html.
Cheeseman, Nicholas, and Brian P. Klaas. How to Rig an Election. Yale University Press, 2018.
Henley, Jon. “Merkel’s Long Goodbye Will Be Severe Test for Troubled Continent.” The Guardian, 29 Oct. 2018. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/29/angela-merkel-to-step-down-vacuum-eu-politics.
Kirby, Jen. “Why Angela Merkel’s Successor Resigned.” Vox, 10 Feb. 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/2/10/21131546/angela-merkel-successor-resigned-germany-chancellor.
Kuras, Peter. “Behold Germany’s Post-Merkel Future and Despair.” Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/07/germany-post-merkel-future-afd-kemmerich-thuringia-election/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2020.
Reynolds, Andrew, et al. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2005.
Schulze, Elizabeth. “Baffled by the Electoral College? Germany’s System Might Be More Confusing.” CNBC, 15 Sept. 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/15/german-elections-explained-chancellor-bundestag-voting-parties-and-merkel.html.