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Olaf Scholz has been humiliated – and Germany is now in crisis

In Europe
June 10, 2024

As the provisional results for the European election came in on Sunday, the shock to the German system ran deep. All three parties of the ruling coalition haemorrhaged votes with the Greens plummeting particularly low. Anti-establishment parties made gains. The far-right achieved record results. With regional elections in the autumn and federal elections next year, Germany could be headed for the biggest political upset in the history of its post-war democracy.

On paper, the results read like a stunning reversal of fortunes. The Green Party dropped nearly 9 per cent. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) reached a new low of 14 per cent, down nearly 2 points from their previous worst in 2019. His coalition partners, the Free Liberals (FDP), came in at 5 per cent. Less than a third of German voters opted for the ruling parties combined.

The winners of the election were the centre-right Christian Democratic parties (CDU/CSU) who achieved around 30 per cent. But gaining just over one percentage point from 2019, they were clearly also unable to inspire voters fed up with the status quo.

Many disaffected Germans have taken their votes to the fringes of the political spectrum instead. A new Left-wing party named after leader Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) gained just over 6 per cent and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) managed a record 16 per cent – the highest a far-Right party has polled in a nationwide election since democracy was reintroduced in West Germany after the Second World War.

The leader of the Greens said she was “not satisfied” with her party’s performance and the General Secretary of the SPD spoke of a “very bitter election result”. Germany’s biggest tabloid Bild even called the numbers a “brutal reckoning” and a “slap in the face for Chancellor Scholz”. But really nobody needed to be surprised by the numbers since polling had accurately predicted them. Germans are just as angry as they said they were.

That the European elections mattered to many Germans as a chance to register their discontent shows in the record turnout of 64.8 per cent. Nonetheless, 2.5 million people who had previously voted for Scholz’s SPD decided to stay at home this time. Another two million chose right-wing parties like the Christian Democrats or the AfD. Only a minority of 200,000 chose one of his two coalition partners.

Young Germans, too, have sent a very clear message to their government. For the first time, 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in the European elections and it seems that young people are even more unhappy with their government than their parents and grandparents. A little over a quarter of 16-24-year-olds voted for the coalition parties, 16 per cent for the AfD.

The message from German voters is clear: mainstream politicians aren’t addressing their concerns. Asked what the biggest problems for the country were in May, migration and refugees took top billing amongst the electorate. This was followed at a distance by

Collectively the message from German voters is clear: mainstream politicians don’t address their concerns. Asked what the biggest problem facing Germany was at the moment, a survey in May showed voters putting migration and refugees a clear first, followed at a distance by energy and climate, the economy, pensions and the war in Ukraine. Yet the Green’s top candidate Terry Reintke lists “Feminism” and “Social justice” as her concerns on her social media profile. It’s one of many examples where the parties’ priorities are ill-matched to those of voters, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that a survey last week showed over half of Germans think none of the political parties would be able to tackle the challenges facing the country.

Of course, Germany isn’t alone with the problem of deep disaffection among voters. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has called an early election following his party’s defeat and the surge of far-Right candidates in the European election. In Britain, the Tories seem set for a wipeout, with Reform UK picking up so many of their voters that some polls put them only a couple of points behind.

The shock to political systems across the West is deep and Germany’s case shows that if the established parties don’t listen to their increasingly angry electorates, people will find other vents for their frustration. No political party can take its voters for granted. Those that do, harm not just themselves but erode trust in democracy itself.

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