This weekend, Angela Merkel won a fourth term as Germany's chancellor. Entering into her 13th year in the position, she is now one of the longest-serving leaders in postwar German and European history. The anticipated victory of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Union (CSU), reflects the steadiness and predictability that the German electorate has traditionally prized. But the elections' results are more unsettling for those who view Germany as a beacon of the cautious, progressive conservatism that has characterized Merkel's rule for over a decade.
For the first time since the formation of the federal republic, the "Strauss Rule" has been broken: A party further right than the CDU will enter the German parliament. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) may not be the neo-Nazi party that some claim it is, but with 13 percent of the vote, it will use its position as the third-largest group in the Bundestag to elevate its hard-right platform among opposition lawmakers.
In fact, if there is one lesson to be taken away from the Sept. 24 vote, it is that Germany's traditional parties gave their worst performances ever. On the right, Merkel's CDU/CSU coalition took 33 percent of the vote, while on the left the Social Democratic Party (SPD) took only 20 percent. Moreover, in addition to the AfD, three other parties — the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Greens and the Party of the Left — qualified for seats in the legislature, each hovering around 10 percent of the vote.
Having six parties in parliament is another first, one that could mean the "Israelization" of German politics as the need for broad coalitions brings several partners into the ruling administration. On one hand, this is a sign of Germany democracy at work as the will of the people is heard. On the other, the outcome will make coherent and courageous governance even more difficult to achieve.
Merkel cannot rule alone. Nor can she rule with a single partner, now that the SPD has announced its intention to join the opposition. So many expect the chancellor to form a coalition with the FDP and the Greens — hardly a natural alliance, but one that excludes the parties at the furthest reaches of the political spectrum. Still, what will happen to policymaking when the coalition's pro-business and pro-environment members need to hammer out an economic policy, or when the traditional Christian Democrats and the iconoclastic Greens need to find a common set of social goals?
Despite the pitfalls that lie ahead, Germany's domestic environment will remain stable for the most part. The real question, however, is whether the same will be true of Germany's ability to weather a series of pressing problems abroad. The list of foreign policy challenges facing Berlin is long: The European Union is searching for much-needed reforms, Brexit negotiations are underway, Russia is gaining influence to the east, the Continent's relations with Turkey are in need of repair, refugees and migrants are making their way northward from the Middle East and North Africa, and European states are struggling to compete in the global economy. Ironically, many of these challenges likely helped propel Merkel, who is widely seen as a voice of reason and source of stability on the Continent, to her fourth term as chancellor.
And what of the Atlantic alliance between the United States and Europe? China is now Germany's largest trade partner and an ally on the issue of climate change, but is it truly a substitute for a trans-Atlantic partnership that has defined an era of progress throughout the West? The SPD, which has vehemently opposed U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" doctrine, has left Merkel's coalition. But the Greens may be even more upset by Trump's position on the environment and diversity. By all appearances, then, Germany's new government will continue to have trouble seeing eye-to-eye with the United States.
Whatever Merkel's considerable talents, the new power arrangement in Berlin will make it much harder to agree on and implement strategies. And if French President Emmanuel Macron seeks an ally in reforming the European Union or navigating the Brexit, if Trump searches for a new approach to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or if tension with Russia continues to rise, the Continent's leading power will probably be less decisive, less committed and less able to influence others in its response.
Germany's new political landscape is one in which the vital center has shrunk and Merkel's ability to lead in what will certainly be her last term in office has diminished. This is hardly good news for one of the world's staunchest supporters of democracy, prosperity and stability.