German parties may have found the recipe to contain far-right populism, writes Leonard Schuette.
Leonard Schuette is an EU politics expert at Requat Advisory Ltd. He was previously a researcher at the Centre for European Reform (CER), a London-based think tank.
A ‘seismic shift’, ‘major populist rebellion’, or even ‘the return of the Nazis’ – the list of hyperbolic expressions used to characterise the emergence of far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is long.
But the European elections results should provide remedy for the chronic panic about an incipient far-right takeover. In what should be particularly favourable elections for an anti-European protest party, the AfD only came fourth with 11% of the vote. This poor result suggests that sounding the death knell for moderate politics, at least in Germany, was premature.
But that does not mean that the elections reflect a continuation of status-quo politics. In Germany, like elsewhere in Europe, mainstream parties are losing support as the political party system is fragmenting. Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) together with her right-wing Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), still managed to attract 28.9% of the votes, losing 6.5% compared to 2014. But the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) plummeted from 27% to 15.8%.
The main beneficiaries of these losses are the Greens, who for the first time in nation-wide elections became second strongest force in Germany with 20.5%, almost doubling their result from 2014. Under the popular dual leadership of Robert Habeck and Annalena Bearbock, the Greens capitalised during the campaigns on the importance (especially young) voters attributed to environmental and data protection issues.
For the Left Party and the liberal Free Democratic Party it was a disappointing evening, both winning just over 5%. The absence of a minimum vote threshold in European elections meant that candidates from a number of smaller, niche parties gained seats. The satirical The Party, for example, will be represented with two MEPs while the transnational movement Volt also won a seat.
The AfD’s meagre performance at the ballot box is surprising at first sight. The governing grand coalition is paralysed by infighting and deeply unpopular with the public. Chancellor Merkel’s announcement that she will not run for another term has undermined her authority. And the pressures of globalisation that have fostered cultural anxieties across the continent have not gone away. Given these conditions, and the fact that European elections are highly conducive for protest voting, why has the AfD not done (much) better?
Three reasons stand out. First, the AfD campaign was ineffective. Amidst the Brexit chaos, the party scared potentially middle-class voters with extreme positions like calling for a Dexit. The top brass also stood by its far-right partners from the scandal-ridden Austrian Freedom Party, whose leaders were caught on camera offering public contracts in turn for party donations, providing a telling example of the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed patriots. And for months the party was marred with infighting over illegal party donations.
Second, structural explanations tend to be invoked to explain Germany relatively immunity to the rise of the far right. For one, the vivid memory of National Socialism has made Germans less susceptible toward far-right parties than in other European countries. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that 71% of the German electorate consider the AfD categorically unsupportable – a far higher number than for the far-left. For another, economic sources of popular discontent are weaker in Germany than in most of the rest of Europe. While Germans are also concerned about inequality, stagnating standards of living, and precarious employment, Germany’s welfare system still functions and unemployment is at a record low.
But these factors distract from the fact that, third, mainstream parties in Germany are starting to heed the lessons of how to combat populism. The first lesson is that democracy without options makes no sense. Angela Merkel’s reign has sapped the life out of German politics. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there-is-no-alternative’ discourse, she has avoided engaging in political debates whenever possible. But such a way of governing eliminates political choice and ultimately drives voters into the arms of parties challenge the mainstream. It is no coincidence that the AfD has ‘alternative’ in its name.
The solution to this depoliticisation can only be what the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz calls a ‘revitalisation of radical pluralism’ – the return of frank debate between mainstream parties with distinguishable programmatic positions. And first signs of this revitalisation have appeared over the past months. To elect the next CDU party chair, the three candidates embarked upon an unprecedented debating tour across the country, mapping out policy differences and inviting scrutiny from the thousands of party members present at the meetings. Meanwhile, the SPD has sharpened its left-wing profile, though to no avail yet, and kicked off a debate about how to overcome capitalism. And the Greens went through a bottom-up process of programmatic renewal.
The second lesson is that parroting the far-right does not work. As Cas Mudde recently wrote, ‘when mainstream parties move to the right in an attempt to co-opt the issues of the radical right, it does not hurt populist right parties – in fact, it often helps them.’
The CSU learned this the hard way in elections in Bavaria last year. Under pressure from the AfD, Markus Söder, Bavarian premier, accused refugees of being asylum-tourists in search of the best benefits, pleaded for the end of multilateral cooperation, and ordered crucifixes to be displayed in all state buildings. This strategy, however, spectacularly failed to win back disgruntled conservative voters who had flocked to the AfD and lost liberal voters to the Greens.
In response, Söder has appeared chastened and settled the quarrels with the CDU. During the European elections campaign, the conservative camp carefully avoided another debate on migration and instead reverted to traditionally pro-European positions of German conservatives. And while this u-turn did not prevent significant losses of the CDU (largely to the Greens), it meant that other topics, like climate change, dominated the agenda.
It is too early to say whether the AfD has peaked in Germany – regional elections in its stronghold in Eastern Germany in the autumn will be the next test. But the mainstream parties’ attempt to revitalise democratic debates and incipient realisation that copying the far-right is counterproductive is promising. Parties across the continent should take note.
Leonard Schuette is on Twitter at the following handle: @LeoSchuette.