Berlin and German Politics

Where Germany is Going: a Q&A on Election Weekend

Germany goes to the polls this Sunday, 24 September 2017. What does the campaign tell us about the EU’s largest economy and most powerful member state? In short, Germany is experiencing a shift in the political spectrum to the right. Here are some of the big questions:

How much support will the Alternative for Germany gain?

The AfD, a populist right-wing party, is now polling at 11% (compared to its 4,7% voter share in 2013). If they pass over the 5% mark, to gain representation in the German parliament (a barrier they will most certainly hurdle this election), the racist far-right will finally have a voice and access to public funds.

The AfD’s virulent reaction to the refugee influx mobilized its reactionary voter base. Immigration has become the number one election issue, while in previous elections it was unemployment (which has dropped to the fifth most discussed issue, after issues around poverty and social assistance (the Hartz IV program), pensions, and education). Anti-immigrant forces had hitherto been contained by a taboo in German society inherited from its post-war reconciliation with State crimes.

Is this the beginning of a long-term entrenchment, and ‘normalisation’, of a nationalist party and its views in German political life? Will the AfD shift the debate, across the board, farther to the right as parties try to steal back a support base that includes up to 25% of Germans who are susceptible to racist and scapegoating positions (and who feel left behind by globalisation and cosmopolitan urban elites)? And is the AfD a threat to the German constitution that guarantees the inviolable dignity of all persons? There have been calls that the AfD should be banned constitutionally before they become a serious threat. But, more likely, the AfD seems set to become entrenched in the German political reality. They might well become the third-largest party in the German parliament.

Meanwhile, the party has shown its true colours with their election campaign that two thirds of Germans have found not only unsavoury, but unfair, preying on hatred and insecurites. AfD election postering, for example, has come under significant scrutiny: pictures of white-skinned pregnant women (“New Germans? We’ll make our own”),  women in bikins (“Burkas? We prefer Bikinis”), or women in traditional German garb (the weird: “Burkas? We prefer Pinot [Burgunder])), or pictures of pigs (the nasty: “Islam doesn’t fit with our cuisine”). Not only racism, but sexism, has been the hallmark of a campaign. Angela Merkel and her party––including the CSU with its patriarchal image––start to look rather better.

Who will be the CDU’s partners in government?

The CDU is polling now at 37%, with the SPD far behind at 22%. In order to have control of the German parliament, they will need partners. But how many partners will the CDU need, and which ones will they choose? A so-called “Jamaica coalition”, for example (based on the party colours: black (CDU), yellow (FDP, or the liberals), green (the Greens)) is possible: the Greens are at 8% and the liberal FDP at 9%. Or will the CDU choose a grand coalition with the SPD? An alliance with Die Linke, or former Communists (polling at 10%), is out of the question for the CDU (the old joke is putting them in the same room results in a shouting match in less than one minute). If the CDU chooses the SPD as its partner, then does that leave the AfD as the biggest opposition party in the government? Not wishing to give the AfD that privilege, Merkel’s party may well choose the smaller parties over the SPD.

What would a Jamaica coalition mean for the coalition partners?

A promise of a coalition would move the other parties to the right. The Greens, for example, hoping for a chance to join government under Merkel’s wing, would have to tone down their leftist rhetoric. Would this destroy the core of Green ideals? What compromises would be made on climate change, coal, diesel, or a future ban on diesel/petrol vehicles (as in France or the UK)? The FDP meanwhile, with their free-market right-wing ideology, would bring out the fiscally conservative side of the Union: should Merkel be able to choose the FDP as a single partner (a Black-Yellow coalition), it would mean a strengthening of the hard-nosed, austerity-centric, Germany-first contingent we saw at work during the Eurocrisis. The FDP want to make this mark this time around, having lost so badly in the polls last elections (4,8%), and having felt their agenda was passed over when they were coalition partners in 2009. For the left, a Black-Yellow coalition would be a very negative scenario.

How do the German elections conclude a year of electioneering in Austria, the Netherlands, Britain, and France?

It’s been a rough election year in Europe. No thanks to the press who––in the wake of Brexit this time last year––took up “the end of the EU” and “the victory of the populist right-wing” as its doomsday stories. The news cycle didn’t turn out quite as expected. No matter, plenty of scare stories were clicked and sold. Election after election––from Austria to the Netherlands to France––concluded without the predicted far-right victories. Instead, each election was a resounding victory for the European project. Britain––the only domino that fell––looked increasingly like an isolated and foolish negative example.

