Editorial Board

Merkel's Top Challenge Isn't German Nationalists

The rise of the far-right AfD party is overblown. The chancellor has bigger fish to fry.

A win is a win.

Photographer: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Angela Merkel's victory in Sunday's election gives her a fourth term as Germany's chancellor and should be seen as a remarkable achievement -- one that few would have predicted back in 2015, when her popularity slumped during the worst of the refugee crisis. Merkel's resilience, based on a careful blend of principle and pragmatism, deserves to be celebrated.

To be sure, this success is marred, and the future of German politics somewhat clouded, by the strength of support for the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). Yet dealing with this newcomer to the national parliament is unlikely to be Merkel's toughest challenge. Building and leading a new kind of coalition government will be a greater test of Merkel's abilities.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union won 33 percent of the vote, down from 41.5 percent in 2013. The Social Democrats, who'd been in coalition with the CDU/CSU, were pounded too. Their share fell to just 20.5 percent -- and, wounded by the experience, they've said they'll now move into opposition. AfD's 12.6 percent put them in third place, obliging Merkel to seek a new coalition with the right-of-center Free Democrats, on 10.7 percent, and the left-of-center Greens, on 8.9 percent. Forming a government could take weeks or even months.

Support for the AfD is best seen as a protest vote. The party managed to attract an unruly mix of first-time voters, conservatives abandoning the CDU/CSU, and voters from eastern states under economic stress. Roughly one- sixth of the party's supporters switched from backing leftist parties in the past. Ideologically, they're divided, and the splits widened in their moment of success. A politician of Merkel's skill should be able to exploit this weakness.

Uniting her new coalition will probably be harder. Granted, Germany's economy is thriving: Unemployment has declined to 3.7 percent from over 11 percent in 2005, growth is healthy, and the government's budget is in surplus. This was the core of Merkel's case to the electorate. Yet areas of neglect demand attention, ranging from poor digital infrastructure to lack of competition in services. Building cross-party support for programs to address those issues won't be easy.

Germany's role as a leader of the European Union poses an even greater challenge. Monetary union remains incomplete and closer cooperation on fiscal policy will be needed to ensure long-term stability. The Free Democrats in particular are skeptical of further integration and want a less centralized EU. Without the backing of the Social Democrats, it will be harder for Merkel to make the case for the larger fiscal transfers that a successful union will require.  

To be sure, the prospect of a fourth Merkel term is good news. And the setback posed by the AfD, though disappointing, is being exaggerated. The party is still marginal: It has no more support than hardline nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe and, deftly handled, it won't sway policy. Merkel's real test in the next few years will be forming and leading a new coalition to grapple with Germany's, and especially Europe's, pressing demands.

    --Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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