Melissa Harris Perry: This is the takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris Perry.
Newsclip audio: It's a natural disaster on a shocking scale.
Melissa: In July, deadly floods ripped through Germany.
Newsclip audio: With heavy rain causing rivers to burst their banks, whole streets ripped away by the floodwaters, houses collapsed, livelihoods destroyed. More than 160 people have lost their lives.
Melissa: The floods renewed the German sense of urgency about climate change, and pushed environmental and climate change issues to the top of the agenda for German voters, who are facing an election. This election was going to be different than every other in nearly two decades, because Chancellor Merkel was not contesting to continue her leadership of the German government, which is why a little thing that happened on July 18th proved so important to the future of German politics. Armin Laschet visited a storm ravaged community in Western Europe.
Frank Walter Steinmeier: [German language]
Melissa: You could hear there the somber serious voice of German president, Frank Walter Steinmeier, explaining the damage, destruction and death that the community has just suffered. But because this is radio, you can't see what is happening as the German president speaks. Just over his left shoulder, and in full view of the camera, there's Armin Laschet laughing uproariously. Laughing as he stands in a place where Germans have died due to climate change. Now, let me explain. The laughing Laschet was the candidate for Chancellor from the Christian Democratic Union, now that is Chancellor Merkel's party.
Following in party leadership behind this still wildly popular Merkel, he should have been heir apparent. The CDU should have captured a plurality of German votes in this week's elections. Instead, he laughed at what Germans consider to be a time not for laughing. Days before the elections in Germany, thousands protested in Berlin as part of a global climate protest, where climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the crowd.
Greta Thunberg: People are ready for change. We want change. We demand change, and we are the change.
Melissa: Now, elections are complicated processes, but perhaps this moment, this laugh, is why Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party did not emerge victorious in last week's elections. Instead, on Monday, Germans cast the largest share of votes for the Social Democrats, led by Olaf Scholz. To learn more about what drove German voters in this election, and how the process played out, I spoke with Yasmeen Serhan from The Atlantic.
Yasmeen Serhan: When Germans go to the polls, they would have a number of options, obviously not like the US system. There are more than two parties, so more choices. You have the two stalwart center right and center left parties. You have the Christian Democrats, which is Merkel's party, and their sister party in Bavaria, the CSU. On the center left, you have the Social Democrats, and then you have what I would say are smaller parties, though they've certainly grown bigger in recent years. You have the Greens who performed very well in this election. You also have the pro business Free Democrats, who also did very well.
Then you have parties on the far right and the far left, the AfD, the Alternative for Germany, being the far right variety, and then Die Linke being the far left. In this election, what we saw was that for the first time in, well, as long as Merkel has been Chancellor, the Social Democrats actually came out on top over the Christian Democrats. I know they have a lot of similar names so hopefully people are able to follow the distinctions there. That was pretty big because in 2017, the Social Democrats didn't do so well.
Melissa: All right, so let's start in the center and then we'll go out to the far right and left and maybe particularly to the far right. Let's start with the CDU, the Christian Democratic Union. That's Merkel's party. It actually under-performed, as you point out, relative to center left, the Social Democrats party. How much did it under-perform compared to when Merkel herself was going to be clearly the Chancellor coming out of CDU?
Yasmeen: The Christian Democrats, yes, they lost support relative to before now. It's worth mentioning here that the center left and center right parties, these are the two big parties in Germany. They have been losing support more and more as the years have gone on, in the sense that they've become less of these big all encompassing parties, of the kind that we would think of maybe like the Democrats and the Republicans in the US. They've become smaller as smaller parties have become bigger. But what was notable about the Christian Democrats loss this time around, is it's the first time that they didn't win the largest share of votes.
I think that there's a couple of reasons for that, that I think speak to why the CDU performed relatively poorly. I think the first thing, and this might sound pretty obvious. After 16 years in power, I think a certain level of [unintelligible 00:05:24] kind of sets in and voters, even though Germany I think was obviously very happy with Merkel. She remains a very popular figure in the country. I think there was a sense that they were looking for something new and I think that was particularly true among young voters. Young voters in particular tended to go for those smaller parties I mentioned, the Greens and the Free Democrats.
Another reason is that the conservatives, or the Christian Democrats I should say, they lost their most popular figure, and that was Merkel herself. Armin Laschet, he ran a pretty poor campaign, he had a bit of a scandal. He was seen laughing at a pretty somber event over the summer in the aftermath of Germany's deadly flooding, which you might remember. That really hurt him in the polls. I think frankly, people just didn't really see him as a successor to Merkel.
Comparatively with the Social Democrats, Olaf Scholz who was there to pick for Chancellor. He was a trusted figure. He's someone that Germans know. He served as vice chancellor, because it's worth remembering that the Social Democrats and Merkel's CDU, they've been governing together in coalition for the last four years and have done so previously. Scholz is not a new figure and he made a really successful play at trying to portray himself to German voters as almost a Merkel continuation.
I believe that the way his campaign manager put it to me and a small group of journalists last week was that he's Merkel with a plan. I think they try to play off her popularity and say, if you want someone who's close to Merkel, then you should vote for us.