The Brexit year has, nonetheless, left moderate Europeanists with the jitters. Voters, still wary that “Europe is in trouble”, are perhaps more willing to vote conservatively for the strongest pro-EU party than before. Not only the pro-EU identity of the party is important, but also that it is not a fringe party. Conservative parties look increasingly acceptable in light of the extremists (Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, the Front National in France, or the Alternative for Germany). This is just one reason why the Christian Democratic Union in Germany has done so well in pre-election polls.

What does the CDU’s platform include? 

The CDU/CSU Union’s platform as a whole might normally be unpalatable to someone who votes traditionally farther to the left. The Union has a cosy relationship to the arms industry and the car industry (see the diesel debate). It has an unambitious position on the environment: renewable energy should not receive State support, coal should continue to be tolerated in the energy mix despite its CO2 emissions. Law and order issues include support for CCTV cameras in public spaces. In the same spirit as Macron in France, Germany proposes a loosening of work contracts to allow easier dismissal of employees. It supports private over public health care schemes, a continued war against cannabis, reduction of benefits for refugees, support of a “Leitkultur” policy (of “German” as the leading culture, instead of promoting multicultural options), and the continued inclusion of references to God in the German constitution (as an “ethnical bedrock”). The “Christian” in Christian Democrat isn’t there for nothing. But on top of this, the CDU is also for increased integration at the European level––an issue that is more important than it might have been in previous elections. The same dynamics worked in France, where Macron’s pro-EU party received massive numbers of votes in France, for example, despite his support for a neoliberal deterioration of social protections.

What is Merkel’s role in this election?

I have rarely seen a German election where the identity of the leader is so important. Angela Merkel––known as “Mutti”, or the mother of the Germans––is much farther to the left than her own party. This means she has alienated a right-wing segment of the population that will now vote for the far-right Alternative for Germany. Merkel’s visits to far-right strongholds has been met with remarkable fury, especially because of her sudden moral decision to admit more than a million refugees in 2015 (although the CDU now says the 2015 influx should not be repeated). But she has also captured the hearts of many otherwise left-wing voters who are charmed by her ‘anti-charisma’ and integrity. That she makes a number of sudden (impetuous?) decisions such as ‘wir schaffen das’ (we’ll do it) on the refugee issue, or opening up gay marriage to an open vote in parliament (even though she herself voted against the measure), makes votes believe she will do what is “right” regardless of her party’s more conservative mood. I have spoken with many Germans who think she is simply in the wrong party. But she has created a situation in which her party becomes palatable to people who would otherwise never consider voting for the CDU.

What’s next?

So we are left with a few possible surprises: how many people will come out to vote? Because Merkel seems the clear winner, are people less concerned about voting? And how will that improve the AfD’s chances, with its supporters having more zeal to stuff voters’ boxes? Who will then become the coalition partners? And will the AfD become Germany’s “official” opposition?

The left needs to think about the future: how is it that a time of terrible economic uncertainty, after 2008, eventually resulted in so many voters supporting parties that work against social justice? Why has the right profited in times that best show the injustices of neoliberalism? (Note: you might read a preview I wrote about a Thomas Ostermeier production opening on election day this Sunday, at the Schaubühne, on these very issues).

I know that many leftist Germans, on taking part in the Wahl-o-Mat––an online tool that matches your political views to party positions––are surprised to find that the score highly for Die Linke party. And yet those same Germans refuse to vote for them, because they see the party as regional in character (with most of its support in the former East) and also because it has its roots in the SED, or East German Communists. What if Die Linke were to officially distance itself from that past, with a kind of post-Communist Vergangenheitsbewältigung? Might it be able to re-found itself as a viable opposition? Might it be the hope of the Left?  Or is the history of the party too contaminated by the authoritariams of the GDR and the legacy of the Stasi for that to be a possible for most left-leaning voters? Meanwhile, the Greens are weaker than ever––a sorry diagnosis in a time when Green issues matter most. The party may truly compromise themselves, instead of being heard, in a coalition.

The far-right might still be relatively attenuated in Germany, compared to in neighbouring countries, but it is gaining important ground. How much? We’ll know the next chapter of this story on Sunday.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.