Deidre Berger, the former NPR correspondent in Berlin, once reflected on the challenge of bringing foreign news to an American audience. If you don’t make a story align with homegrown, familiar realities, she said, Americans won’t care about it and perhaps won’t even recognize it; but if you move it too close to domestic news, you risk losing precisely what’s new or different. That, I think, is the problem we face in trying to understand Angela Merkel’s Germany. Seeing the dangers of anti-immigrant populism here in the United States—and elsewhere in Europe—we project that danger onto Germany, and thus end up with a half-truth, at best.
When we turn our gaze to Europe, we tend to focus on an oft-reiterated troika of political troubles: the immigration crisis; an enervated EU; and right-wing populism. News outlets attend to Orbán’s suppression of free speech in Hungary, to May’s desperate attempt to sell a Brexit deal, and to Italy’s flirtation with populism—with an occasional glance to Poland’s slide toward authoritarianism, or to an “improbable” immigration crisis in one of the Scandinavian countries. So where does Germany fit in? The truth is that while each of these three issues touches real wounds and sensitive nerves in many places across Europe, none constitutes a true crisis for Europe’s most secure democracy. At least not yet.
Still, the news we consume about Germany is processed through the filter I’ve just described. So when pundits try to understand the recent dramatic losses suffered by the two great postwar centrist parties in Germany—the Christian Democratic Union (the CDU, led by Merkel) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD)—they go for the usual culprit, which is immigration and, by extension, Merkel herself. The losses recorded in Bavaria several months ago, and in Hesse more recently, are frequently laid at her feet; German voters are said to be punishing her for the too-permissive immigration policy of 2015, when Merkel controversially refused to limit the number of refugees granted entry into Germany during the height of the Syrian crisis.
But this is not the whole story. The populist movement in Germany, represented principally by the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, has not in fact benefited unambiguously from Germany’s “immigration crisis.” In Bavaria, the votes lost by centrists were divided between the AfD and the Green Party, which supports immigration and strongly repudiates the AfD’s xenophobia. In Hesse, where elections were held about a month later, the results were strikingly similar. Though Merkel announced shortly after the Hesse vote that she would not run again as leader of the CDU, the two recent state elections are by no means a clear repudiation of her immigration policy. What we in fact see is a modest endorsement of her core values.
The general consensus remains that Merkel’s days are numbered. But it would be misguided to see this as part of a general “wave of populism” washing across Europe. Exit interviews in Hesse revealed that many voters meant to voice their disapproval not only of “Mutti” (or Mama)—the simultaneously affectionate and condescending nickname Germans have for Merkel—but of her coalition partners as well. The main culprit was Horst Seehofer, her rival from the conservative Bavarian CDU sister party, the CSU, who (with our own president lending a hand) tried to topple Merkel last summer in a showdown over immigration on Germany’s southern border. That drama clogged the news cycles all summer long, and German voters were tired of it. That partly explains the general disgust with the Grand Coalition (consisting of the CDU/CSU and the SPD) and the failure of leaders in both centrist parties to address the problem rather than make political hay out of it. Another part of the explanation has to do with the nature of rival parties governing in coalition, which tends to produce an indistinct amalgam that offers voters few options. This sense of stasis, especially at a time when voters were hungry for alternatives, helps explain increased support for non-traditional parties.
Still, even if Merkel was not the only, or even the principal, target, she nevertheless heads this dysfunctional group, and the message seems clear: Mama’s got to go. But what Americans should hold onto, I would argue, is this: that amid the apparent weakening and even splintering of Germany’s major political parties, and the corresponding uncertainty about its future leadership, what one sees is an astonishingly stable democracy. The elections did not just document turmoil and dissatisfaction. They also revealed a firm majority of centrist parties—and voters—committed to democracy and the rule of law. The center in Germany may be occupied by more parties, but it is still quite strong. Yes, we can expect challenges in building and maintaining coalitions, but we needn’t fear another Weimar Republic.