On Sunday, March 13, elections took place in three German federal districts. Compared with other elections, such as the current US primaries, German politics is not the most exciting news to follow. It is generally mainstream, moderate, consensus driven and oriented toward compromise.
It plays out more cognitively than emotionally. It sometimes even appears more like bureaucracy than politics. It certainly isn’t rich with the sort of populism one encounters in other political systems. In short, it is boring.
For decades it had a three-party system: the moderately conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of founding father Konrad Adenauer; the Social Democrats (SPD) that predate the 20th century and has first governed the post-war Federal Republic with Willy Brandt; and the socially and economically liberal Free Democrats (FDP), a smaller party that often functioned as “king makers.” In the 1980s the Green Party made strides with an environmental agenda, which was then avant-garde and has since become an essential part of Germany’s economy and its global brand.
An old federal structure from Bismarck’s era, a great democratic constitution that was adopted under American leadership after 1945, as well as the memory of the dark times of the war that is still etched in the minds of many, have all played a role in blocking populism and extremism, particularly from the right wing (such sentiments from the Left became a more considerable force since the reunification with the east and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, though the more radical Left has only rarely played a role in local government and never on the national level).
German politics became particularly boring during Angela Merkel’s 10 years in the chancellor’s office.
With great political skill, she has navigated through crises and controversies by often adopting strategies that were progressive enough to remove the sting from the opposition to her Left and conservative enough to maintain her political base. Such was the case with the question on using atomic energy when she decided to shut down all nuclear plants following 2011’s catastrophe in Fukushima. Merkel formed a “grand coalition” twice with the Social Democrats, which further hindered the formation of a viable camp against her, for example when facing a potential exit of Greece from the Eurozone since 2014. Her skillful tactics also made sure that no serious rival from within her party’s ranks could become an alternative to her rule.
The results of Sunday’s local elections, however, reflect the greatest danger not only to the future of her party and to her country’s political culture. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) soared to become a leading populist force. It became the third largest party in Rhineland Palatinate, governed uninterruptedly for the past 25 years by the Social Democrats, and in Baden-Württemberg, which was governed by the Green Party since 2011. In the former East Germany state of Sachsen Anhalt it even won second place with 24.4 percent of the vote. According to a report in Die Zeit, the party demands smaller government, from de-regulating the economy or the environment to the lives of its citizens, de-criminalizing recreational drugs and liberalizing the licensing of guns for private use.
Nevertheless, the AfD values are not only about so-called “freedom” and definitely not as libertarian as some of its slogans suggest. It actually stands for a very particular sort of social engineering: it seeks to promote a return to archaic notions about the “traditional” roles of women as child bearers and men as workers, nullifying quotas for women in the workplace, and is against the right to abort pregnancies.
This vision of social engineering includes also the demand to imprison the mentally ill.
However, the AfD’s greatest appeal is undoubtedly its policy specifically toward Muslim migrants: the immediate closure of the borders “especially toward people of other cultures and different parts of the world” and shooting asylum seekers who don’t stop there; restricting practices by Muslim believers through, for example, forbidding minarets, prayer calls by the muezzin and the freedom of association of Muslim organizations. Worse of all, the AfD serves as an amplifier for the sort of voices that are heard in weekly demonstrations of the racist movement PEGIDA and as a political platform for those that led to more than 870 arson attacks against asylum shelters in 2015 alone.
“The problem is not with us”, said CDU’s Reiner Haseloff after election results in Sachsen Anhalt were reported, and accounted for them by alluding to a pan-European trend toward the Right. The co-chairwoman of the Left Party, Katja Kipping, explained its loss of votes with the fact that the party remained committed to solidarity and didn’t adopt a racist attitude.
Both are wrong. It’s not AfD’s racism that pulled in these voters, it’s the policy failure of the more veteran parties that pushed them away. Revolting as they may be, so much of AfD’s support comes as a revolt against Merkel’s broken refugees policy.
The policy was widely praised internationally and by all political parties to the Left of Merkel’s own party. It also inspired many Germans to volunteer for welcoming the refugees in what became known as a “Wilkommenskultur.” However, it also motivated a lot of the 1.83 million refugees and other migrants who crossed the EU’s external borders in 2015, more than a million of whom arrived in Germany.
Frustration has been growing for months, as the state seemed to fail to control its borders and to convince partner countries to accept a significant portion of the refugees. Also Merkel’s promise to tackle the causes for the mass plight of refugees aren’t convincing, as European democracies and the US are reluctant to crush Islamic State (ISIS) with the force they used to defeat the Nazis, and their efforts end up in a circus of peace talks in which no serious vision for the Middle East is presented to replace the Sykes Picot order that was obliterated in the past five years.
Germany and Europe are just too scared to intervene with the necessary force to “denigrate ISIS,” a promise that US President Barack Obama broke as well.
The government also failed domestically in not presenting a convincing plan for integration. It didn’t take on resolutely the likely democratic deficit of many refugees, considering their countries of origin, but focused its efforts only on increasing funds for language and vocational training. That is not enough, and contrary to what many German elites feel, there’s nothing racist or post-colonial in wanting that deficit addressed.
Of course AfD’s surge won’t solve any of that. Albertazzi and McDonell define populism as an ideology that rallies a people against a set of imagined elites and dangerous “others,” who are alleged to deprive the people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice. The AfD epitomizes that very well, and it is hard to think of a case in history when such populism actually made things better.
German mainstream politics needs to begin providing real solutions to people’s concerns over the refugee crisis. The populist trend will not be halted with the excuses of Haseloff and Kipping, or by improvised, patchwork policies such as the government has offered ever since the crisis broke out. Germany needs to boldly address the challenges of relentless wars in the Middle East and to clearly articulate a comprehensive integration policy. Without these measures, there is little chance that German voters will let the issue subside. For Germany to become its normal boring self again, its politicians need to provide solutions. And they better do so prior to the federal elections next year.
The author is currently writing his PhD thesis in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.