Will the Rise of the AfD Throughout Germany be Merkel’s Legacy?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has presided over her country’s politics for almost fifteen years after winning the 2005 election. Her chancellorship has been dominated by the 2008 financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, Trump’s tariffs and Brexit. Often hailed as the de facto leader of Europe and the world’s most powerful woman, voters portrayed her as a source of stability and prosperity.

But her authority was severely damaged following Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis and the subsequent arrival of one million migrants. Her decision left Germany deeply polarised and triggered the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Her party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), has suffered in the polls since. Merkel declared that ‘things can’t go on the way they are’ following disastrous regional election results last year in Hesse and Bavaria for the CDU and its Bavarian-only sister party. The Chancellor stated that she would not seek a fourth election and that she will resign her position in 2021.

Her decision to leave had no impact on the CDU’s performance in this year’s European elections. In Saxony and Brandenburg, the AfD beat Merkel’s party into second place and gained an 11 per cent vote share throughout Germany. This was only 2 per cent less than their vote share during the 2017 federal elections.

Throughout most of those international crises listed above, Merkel became renowned for her pragmatism and decisiveness. But the migrant crisis will tarnish her legacy. Her chancellorship will be remembered as the moment the far-right re-emerged in Germany, thereby shattering the post-war consensus that has defined German politics since 1945.

The recent Thuringia election proves how difficult governing Germany will become in the future. During the 2019 European elections, the AfD came second place to the CDU. But in this month’s state election there, they more than doubled their support and won 23.5 per cent of the vote. This is up from 10.6 per cent in 2014. However, the AfD were still defeated by the Left Party on Sunday.

Even though the populists’ support continues to grow, none of Germany’s mainstream parties intend to govern alongside them. Thuringia’s election has only strengthened the power base of Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in the state. He is renowned for questioning Germany’s role in the Holocaust. Following his electoral success, he said: “The people of Thuringia have voted for a Turnaround 2.0.”

Thuringia may only be a small state in Germany, but the far-right’s success here is significant due to Mr. Höcke’s controversial language. The AfD have now made governing the state difficult as the traditional parties refuse to form a coalition with them. The only way they can govern is by forming a stable majority consisting of the Left and conservatives, although this has been ruled out by the CDU.

Merkel was no doubt relieved when the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) retained power in Saxony and Brandenburg respectively following elections in those two states last September, but the AfD made substantial gains. They gained a 27.8 per cent vote share in Saxony and 23.5 per cent of the vote in Brandenburg. Andreas Kalbitz, the party’s leader in Brandenburg, said the results showed “the AfD is here to stay.”

The rise of radical politics has had an impact on the SDP too. They must decide whether remaining in coalition with the CDU is a worthwhile position as the Greens, AfD and other parties tear apart their vote share. They may even shift further to the left themselves to prevent populist parties from tarnishing their electoral performances.

The Chancellor still has time to transform her party’s position and she has until 2021 to improve the CDU’s fortunes. The problem is that German politics has become so polarised because of the 2015 migrant crisis. Merkel’s legacy will be that Europe’s largest economy has become increasingly difficult to govern.