On Sunday, 24th September were held the latest German legislative elections, where more than 76% of the German population eligible for voting went to the polls to decide on Germany’s future. Not surprisingly, Angela Merkel’s party, the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union) has gathered the largest share of the polls, winning 246 seats in the Bundestag. Even though this was not enough for the party to govern on its own, and therefore making it look for a potential collaborator to be able to rule the country, it allowed Angela Merkel to be the German Chancellor again. Thus, she starts her fourth term as Chancellor, and becomes the longest ruling European head-of-state as of late. While being a significant enough win to be important in German politics and catch the attention of medias (even if this was the lowest score by the CDU since 1949), the CDU’s victory was not the main event of that day. Indeed, the German far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) made a breakthrough during these elections, and managed to take the third place in the elections, gathering 12.6% of the votes. With these 12.6%, the AfD actually obtains more than 90 seats within the Bundestag, which represents 13.5% of all seats in the German legislative body. It is then placed right after the CDU/CSU, which gained 32.9% of the votes, and the SPD, which secured around 20.5% of the ballots, getting 153 seats in the German Parliament.
While this could be a bit less alarming in other countries such as France, the Netherlands or Poland, where far-right parties have had their places in Parliament for quite a while, the fact that the AfD got this far into national legislative elections is a rather worrying fact in German politics. In fact, Sunday’s electoral results constitute the first time a far-right party managed to get access to the German Parliament in more than 50 years. This result is especially troubling when considering European politics as a whole. Certainly, after the resurgence of popularity populist movements have witnessed these past years across Europe, both the defeats of the French ‘Front National’ (FN) and of the Dutch ‘Partij voor de Vrijheid’ (PVV) during national elections seemed to announce the “beginning of the end”, or at least an electoral slowdown for far-right parties in the Old World. Even though far-right parties’ results always seem to have shocked public opinions, it felt like their scores were actually starting to decrease. However, with the AfD’s unexpected high score, it almost feels like all hopes of populism fading away have been torn down in the blink of an eye. Indeed, the threat that populism poses to the European Union is that these political movements and groups – which can belong to the far-right political spectrum or not – are promising to answer all issues their countries are facing by appealing to the people and telling them what they want to hear. Right-wing populist parties such as the FN, the PVV and the AfD also thrive because they create a distinction between what they call the ‘real people’ and the political elites, swearing they are representing a new kind of politicians who only want to give the power back to the people. Nonetheless, they appear to all look the same, having similar political agendas, claims and using the same methods to win over people’s confidence and trust. What is it then?
What is the AfD party and how did it become so important in German politics?
The AfD, ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ in German, has been founded in 2013, right after the Eurozone crisis struck the European Union. Originally, its purpose was to oppose the way the crisis was dealt with by German leaders, backed up by a few economists who thought the Euro was more a burden than an efficient currency. Later in 2013, some AfD members started to campaign for the federal elections, but gathered only 4.7% of the votes, which is below the required 5% for getting seats in the Bundestag. This was the heaviest defeat the AfD ever underwent before running for the European legislative elections and winning their first seats in a Parliament.
During the 2014 European elections, the AfD actually succeeded in reaching the EU Parliament’s benches, taking the fifth place in Germany and obtaining seven seats for their members to become MEPs. Following this first political victory, more and more Germans started to assemble around the party’s manifesto. They won several other state elections in 2014 and 2015, getting 14 seats in the Landtag (regional parliament) of Saxony, 11 in both state parliaments during the Brandenburg state election, 8 seats in the Hamburg parliament and finally another one in the Bremen parliament. Finally, during the 2016 state elections, the most salient issue in Germany was linked to migration, which translated into a debate between the main political formations. Alternative for Germany always pushed forward and never hid their anti-migration stances, criticizing the Schengen area and advocating for a better control of Germany’s borders. This way of thinking started to seduce an even larger part of the German electorate. Again, it led the far-right party to increase its share of votes in several other state parliaments, sometimes taking the second place right behind the mainstream parties such as the CDU or the SPD. These victories marked the beginning of the rise for the AfD, which eventually led the party to gather 12.6% of the votes during these latest national elections.
With the increasing of its political influence, the AfD also started to capture the attention of a few other hard-right parties throughout Europe, very extreme ones amongst them. The party had first been integrated within the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, a Eurosceptic and anti-federalist group within the European Parliament, at the beginning of its mandate in the EU legislative body. However, its members eventually got expelled as they started to get closer to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a political group especially known for its extreme stances on immigration and for its pan-Germanic vision of Austria. As a consequence, AfD MEPs joined other parliamentary groups such as the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group which already hosts the members of the French FN and of the Dutch PVV, and the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group.
The AfD thus managed to attract more and more German voters, in a very short period of time. When looking at far-right populist parties, there seems to be more than one similarity between them, in terms of their political stances, the way they appeal to the people, or the importance they give to their own nation regardless of international institutions.
