Farewell, Frau Merkel

A tricky succession awaits. Her heir will not only lead the party but the country on which the stability of the European Union depends

Michael Piazolo and Hubert Aiwanger of Freie Waehler during a press conference. After the last elections in Bavaria, the Free Voters reached an agreement with the CSU, which still holds the relative majority in the Land. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert/Contrast
Michael Piazolo and Hubert Aiwanger of Freie Waehler during a press conference. After the last elections in Bavaria, the Free Voters reached an agreement with the CSU, which still holds the relative majority in the Land. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert/Contrast

The much awaited and feared regional consultations took place in Bavaria and Hesse on 14 and 28 October last. Potentially capable of tilting the balance of German and European politics, they were also an important opportunity to monitor one of the tendencies of our time as the European vote in 2019 approaches.

The main representative of German Populism, Alternative für Deustchland (AfD didn't end up making much headway in Bavaria and Hesse. But in Bavaria, where it stoof for election for the first time, it collected 10.2% of the vote, mainly siphoned off from the CSU and through increased voter turnout compared to previous consultations. In Assia the AfD went from 4.1% in 2013 – beneath the cut off mark - to 13.1%, just short of the SPD which dropped to 19.8%, down by 10.9%. Only the CDU did worse than the SPD. Despite coming out on top with 27% of the vote it still lost 11.3% of its consensus. The same fate befell the CSU and the SPD in Bavaria: the Christian democrats are still the top party but they lost 10.5 points and now stand at 37.2% thus being unable to set up their own single party government for only the second time in their history. In the meantime the SPD also dropped 10.9 points and could only manage 9.7% of the vote: by far the worst result posted by the Social Democrats in Bavaria since 1946. The Länder also witnessed a triumph of the greens which by taking 17.6% and 19.8% of the vote respectively are now the second party in both Bavaria and Hesse.

These numbers and figures do nevertheless confirm the earthquake that has been brewing across the traditional German political landscape. With the AfD now entering the regional parliaments in Hesse and Bavaria it now has a foothold in every one of of the 16 Länder's assemblies, thus finally putting to rest the virtuous taboo that Franz Josef Strauss had imposed on Bavarian and German politics: no party to the right of the CSU. What's more, the collapse of the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in Hesse and of the government's ally, the SPD, in both Länder, has convinced Chancellor Angela Merkel to announce her retirement from politics by declining to stand once more to lead the CDU and that she will not be prepared to accept any assignment, in Germany or Europe, at the end of this government term in 2021.

As for the identity of local governments, the October consultations won't change much at all. A ruling agreement has been reached in Bavaria  between the CSU and the Freie Wähler (11,6%),  the Free Electorate, a local party/association that after plenty of infighting and much strenuous effort is now approaching broader political scenarios. With a very similar political orientation to the Christian Socialists – "our own flesh and blood" as a top CSU official termed them – they shouldn't pose any particular problems. In Hesse, where negotiations are still underway at the moment of writing, we will probably see another black-green government like the one in power since January 2014.

Even on a federal level it's likely that the consequences, at least in the medium term, will be fairly minimal. By declining to run at the CDU congress in December, Merkel has diverted much of the flack that was headed her way: much of the internal tension within the CDU can now play out in the choice of the new party president. And even the risk that the SPD, after this new debacle, might wish to stand down in advance from the Grand Coalition, seems to have been put off for the time being.

Aspects that instead certainly need addressing, particularly from a European standpoint, or even for the sake of the individual nation states, are still the progressive, radical dissipation of the traditional major parties; the persistent waves of abstentions; the successes registered by new anti-establishment parties, all aspect generated by a profound climate of mistrust towards the body politic. With  widespread 'Sovereignist' leanings that attempt to restore national identities to counter globalisation and with it the European Union. On the eve of the Bavarian vote, in an interview with La Repubblica, Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), the former finance minister and current Bundestag president, admitted: "Democracy is under pressure". The president of the AfD in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, prefers to describe it as the "the rotten stench of a dying democracy". He writes, to provide reassurance regarding any possible consequences of a similar demise:

"Even if the nation states were to collapse and chaos ensue, by no means would everything be lost. If all the strings snap, then like the valorous and cheerful Gauls of times past we'll all just return to our agrarian shelters. Us Germans – or at least those who still want to be Germans – are after all just another tribe like any other. The retribalisation within the context of a multicultural transformation could become a line of resistance, a new population stem cell. And from this line one could one day fight back".

Björn Höcke has just been re-elected president of the AfD in Thuringia and heads the bill for the regional vote in 2019 with 84.4% of the votes despite being under investigation for anti-constitutional activities that in Germany have created quite a stir. As the European elections in May 2019 approach Höcke in November will be attending the "Meetings with Hermann 2018" conference (yes, Hermann, or Arminius in Latin, the officer of the Roman troops, German by birth, who in the year 9 A.D. deceived and led the Varo legions to be massacred in the forest of Teutoburg. An unforgotten German hero of a deep and hopefully not to extensive Germany) entitled: The true Europe. The exact location of the meeting will be communicated to the participants nearer the time and one of the guests of honour will be one Gianluca Savoini, a former spokesperson for Matteo Salvini and current president of the "Lombardy-Russia" association, a very active channel of collaboration and friendship between Vladimir Putin's Russia and Italy's Northern League, one of the governing party's in Italy at present. That same Italy which, by ignoring EU accounting rules, is now becoming a role model in the eyes of the AfD: "Salvini is teaching the establishment that Italy is a sovereign country", according to Jörg Meu­then, a member of the European parliament and joint president of Alternative für Deustchland. Meuthen also claims it would be "highly advisable" that the Italian vice-president, Matteo Salvini, should also stand as the populist candidate to lead the European commission.

The situation is certainly messy and the victory of the Greens might not be enough of a balm. However, the elections in Bavaria and Hesse tell us that Europe, and all its principles, though at risk are still worth playing for. Not everyone who is disappointed by politics is prepared to lend their ear to "populist" simplifications – with Northern League's Luigi Coccia and his "Made in Italy shoe" a particularly apt example: the whole charade being conceived for social network use with little thought behind it. So the clash, with "centrist parties" now weakened, is bound to escalate. Between those who, like Annalena Baerbock, the leader of the German Green party, want more money given to the EU, partly to set up a joint European defence system and those who, with sweeping support that nowadays seems to stretch from Moscow to Washington, are bent on weakening European bonds while rediscovering national sovereignty. Or, at worst, a merrily tribal one.

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