The right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD) did not win the recent regional elections in Germany on 13 March 2016. But open any newspaper or online news source yesterday and you would think they had: “The Hour of the Populists” writes Spiegel, “Nationalists Strong, Setback for Merkel Party” writes AP, “This Is The Anti-Refugee Party That Won A Big Victory In Germany” writes Huff Post. I think most doom-and-gloom news junkies would then be a little let down to see the actual AfD numbers in the three States that went to the polls last Sunday: 24% in Saxony-Anhalt but around 10% in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg.
Since when did 10% in regional elections shake the German ground on which we step, opening the graves of the Nazi era? Now, I am not saying there aren’t good reasons to fear the AfD, but it’s important to say that we are looking at the glass 1/8 empty instead of 7/8 full.
But let’s start with some reasons why the AfD’s rise to being a political player, from a party just founded three years ago, is important. In the delicate game of coalition politics, where a few percentage points makes or breaks a party’s chances of entering government, a party like the AfD is a spoiler. Their 25% in Saxony-Anhalt came at the expense, mostly, of the Social Democrats (SPD), but the other parties lost too. The CDU expected to win big in Baden-Württemberg, but the AfD likely upset their chances. I think it is unlikely that the AfD will ever control a German State (famous last words? a quarter of the population of Germany is consistently polled as xenophobic, but nasty as this may be, it is still just a quarter), but what they can do is shift the political discussion to the right, as other parties chase after their vote. Nationally, the party is polling at 12%. Passing the legal 5% threshold of support required for seats in Parliament means access to public funds and visibility, and potential future election successes.
Worrying too is that the AfD support is not just from fringe groups: AfD supporters tend to be white, male, moderately educated (51% have at least an Abitür high school diploma, slightly higher than the German average), with middle-lower average incomes. And their leaders have a knack of looking respectable and well-groomed (ie not crazy) on stage. There is a regional dimension to consider as well: the big wins of the AfD have been for the most part in the former East of the country, precisely where there is very little ethnic diversity and a different history of Holocaust education and thinking through the lessons of the Second World War. That said, it can be a trap to stigmatize the East, and it’s worth remembering that a majority exit-polled even in Saxony-Anhalt last Sunday (which was former East Germany) expressed support for Germany’s refugee policies.
What is most disturbing about the AfD, of course, is the extremes of their agenda. Many of the party’s founders originally came together around the AfD’s economic program, to take Germany out of the Euro and its debt crisis, issues the party still wishes to put to referenda. Founders such as Bernd Lucker, however, abandoned the party when Frauke Petry took the helm last summer. She is known for her inflammatory nationalist rhetoric, as the woman who would shoot refugees trying to cross illegally into Germany (an image that reminds many of the border policies of Petry’s birth-country: the GDR). Meanwhile, Björn Höcke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, has been organizing mass rallies with talk of “Volk” that have frightening historical parallels. In Berlin, the AfD’s methods became clear this past autumn as they intimidated a German theatre both by disrupting productions and launching a court case (led by AfD MEP member, Beatrix von Storch) retaliating against the theatre’s parody of the AfD as zombies and vampires (the court sided with the theatre, and Falk Richter’s piece FEAR).
But are Germans regressing to their frightening Nazi past? No, I don’t think so. First, the majority of Germans voted against the AfD, even in Saxony-Anhalt. The mobilization of civilians to help refugees in Germany, not the AfD, is probably the largest Bürgerbewegung, or people’s movement, we’ve seen since the war––one that does not I think yet have self-consciousness. Also, the CDU’s imitation of AfD positions seems to have backfired on them. The CDU at a regional level in both Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg took on anti-refugeee platforms, opposing the federal position of Merkel. But 8/10 in Baden-Württemberg supported refugees in exit polls and one third switched their support from the CDU to the Greens for this reason. The majority of Germans still support positions that are, say, much more left-wing than what has become the mainstream in UK, whose centrist policies more closely resemble those of the AfD than of Merkel’s centre-right government. Merkel’s party meanwhile responded to the AfD victories with the simple message: we’re staying on course. For all these reasons, and more, I still think the glass in Germany is still 7/8 full.
But this is no excuse for lack of watchfulness. If there is a trend, if the AfD can harness the quarter of the German federal vote that might potentially support them, we are treading into frightening historical waters where a minority party has the potential to determine the majority’s agenda. Germany’s watchfulness over its far-right––because of the frightening precedent of the Nazis––makes it feel like one of the safest places in Europe. Compare it to its neighbours: where the far-right is in power in Poland and Hungary, shares power in Finland and Norway, could enter the Presidential race in France, and is the party with the most support in the Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland. All this happens in context of a fundamental loss of faith in EU institutions. As Brendan Simms and Benjamin Zeeb have argued in a book appearing this month, Europe is at the abyss; and we need more Europe not less. The presumption of inoculation against the far-right in Germany is itself dangerous and breeds complacency, especially when considered from the protected bubble of Berlin, a place typified by pro-European sentiment and a refugee “Welcome-culture”.
Should we not consider too that the press, with their alarmist articles about AfD victories are precisely the kind of publicity the AfD have always hoped for? Has not the media coverage of Sunday’s elections played right into their hands? What we write about them might be their greatest weapon after all.
-Joseph PEARSON, 15 MARCH 2016