On Sunday, German citizens elected a new Bundestag legislature, effectively retaining Chancellor Angela Merkel for a fourth consecutive term. Many observers, however, have noted the astonishing triumph of the country’s rising right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which finished third after Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). For the first time in over 60 years, a far-right party will sit in the legislative halls of a country still haunted by its authoritarian past.
It is curious, then, how the SPD’s leader, Martin Schulz, has chosen not to renew his grand coalition with the incumbent Merkel-led government. The two parties have been bonded since 2005, when a razor-thin election result compelled the second-place SPD to cooperate with the country’s largest party. Doing so allowed the Social Democrats to assume cabinet roles in Merkel’s government, but the plunder came with a cost; since then, SPD’s support has slid, threatening its position as the leading voice of left-leaning ideology in postwar German parlance.
Schulz has promised to reform SPD into the prime oppositional party in the new Bundestag. Doing so will weaken Merkel’s ability to lead — she must now form a coalition government with at least two smaller parties to maintain her ruling majority. However, the SPD leader made a responsible decision. It is the right call for his party, for Germany and, above all, for the entire European Union, as it forestalls a far greater danger: the rise of ideological nationalism.
Had Schulz chosen to continue the grand coalition, it would have fueled further electoral gains for AfD, a party which has quickly become anti-Muslim, anti-EU and anti-multicultural. The far-right populists would have assumed the mantle of being the primary check on Merkel’s power, inevitably benefiting when voters tired of the centrist status quo, as so often happens in democratic politics. Having few alternatives in this scenario, many disaffected German citizens would jump to AfD, normalizing and solidifying the party’s place in the Bundestag.
Merkel’s fourth term will be a tough ride, but Germany must do its best to avert the dangerous influence of the far-right forces that would see the nation cede its stabilizing global influence. As tough as it may sound, SPD’s breaking of the grand coalition is the best way to keep the evils of populism at bay. ■