Polarization at the polls in Germany

September 29, 2017

The breakthrough of a far-right party has to be understood in the context of a wider polarization across Europe, writes Loren Balhorn, in an article written for Jacobin.

GERMANY HAS voted, and though the results are troubling, they aren't particularly surprising. Angela Merkel will continue to lead Germany and with it the European Union, albeit likely with a new coalition.

Her strongest parliamentary opposition, however, is no longer the left-wing Die Linke, but rather the far-right Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD). The AfD's 12.6 percent is the biggest story of the election, making it the third-largest party and the most visible anti-establishment force in the country. The presence of far-right, even fascist, MPs in the German parliament marks a first in postwar history, and shows that the polarization sweeping Europe has taken root in the continent's core.

The other big story, and the precondition for the AfD's surge, is the ongoing erosion of the political center. Germany has yet to witness a spectacular implosion of the center-left like in France or Greece, but the Social Democratic Party (SPD) ended the night with 20.5 percent, its worst postwar result and a humiliating defeat for its renewal candidate Martin Schulz.

Supporters of Alternative for Germany march against asylum for refugees in Leipzig
Supporters of Alternative for Germany march against asylum for refugees in Leipzig

Merkel remains at the top of the pile and will govern the country for at least four more years, but her party's 33 percent also represents one of its worst-ever showings. Meanwhile, both the Greens and Die Linke saw modest gains, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) successfully completed its political comeback under Christian Lindner after missing the 5 percent threshold in 2013.

On the surface, Die Linke appears to have held steady at 9.2 percent, a slight improvement over 2013. Though not a catastrophe, it suggests that the party has failed to attract a critical mass of dissatisfied SPD voters, over a million of whom opted for the AfD instead. The party, however, did gain about as many votes from the SPD as it lost to the AfD.

In regional terms, Die Linke performed relatively well in urban areas and the western states. However, in the east, a traditional stronghold, moderate to heavy losses were registered across the board, while the AfD surged, directly electing three MPs in Saxony and capturing a plurality of the state's vote.

This result is alarming, and reflects a hollowing-out of the party's reliable base of support. Though it may partially have to do with demographic trends as the party's eastern membership grows older, more than anything, it appears that the AfD has unseated Die Linke as the main party of the eastern protest voter. More fundamentally, it illustrates how a section of the German working class has been incorporated into a right-populist project--a notion further bolstered by the fact that 15 percent of trade union members voted for the AfD, as well.

What Happened?

Though the German elections may seem relatively "normal" by contemporary European standards, a second peculiar fact stands out in the exit poll data: 84 percent of eligible voters described Germany's economic situation as "good"--the highest number in decades. This makes sense given the country's moderate but sustained economic growth and declining unemployment, particularly in light of conditions elsewhere in Europe. Although wages have stagnated for decades and job growth is concentrated primarily in precarious, low-wage employment, in the eyes of most German voters their country and economy now appear as an island of relative stability, making it understandable why many would be willing to "act satisfied and shut up," as Oliver Nachtwey put it.

Does that mean economic insecurity played no major role in the right's advance? Obviously, of the nearly 6 million people who voted for the AfD, a large portion of them identify with the AfD's racist politics. Nevertheless, we shouldn't overlook the fact that the AfD's best results tended be in places which have failed to benefit from Germany's current neoliberal boom, such as the deindustrialized east, and among groups of the traditional working class who feel threatened by downward mobility. Indeed, exit polls suggest that 60 percent of AfD voters were motivated by "disappointment" rather than "conviction."

This should come as little surprise, as the AfD stitches together a coalition between deeply conservative, former CDU voters repelled by Merkel's shift towards the center on many social issues, and dissatisfied working-class and unemployed voters, where economic and social anxieties intermingle with racist and chauvinistic sentiments in a jumbled assortment of anti-establishment posturing. These constituencies, and other segments of the population who voted for the AfD, are united at the ballot box under a xenophobic, protectionist banner, despite the fact that the AfD's economic program would be disastrous for many of its lower-income supporters if ever implemented.

The Rise of the New Right

The AfD has managed to tap into dissatisfaction with the political establishment, economic anxiety, and existing Islamophobic and anti-refugee sentiment across various segments of society and lash them together with a strain of xenophobic, right-wing politics that previously found its home in the right wing of the CDU. Pushed out of the CDU over the last 12 years, this conservative rump has linked up with other far-right formations and managed to channel the spirit of right-populism sweeping Europe far more effectively than competitors.

Its rise is thus also an expression of the ongoing polarization of the German political system, preceded by the founding of Die Linke and the brief rise (and spectacular collapse) of the Pirate Party. Incidentally, it also reflects the modernization of mainstream German political life, which no longer accommodates the kinds of backward views which would have proven uncontroversial three or four decades ago. Unmoored from the political center, this strand of hard-right conservatism began flirting with the far right arguably out of opportunistic reasons, but has become increasingly populated by more extremist elements as time goes on.

As a melting pot of various far-right and national-conservative currents, it remains more a marriage of political convenience than a real party in many respects. Party co-chair Frauke Petry's announcement on Monday morning that she would not be joining the AfD's parliamentary delegation, citing the leadership's rightward drift, served as a stark reminder of these ongoing factional divisions.

