Following Brexit, Poland and Hungary’s democratic backsliding, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the increased popularity of Marine Le Pen and other right-wing parties in Europe, the forecast for democracies in Europe looked rather bleak.
Last year, even in Germany, few would have thought that Angela Merkel would stand a chance to win the German elections for the fourth consecutive term. In the aftermath of the economic crisis and in the midst of the refugee crisis in Europe, her principled positions, especially on migration issues had won her many admirers but also many harsh critics, who believed that Germans had had enough of “Mutti Merkel”.
The election could have been a pivotal moment in German politics and European leadership, but it turned into a predictable race with a clear winner. However, Angela Merkel’s victory is not absolute.
She starts her fourth term with diminished authority, following the gains made by the rightwing nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), which entered Parliament as the third largest party and with 12.6% of the vote.. AfD’s success should not be misinterpreted solely as a protest against migration. Preliminary voter polls show that AfD’s increased support is also linked to a general discontent with traditional political parties.
Merkel has consistently reinforced the idea that diversity is a strength, and that the integration of legal migrants and refugees is critical for Germany’s future. In 2015, Merkel opened Germany’s borders to one million refugees after seeing the growing humanitarian refugee crisis reaching Europe’s southern borders.
It was a principled decision to help people in need, linked to the empowering persuasion that Germany could handle it - “Wir schaffen das”. In strong contradiction to the closed border politics in Hungary, and restrictive policies in most other European countries, she received wide public acclaim but also a storm of criticism from those who believed that this was too much for Germany to handle.
Germany, like many other countries in Europe, faces major global challenges including climate change, a demographic challenge and economic pressures from globalization and migration. It also faces specific conundrums related to democracy: the rise of populism as exemplified by the rise of the AfD, low voter turnout with declining rates in parliamentary elections since 1972, declining political party membership since 1990, a disengaged and apathetic electorate particularly among young people, and increasingly, integration.
Many argue that these pressures - if not handled well - could lead to democratic backsliding or a weakening of democratic institutions. Indeed, Merkel’s challenger, Martin Schulz accused her of an “attack on democracy” resulting from her refusal to discuss substantial solutions to many challenges facing Germany today, and thereby accepting a low voter turnout.
In fact, Merkel’s open migration policy and focus on integration can strengthen democracies and make them more resilient.
The Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) measures policies of countries to integrate migrants in Europe. According to MIPEX, Germany ranks among the top ten countries in Europe on integration policy. Germany’s integration policies have benefited its economy by contributing to rising employment rates and positive public attitudes towards immigrants. Germany has created a Federal Commissioner at the Chancellery to coordinate integration plans among ministries and federal states, as a good practice.
In its forthcoming (November 2017) publication, ‘The Global State of Democracy’, International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization supporting sustainable democracy worldwide, argues – based on data from newly developed Global State of Democracy Indices and the Migration Policy Index (MIPEX) - that countries with immigration friendly policies also have higher quality democracy.
In Europe, this is true for Germany, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Portugal. These countries facilitate political integration by granting rights for political participation, and by enabling the acquisition of citizenship for both legal migrants and refugees.
In addition, such countries respect and guarantee civil liberties, social and economic rights, and provide access to justice. They score highly on levels of representative government, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, and a free political party landscape.
By allowing and encouraging immigrants to participate in democratic decision-making processes, by facilitating their membership in political parties, and to stand as candidates, immigrants themselves become agents of democracy.
International IDEA’s analysis and the new Indices data suggest that political parties and governments who adopt policies that promote the inclusion of immigrants are on the right track in safeguarding and strengthening democracy.
In the case of Germany, Angela Merkel’s principled and practical approach to migration has enabled her to successfully navigate this sensitive topic, and emerge on the other side with a 69% approval rating. At the same time, she has maintained a high quality seal for her country’s democracy.
Her focus on inclusion and integration, as well as her democratic pragmatism of taking into account public opinion and the ageing demographics in Germany appears to be the secret of her success. Not only has Merkel’s approach been good for democracy in Germany, but it could also be good for Europe. If her example is used to catalyse the creation of similar policies across the continent, it could thaw a potential democratic winter.
Nathalie Ebead and Adina Trunk are researchers at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization which aims to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide.