Angela Merkel struggles to form a coalition amidst an upsurge of German far-far politics

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130906aa002.jpegBERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats penned a coalition agreement with the nation's left-leaning Social Democrats last week after four months of political turmoil, but there's no reason for either camp to celebrate.

Both parties continue to sink in the polls, voters view the parties' policies as a dismissal of their needs and some within Merkel's own party are calling for new leadership.

Meanwhile, Germany's rightwing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) – the nation's third-largest political force – stands to benefit from the wreckage. Another four years of the same governing coalition in Berlin only bolsters the AfD's image as an oppositional tour de force – a phenomenon that will undoubtedly allow the AfD to make gains, analysts said.

"It's clear that the AfD will massively benefit from this constellation," said Alexander Häusler, a sociologist at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, whose research focuses on right-wing extremism and populism. "The tumbling down of this grand coalition is clearly grist to the mill for the AfD."

The writing's already on the wall, said Häusler: Both Merkel's conservative Christian bloc and the Social Democrats had their worst-ever showing in the postwar era in Sept. 24's federal election, winning only 33 and 20 percent of the vote, respectively.

Their support has continued to drop since then, with Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-only sister party currently polling at 31 percent, and the Social Democrats at 17 percent, according to the latest figures from Germany's Forsa Institute.

Such numbers have already prompted leadership change within the Social Democrats' camp – the party's embattled chief, Martin Schulz, resigned this week amid criticism over his leadership. And some conservative Christian Democrats are now calling for the same, albeit still under the guidance of Merkel.

"The CDU is the party of families, the party of the social market economy, the party of Europe and the party of a dominant German culture," conservative Christian Democrat and party up-and-comer Jens Spahn said in a speech Wednesday, adding that the party leadership needed "new heads."

Meanwhile, the AfD – riding a wave of anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment after 2015's refugee crisis brought over 1 million newcomers from Syria and elsewhere to Germany – entered parliament for the first time in September with almost 13 percent of the vote, making them the nation's third-largest party. Some figures now poll the party's support at 15 percent.

The Social Democrats at first rejected entering into a third union with Merkel, citing the abysmal election results as a referendum on the catch-all political constellation whose policies were seen as responsible for the AfD's rise: 1.57 million voters jumped camp from the two parties to the AfD during the Sept. 24 poll, according to figures from German public broadcaster ARD.

The Social Democrats were forced back to the negotiating table, however, after Merkel's attempt to piece together a four-party coalition without the Social Democrats fell flat, much to the chagrin of voters fatigued by the grand coalition, which governed for eight of Merkel's 12-year tenure.

"I've had enough of these elites," said Elisabeth Erdmann, 69, a retiree in Berlin who teaches German to refugees. "All they care about is power and what posts in the government they can get. They don't listen to the problems of normal people."

Chancellor Merkel managed to secure the Social Democrats' support to form a government last week by making concessions on immigration policy and social programs, agreeing to nominal reunification of refugee families on German soil and bolstered investments in subsidized housing and childcare.

But the move comes at a steep political price, analysts said.

"The CDU had to make a lot of concessions and compromises in this coalition agreement – it clearly bears the signature of the SPD," said Jürgen W. Falter, professor of political science at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. "And that almost certainly benefits the AfD, alone by that fact that the (CDU) had to give up certain core conservative values."

"The AfD will now try to fill this gap," he added.

The AfD has sought to do that by drafting strictly conservative laws on refugees and family values since entering parliament, all while remaining vehemently outspoken against Merkel and the grand coalition. 

"The AfD will be the strongest opposition party, representing alternatives to the political establishment in all policy areas," Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD, told the Washington Times. "The AfD will emerge strengthened from the growing political chaos that the established parties have to answer for."

Analysts said there's very little chance that a renewed grand coalition won't come to pass, even though the agreement between the two parties won't be finalized until a majority of the Social Democrats' 460,000 party members approve the coalition in early March.

Meanwhile, if the AfD enters into government in some of Germany's powerful state legislatures – they're currently polling as high as 23 percent in some East German states, bastions of disenchantment with the status quo, some of which will hold elections next year – their emotional, anti-immigrant ideology could fall apart when put to the task of actually governing, analysts said.

"This continuation of the status-quo will only extend the amount of time that the AfD can play their cards as a protest party, but at some point in time they'll have to actually deliver," said Häusler.

In the meantime, the party will continue to benefit from the failures of the catch-all parties.

"The AfD is here to stay as long as long as valued conservative positions aren't occupied by the CDU," said Falter.

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