For now the leadership appears to have stabilized around Alexander Gauland, his authority certainly boosted by Sunday's result, but further infighting will not be far off if recent history is any indication. It is even possible (albeit unlikely) that the party will tear itself apart by the next election, as the more explicitly far-right National Democratic Party previously did in several states.

All qualifications aside, the AfD's rise represents a true watershed in postwar German politics and a warning of what the future could bring. Germany is not an island surrounded by a crisis-prone Europe, but rather part and parcel of this crisis. Its centrifugal nature may have insulated the country from its most devastating economic effects and dramatic political shifts thus far, but as the election demonstrated, nowhere in Europe is immune to the threat of right-populism today. Should present trends continue, a radical right-wing force will stabilize and consolidate itself as a permanent presence in German politics--whether in the form of the AfD or another, potentially more radical formation after it.

The AfD has allowed a kind of openly racist language to flourish which, though by no means new to German society, was previously restricted to the fringes of official political life, at least most of the time. The scenes of angry right-wing mobs at Angela Merkel's campaign stops circulated by the media this summer often resembled the kind of vitriolic spectacle otherwise associated with Donald Trump supporters in the United States, bearing witness to the deep anger festering beneath the surface in German society and the extent to which some groups are willing to support racist, reactionary solutions to their concerns.

Twelve percent is still a long way from taking power, but Germans more than anyone else ought to know what kind of threat these politics pose to democratic society. The AfD's success pushes the limits of acceptable discourse in mainstream society, and provides these politics with a platform the country has not seen since 1945.

What Happens Next?

A "Jamaica" coalition between CDU, FDP and the Greens appears to be Merkel's most plausible option at this point. Part of the FDP's surge was due to CDU voters hoping to force the grand coalition out of power, and the party probably can't afford to turn Merkel down. The Greens may be a bit more squeamish on the surface, but several CDU-Green coalitions have already governed on the regional level, and the party leadership has already declared its openness to negotiations.

Though the FDP would introduce a renewed degree of neoliberal fervor to the government, it seems unlikely that Merkel would pursue unpopular spending cuts in the wake of such an electoral bruising. At least initially, a Jamaica coalition would probably more or less continue along the previous government's course as long as tax revenues remain high and exports continue to boom, seeking to maintain political stability more than anything else.

But what about the medium to long term? Here, the future is far more uncertain. The new German parliament will seat 94 AfD MPs who have promised to, as party leader Gauland put it on Sunday night, "hunt Frau Merkel, and take back our country and our people."

Concretely, this will mean newfound pressure on the government from the right to restrict immigration, speed up deportations, and further militarize the borders of Fortress Europe to keep refugees out. It will also mean a further spread of openly racist and violent rhetoric in German political life, and pressure on Merkel's government to sharpen its tone.

After all, although the AfD wins votes from across the spectrum, its primary bases are former CDU supporters and nonvoters, while Merkel--not Die Linke or the SPD--continues to be the main target of its ire.

What this pressure will translate into in policy terms remains to be seen, but accommodations to the right seem likely. Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party CSU, already began moving to the right on Monday morning, promising voters in a press conference that the party had "understood" the election results, and would fight for a maximum limit on refugees entering the country during coalition negotiations.

For Die Linke, things could have been worse. Though the party failed to make spectacular gains and missed its target of 10 percent, it reached double-digit returns in many cities and achieved surprisingly high results in the western states, including traditionally conservative Bavaria. The losses in the east, however, should not be glossed over, and will hopefully be addressed more thoroughly by the party in the coming months and years. The further erosion of Die Linke's support in the east would almost certainly benefit the AfD, and is thus not only a problem for the party's future, but for the future of Germany as a whole.

Building on the silver linings of the election, however, will be a challenge. After 12 years in parliament, the party seems to have reached the ceiling of its support at around 10 percent of the electorate. This alone is a noteworthy achievement--better a parliament with a far right and a far left than just a far right--but with the SPD now in the opposition, Die Linke will no longer be the only voice criticizing Merkel in parliament from the left.

The party will have to think more seriously about identifying strategic points around which it can polarize debates in its favor and distinguish itself from the SPD, not to mention nip the far right's momentum in the bud. Working in its favor is the widespread feeling in German society that the country is growing too unequal and the fact that many of Die Linke's policy positions are in fact quite popular, but translating this into something more than an occasional uptick at the ballot box is no easy task.

Die Linke will also necessarily have to address the presence of the AfD both in parliament and in broader society. The AfD feeds on anxiety and hopelessness, drawing on existing prejudices and divisions within society to sell oversimplified, racist solutions to complex social problems. Identifying the sources of this hopelessness and developing a plausible political counter-narrative that can, over time, bring disparate social groups together rather than drive them apart is ultimately the only way to drain the swamp in which parties like the AfD can thrive.

Beyond economic concerns, voter dissatisfaction is also driven by a widespread perception that the political establishment is detached from and uninterested in popular opinion. Figuring out ways how Die Linke and the German left more generally can serve as more attractive spaces for political education and organization beyond the typical routines of electoral politics and the numbing atomization of everyday life will be an important component of any successful strategy for both building the left and fighting the right.

Germany's political center continues to hold for now, but the cracks in its foundation are growing increasingly hard to ignore. The political and economic crisis for which Germany's political class bears a large degree of responsibility has now come home in the form of an ideologically moribund political center and an increasingly bold radical right, and the stakes for our side couldn't be higher.

First published at Jacobin.

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