Melissa: We're talking about the recent elections in Germany with Yasmeen Serhan who's staff writer at The Atlantic. We have this sense that there, obviously, there was the center party, center right and center left, that had formed coalition before to actually create the government. If you move to the right on that spectrum and you come to the AfD, which you've mentioned to us, the far right party. The AfD actually retained a seat at the table, and ever since it sort of reemerged as a player here, there's been a fair bit of anxiety about what a rising far right in Germany might mean. How do you read what the AfD, what its popularity is right now, and what it means?
Yasmeen: Those are all very good questions and I think you're absolutely right. I think particularly after 2017 when they first entered the Bundestag with their historic 12.6% showing, this is the first time that a far right party has entered the Bundestag. There was this huge scare about what does this mean for Germany? Obviously, particularly given the sensitivities around their history, there was a lot of concerns that to have such a [unintelligible 00:08:12] zenophobic and far right party in German politics would be quite dangerous, and it certainly has, we felt it over the last four years.
I asked a lot of people about this when I was in Germany, about the impact that they've had. Even if they're relatively small compared to the other parties, I think their impact has really been demonstrable. They've really changed the tenor of German politics and I think what's important to remember, particularly from an outsider's perspective, this is at least is what really struck me when I was there, is that German party politics is rather consensual in nature. It doesn't feel quite as tense or [unintelligible 00:08:47] in the sense that we might see here in Britain, or indeed even in the United States.
To just give you an example of that, when I was speaking to the Social Democrats campaign manager, he had noted that while he believed Olaf Scholz was the best candidate, he did say, "But the other candidates are also good people." You wouldn't really expect to hear that in other countries politics, perhaps even our own.
The AfD parachuting into that environment, I think, really shook the German political system in a pretty big way. One of the first things they said when they entered the Bundestag, was that they were going to hunt Merkel. This is really not the kind of language that you would be used to in Germany. Of course, they broached a lot of issues, immigration being their signature issue, really trying to politicize that 2015 decision to allow hundreds of thousands of immigrants to enter the country.
There was a big concern I remember at the time, that what happens if the AfD gains more support and God forbid, is able to enter government or makes it so that they take up too much of the parliamentary real estate that the parties have to deal with them. Thankfully, four years on that really hasn't come to pass. What we see in Germany today is that for all the uncertainty around the election results, we're still waiting for the coalition negotiations to happen. We still don't quite know who the chancellor is going to be. What I think we could say definitively is that the AFD is going to play no role in the coalition negotiations, determining what will be the next German government, because put simply, no other party wants to work with them. They've maintained [unintelligible 00:10:23] around that party because they're just seen to be too toxic and indeed the party did lose some support. As I mentioned, relative to 2017, they're down to, I think about 10% of the vote share.
That doesn't mean that they've gone away. They're stronghold in East Germany, they still have a very strong presence there. They're still going to have representation in the Bundestag. It is also worth noting that now that they've reentered the Bundestag for the second time or now that they're about to, the party is going to have access to many of the benefits that the other parties already have, including federal campaign funding, as well as an affiliated organization or a foundation, which all the other parties have. They are becoming a really established part of the German political system, but they remain as toxic as ever, I think.
Melissa: Now assuming that, so your point that we don't yet know who is going to be the chancellor, but assuming that Olaf Scholz becomes chancellor, is he just Merkel with a plan? Is there something that the globe should be expecting that would be quite different from his leadership? Relative to how, for example, the US will be positioned with Germany?
Yasmeen: It's a good question and it's a question that I put to a lot of the Social Democrat leaders and campaign officials that I met. I think what really struck me when I was in Germany, that in large part, all of the main parties were really singing to the same tune when it came to priorities. Climate change was a huge big ticket item in the selection. It was something that came up virtually everywhere, and this included talking to other parties like the Free Democrats and the Christian Democrats as well, and of course the pandemic. We can't forget the pandemic, that being the biggest issue of this year and likely into the future. I think these are some of the priorities. Obviously Europe and Germany's place in Europe, I think is always going to be of the foremost importance.
Just because it wasn't really mentioned in the election that much-- in fact, it's worth noting here that foreign policy wasn't really an issue that came up a lot in this election. I think that speaks to the fact that perhaps there are a lot of domestic issues that Germany was focused on, but when it comes to Europe, when it comes to the relationship with China, I was told by the Social Democrat officials that I spoke to that Germany is largely going to stay the course on those things. I would expect that climate change is the huge issue that Germany will likely want to work with the United States and other allies on as well.
Melissa: I just can't really pick my jaw up off the ground to imagine that climate change would be driving national politics.
Yasmeen: It was funny because it was joked that-- one person I spoke to told me jokingly that Germans talk about climate change like they alone can fix it. Which of course is not really the case, but I think you have to remember that this summer, we saw this all over the world, but I think Europe in particular, there were extreme heat waves. The flooding hit Germany really hard and I really think pushed that. That was incredibly deadly flooding that the country experienced over the summer.
I think that really pushed the issue to the top of the agenda. I too was surprised, but it was also nice to see that this is obviously a pressing issue. We have the COP26 coming up in November here in the UK. There's hopefully going to be a lot of focus on this and Germany, I'm sure their voices will be quite loud as well.
Melissa: Yasmeen Serhan is staff writer at The Atlantic. Thank you for joining us today.
Yasmeen: Thanks so much for having me.
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