Angela Merkel has her coalition. The Social Democrats voted in favor of forming a new government along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union conservatives. Merkel will stay in the chancellery in Berlin, and political stability is set to return to Germany, at least for the moment. Forming a coalition after months of deadlock is assuredly a victory for her, though the scope and magnitude of it is up for debate. During the next few months, Merkel needs to tread carefully. One errant slip can turn it into a Pyrrhic victory and then the coalition becomes an albatross around her neck.
Make no mistake about it, Merkel has her work cut out for her. In spite of the grandiose proclamations of a ‘Grand Coalition,’ the government that has been put together more accurately resembles a diminished coalition at best. Germany was rattled by the political paralysis that followed the September elections, leaving many to wonder if the nation will ever be the same again. Support for the coalition is dropping, according to polls. At the same time, the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is building momentum. AfD is also setting itself up to be the main opposition party in parliament, raising the prospect of a clash with the new government somewhere down the line.
Merkel has promised to place more focus on domestic issues, though this might be a matter of too little, too late. Immigration is what brought Merkel and Germany to this point. The clumsy way she went about opening of Germany’s borders to the migrants is what caused German voters to turn on their chancellor. Merkel finds herself having to make amends, and possibly even give some of the new government’s positions and policies a slight tilt to the right. Last week she openly admitted that there are no-go zones in Germany after vehemently denying their existence for years. There are reports that Germany could even be seeking a reset in its relations with the United States. It’s a well-known truth that Merkel’s relationship with President Trump has been cool to say the very least.
The fact that she is making these moves now, and that Germany finds itself in this position shows the clout that right wing political parties, and populist movements now hold in Germany.
The shadow of the European Migrant Crisis continues to loom over the continent with its influence being felt in social circles, economic matters, and most prevalently, in domestic politics. The waves of refugees from Syria and North Africa, coupled with the rash of terror attacks in recent years is reshaping the political landscape of Europe. These events are the catalyst that has brought a number of right wing political parties in from the wilderness and placed them in political mainstreams of many European nations. Electorates from Warsaw to Central Europe are shifting right. Even Germany has not been immune from the shift. In last month’s election, Alternative for Germany, a right wing party, made significant gains, a precursor that a new political reality could very well be on the horizon for the central and eastern areas of the continent.
Now it’s Austria’s turn. On Sunday the conservative People’s Party staged a political upset in snap parliamentary elections. The party’s leader, 31 year old current foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, is expected to be chosen by Austria’s president to form a new government once the results are finalized. The People’s Party captured 31.4 percent of the votes and emerges from the elections as the strongest political force in Austria. The new government, when formed, will be a coalition. But it will be a far different coalition than any that Austria has seen in recent years. Conservatives will not be the junior partners this time around. The main partner of the People’s Party in a new coalition will likely be a populist party with similar political leanings like the Freedom Party. Back in May the Freedom Party almost captured the presidency. The results of that election allowed Brussels to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Europe’s amour fou with populist, right wing politics was over once and for all.
Last month’s German elections, and today’s results in Austria show beyond a shadow of a doubt the relationship between European electorates and right wing political parties is anything but a fling. Not surprisingly, immigration was the main issue in Austria. While governments dally on effectively dealing with immigration problems, and the European Union sits on its hands hoping the immigration issue will disappear at some point soon, European voters are putting these leaders on notice. What happened in Austria today was no aberration and it will serve the EU well to keep that in mind.