The AfD’s ideology and political stances
The party’s beginnings were mainly marked by its economic claims that the Euro and the Eurozone were not appropriate monetary tools and should therefore be removed. At the time, the AfD – which was primarily considered as a centre-right conservative movement – did not encompass the usual populist claims that their nation, and the German people, would be better off on their own rather than being part of something greater, in this case the EU. It was more focused on dismantling the Eurozone, rather than being completely opposite to the EU in general. Still, it was already opposed to immigration and further European integration.
These were the main political stances the AfD fostered before 2015. However, it started to become more and more extreme in its viewpoints, especially considering immigration, its rejection of the European Union and the centrality of Germany and its people. This was the result of a leadership shift, as the AfD undertook a reorganization mid-year 2015 after a disagreement occurred between the two main heads of the movement, Frauke Petry and Bernd Lucke. Consequently, two factions arose, one following Lucke’s economic and ‘soft’ Euroscepticism policies, which led him to found a new party (Alliance for Progress and Renewal, now called the Liberal Conservative Reformers); and Petry’s anti-immigration and German-centred ideas, representing the new AfD.
Following this transition, the political party adopted a more populist and far-right approach. It now shares similarities with other very conservative political groups, such as nationalism, anti-immigration, rejection of modern feminism, denying of global warming and climate change, only to name these ones. Despite this alarming change of direction, what is even more worrying is the greater share of the electorate the AfD is now seducing in Germany.
How did the AfD become Germany’s third-biggest party?
When it comes to hard-right populist parties, what seems to be the most important piece of legislation voters are attracted by is the anti-immigration one. More precisely, as the EU has been facing a massive refugee crisis since 2015, and even before then, refugee hosting and illegal immigration now seem to be even more divisive issues among politicians and populations. As one of many parties thriving on opposing immigration, the AfD has called for the immediate closure of Germany’s borders, and for doing everything that can be done to stop mass immigration. That way, the party has effectively attracted voters who believe putting an end to mass immigration would actually be a good thing for their country. Moreover, as no other party really addresses the issue of immigration – therefore not opposing the deterministic vision embodied by the AfD – German voters seem to have no other choice than to look towards the far-right, which indeed deals with these issues and concerns.
In addition, there seems to be a general trend in current Western politics which can explain why far-right populist parties have known such a resurgence in Europe and abroad. To put it simply, people in Western democracies more and more have the feeling that they are left on the side-lines by politicians. They feel like their elected representatives do not care about their well-being anymore, do not address the issues that they are concerned about, and thus are very dissatisfied with the way politics is now handled. These people, who belong to very different social groups and have very different social situations, are united because they do not trust mainstream politicians any longer. This can be seen as one of the main reasons why populist parties have been on the rise for a few years now. And if head of states keep on letting people’s concerns down, not addressing popular issues and forgetting some parts of the population, this trend is not likely to stop.
What is Germany going to do about it?
The rise of a far-right party in Germany has not gone unnoticed and unanswered. When the election results were released on the night of the 24th September, Berlin dwellers, who historically always rejected the hard-right political spectrum, started to gather up in front of the club the AfD was celebrating its victory. No one wanted to believe a populist party, which had already been compared to the Nazis in the past, became the third-biggest political movement in Germany. Thus, protesters began to chant anti-Nazis songs, while the party members and a few selected guests were celebrating and singing the German national anthem. A real division has appeared between supporters of Merkel’s “open-door” policy, which helped welcome more than a million refugees and migrants into the country, and supporters of the AfD, who believe Germany’s biggest challenges are Islam, capitalism and Europe. In the streets of Germany or within the walls of the Bundestag, there should be a real clash of ideas between representatives of these two opposite visions, while protest voters who voted for the AfD as a punishment against government parties might not identify to any claims formulated by these two factions, therefore not supporting either the government nor the opposition.
On the government side, a coalition will have to be reached, as Merkel’s CDU/CSU has not accumulated a large enough share of the seats in the Bundestag to be able to govern without another party by its side. In addition, as Martin Shultz’s party, the SPD, did not do as well as they expected, they already announced their willingness to become the next leader for the opposition to Merkel’s government. This leaves only one choice for the Chancellor, which is to collaborate with both the libertarian Free Democrats party and the Greens, forming a tripartite coalition, called the “Jamaican option”, to rule the country. However, this will not be an easy task to achieve, as a lot of disparities between these three parties may hinder the process of negotiating the coalition. If the negotiations succeed, the “Jamaican” coalition – named that way due to the three different parties symbolized by the black, the yellow and the green, the same colours as the Jamaican flag – will have to face attacks from both the SPD and the AfD. This means that the coalition will need to stay strong in all cases, which is not going to be mean feat.
For further information:
The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-populist-tide-in-germany-far-right-afd-could-still-gain-critical-foothold/2017/09/02/69bfd6ca-8cfb-11e7-9c53-6a169beb0953_story.html?utm_term=.9f879b6df26b
University of Denver: Interview of Professor Donald Abenheim: https://www.du.edu/korbel/ceuce/media/documents/abenheim-afd-full-interview-11-2016.pdf