Against all the odds, on May 14, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats swept into power in North Rhine-Westphalia after voters ditched the Social Democrat and Green coalition.

And how! Germany’s most populous region was, with few election blips, the Social Democrats’ fiefdom. Not anymore. The Christian Democrats, led by Armin Laschet, who is credited with being a rather dull politician, won 33 percent of the vote, up from 26.3 percent at the last contest in 2012.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
More >

As for the Social Democrats, their vote share fell from 39.1 to 31.5 percent. The Greens didn’t do well either, falling from 11.3 to 6.3 percent. The liberal Free Democrats, led by their charismatic leader, Christian Lindner, jumped from 8.6 to 12.7 percent. The populist, Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany won 7.3 percent, enough to enter the region’s parliament.

Local issues, internal security, crime, and education dominated the campaign. But more broadly, the results point to a number of trends that are not all confined to Germany.

The first is the Merkel phenomenon. National opinion polls were almost writing her off in late 2016. There was criticism of her handling of the refugee crisis after Merkel decided to take in over 1 million refugees and migrants, many from Syria and Iraq. The terrorist attack in Berlin in December 2016 that killed twelve people shook the country, and questions were raised about Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which has since been restricted.

When the Social Democrats elected the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, as their new leader earlier in 2017, the polls pulled the party out of the doldrums. But not for long. In Germany’s last three regional elections—in Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and now North Rhine-Westphalia—the Christian Democrats roundly defeated the Social Democrats, defying expectations. The Greens also took a battering in each region.

Why is this so? One reason is that Merkel is seen as a safe pair of hands and somebody who is unwilling to pander to populists or Euroskeptics. Also, the German economy has been growing steadily for five years, and unemployment is at a record low. Furthermore, the refugee crisis, for the moment, has ebbed.

Other, more complex issues such as pending digitization and its effects on jobs are hardly mentioned. Forget too about growing inequality or the fact that Germany needs tens of thousands of engineers, mathematicians, and IT graduates. All these issues require a long-term strategy. And however much Merkel talks about digitization, Germany, along with many other EU countries, is way behind Estonia and Denmark in terms of preparing for this new era.

But events in Germany’s Eastern neighbors, Britain, and the United States have an impact on Germans’ outlook. They see the rise of populist leaders and politicians in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. These governments are forever criticizing the EU, but not enough to stop taking the huge structural funds they receive each year to modernize their infrastructures.

To the west, Britain is on its way out of the EU, a move that will have all sorts of unintended consequences for the bloc’s future direction. As for the United States, President Donald Trump’s administration has the potential—if taken up by French President Emmanuel Macron, who visits Berlin on May 15—to spur the EU toward a long-overdue real security and defense policy and to speed up trade deals.

Amid such uncertainty, Germany under Merkel, despite her lack of ideas about how to take Europe forward, is a bastion of stability and growth but also a certain complacency. Interestingly, in North Rhine-Westphalia, 310,000 Social Democratic voters switched to the Christian Democrats since the last regional election.

The Social Democrats and the Greens have so far been unable to persuade Germans to change course. These two parties support Merkel’s refugee policy. They support Germany’s switch from nuclear energy to renewables. They support the EU. They support Europe having strong security and defense policies. And, despite some misgiving from sections of the Social Democrats, they support Merkel’s policies toward Russia and the EU’s sanctions that were imposed in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

But as left-wing parties—a term that is increasingly losing its meaning—the Social Democrats and Greens have been unable to enunciate policies about how to deal with the social, political, and economic consequences of globalization.

The populist approach articulated by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, which is in effect the country’s main opposition party, played on the politics of fear and hopelessness. She did not offer a coherent economic and social agenda to meet the challenges of globalization and France’s low growth and high unemployment.

Germany’s Left party has tried to home in on these issues, but the party failed to get reelected to North Rhine-Westphalia’s regional legislature. In short, the established center-left parties have, as yet, no platform to challenge Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Unless they explain what they really stand for between now and Germany’s federal election in September, they could go the way of other left-wing parties in Europe.