How Did German Politics Become So Fragmented?

The recent election featured a far-right rise, but other small parties also outperformed expectations—and that’s telling.

Election placards from FDP, CDU, Die Linke, AfD, SPD, and the Greens pictured in Saarbruecken, Germany on March 13, 2017
Election placards from FDP, CDU, Die Linke, AfD, SPD, and the Greens pictured in Saarbruecken, Germany on March 13, 2017 (Ralph Orlowski / Reuters)

For Angela Merkel, the outcome of the German election was nothing short of a “nightmare victory.” Or at least that’s how German newspaper Bild and other local media outlets described the performance of the longtime chancellor, whose fourth-term reelection was overshadowed by the better-than-expected showing of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

The outcome certainly isn’t ideal for Merkel. She now faces the challenge of forming a new government with less parliamentary representation—her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), lost 65 seats combined—and without the support of the center-left Social Democratic Party, a former “grand coalition” partner that has vowed to go into the opposition after its own dismal showing. This leaves Merkel’s CDU/CSU with one viable option for retaining a majority government: a three-way coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, two smaller parties that both enjoyed electoral gains.

Many have bemoaned the AfD’s parliamentary debut and the apparent loss of Merkel’s grand coalition as a sign of Germany’s lurch to the right—but this doesn’t tell the full story. While the AfD’s inclusion in the German parliament will certainly have an impact, however marginal, on the country’s politics as we know it, the same could be said for the rise of other small parties: Despite not earning as many seats as the AfD, they have reemerged as significant players in a political scene long dominated by the same center-left and center-right parties. It’s a reconfiguration of German politics that Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, described as the “de-alignment from the mainstream parties, rather than re-alignment to AfD.”

“We have never had so many minor parties in the Bundestag and we have never had them at such high levels,” Mudde told me. Sunday’s election witnessed the addition of two new parties to the Bundestag: the AfD, which earned 94 parliamentary seats, and the FDP, which made its return with 80 seats after losing its parliamentary foothold in the last election in 2013 (during which it failed to reach the 5 percent threshold to be included in the Bundestag). These parties now join the Greens (which gained five seats) and the left-wing populist Die Linke (which gained four), in addition to the CDU/CSU and the SPD. This seven-party Bundestag is the largest Germany has had in decades, in terms of both the number of parties and the number of members.

“In the 1970s and 80s, we used to call Germany a two-and-a-half party system,” Mudde said, referring to the longtime presence of the CDU/CSU and SPD, in addition to the more marginal FDP. “At the moment we have this discourse of ‘established parties lose, the right-wing populists win,’ but there are actually three other parties that also have 10 percent—they didn’t win, but they do exist.”

Dr. Tarik Abou-Chadi, a researcher in comparative politics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, told me this reemergence of smaller parties is not surprising when you take into account the longtime reign of Merkel, as well as her grand coalition. “When there isn’t a lot of change and when there are consecutive governments that are similar to each other, this strengthens these challenger parties,” Abou-Chadi said, adding that “one of their appeals is this promise that ‘we will shake things up, we will change things.’”

Alexander Hensel, an expert on the AfD, told me this resurgence of smaller parties was partly fueled by losses within the major parties. “In the case of the SPD, the party lost a lot of voters to the Greens, to Die Linke, FDP, and AfD as well,” he said. CDU/CSU suffered similar losses, losing an estimated 1 million voters to the AfD, as well as 1.4 million voters to FDP.

This hemorrhaging of voters among mainstream political parties—to the benefit of smaller ones—isn’t exclusive to Germany. The Dutch elections witnessed a similar outcome earlier this year, with its 150 parliamentary seats divided between the center-right VVD and the far-right PVV, as well as nearly a dozen others. Though the results were partly due to the nature of the Netherlands’ proportional system, Mudde said it’s a trend that European leaders should start accepting as a new political reality.

“The discourse after the election is that this is a glitch—that we failed on immigration, so we will adjust and go back to the good old days of the 70s and 80s … but it’s not going back to that,” he said. “These changes are structural and German politics, as with most European countries, are going to be much more fragmented, which means that there will be broader coalitions. If we don’t accept that as the new normal, we’re going to be frustrated by it.”