European election dents German leader’s authority/

Dismal results for Germany’s governing parties in the European Parliament election have dented Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s authority and could prompt even more of the infighting that just cost the government dearly.

A clear win for Germany’s mainstream conservative opposition boosts its confidence as the country begins to look ahead to a national election expected in the fall of 2025, but raises questions about why it isn’t benefiting more from the unpopularity of Scholz’s government.

And a second-place finish for the far-right Alternative for Germany, despite scandals and setbacks, underlines its enduring appeal to many unsettled voters and its strength in the formerly communist east — where it emerged as the strongest party and hopes to win three state elections in September.

The defeat of the three parties in Scholz’s unpopular coalition “really wasn’t surprising, but the level they’ve dropped to is quite shocking for a governing coalition,” said Andrea Rommele, a political science professor at Hertie School in Berlin.

Scholz’s Social Democrats, the environmentalist Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats secured less than a third of the vote. Scholz’s party polled only 13.9 per cent, its worst post-World War II showing in a nationwide vote, while the Greens crashed to 11.9 per cent from a peak of 20.5 per cent five years ago. All were significantly below their performance in Germany’s 2021 national election.

Scholz’s coalition government set out to modernise Germany but has gained a reputation for constant discord and poor communication as the economy struggles to generate growth.

The coalition partners argued through the campaign about how to put together a 2025 budget while adhering to Germany’s tight self-imposed rules on running up debt. That problem already forced a hasty, court-mandated rehash of the 2024 budget, complete with subsidy cuts that prompted protests by farmers.

“The sense in Germany at the moment is that the current government is not getting things done,” Römmele said. “I do think they are getting things done, not all of them but quite a number of them, but they have to communicate that properly ... and they have to stop having these internal coalition fights.”  

Chances of that don’t look good. The Social Democrats’ co-leader, Lars Klingbeil, said Sunday night that “our people want to see us fight” for its priorities.

Opposition leader Friedrich Merz celebrated his Union bloc’s win and described the outcome as “a serious defeat for the chancellor, who was on posters across the country.” Fellow conservatives suggested that Scholz should call a parliamentary confidence vote or that new elections might be needed — suggestions the governing parties dismissed.

“He went all-in in this campaign ... so it is also his loss,” Rommele said. But despite some recent talk of a possibility of the Social Democrats replacing Scholz with the more popular Defense Minister Boris Pistorius as its candidate for the next election, “Olaf Scholz would need to step aside, and I simply do not see that, be there pressure or not,” she added.

Alternative for Germany, or AfD, celebrated its showing of 15.9 per cent despite a series of setbacks this year that included the party sidelining its top two candidates from the election campaign due to scandals and being kicked out of its hard-right group in the European Parliament. Party co-leader Tino Chrupalla said, “We are used to headwind and so it just makes us stronger.”  

While AfD has benefited from discontent with the government — as did the new BSW party, which won 6.2 per cent of the vote in its first election with an agenda that combines left-wing economic policy with a restrictive approach to migration and opposition to weapons supplies to Ukraine — Merz’s centre-right Union bloc has done so at best to a limited extent.

Its victorious 30 per cent of the vote was close to its showing five years ago, though better than its disastrous performance in Germany’s 2021 national election. Polls have suggested that voters aren’t entirely convinced by Merz as an alternative to Scholz, and there has been no decision yet on who the conservative candidate in the next national vote will be.

The Social Democrats’ Kühnert said a centre-right government wouldn’t be able to flick a switch and make Germany’s problems go away.

“The political problems in the country would still be there in other configurations,” he said. “A big budget hole where the question is how to fill it, dealing with the crises and developments of recent years — the Union can’t assume that it can just take the wheel and everything will fall into line.” 

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