Third place in the election may go to the Alternative for Germany party
A CERTAIN sort of Anglo-Saxon commentator is permanently convinced that Germany is about to fall apart. Witness those American shock jocks ranting about no-go zones in cities whose names they would struggle to spell, let alone find on a map. Or those imaginative British tabloids that routinely suggest the nativist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will sweep Angela Merkel from power. Witness, too, mainstream commentators who should know better prematurely writing off the chancellor and, effectively, declaring Germany the next domino to fall to the West’s populist wave.
Such accounts underestimate the country. Its culture of remembrance creates a unique sense of historical responsibility and a stark wariness of demagoguery. Its political, media and wider civic life prioritise moderation and consensus: a new study by the Bertelsmann foundation shows that fully 80% of Germans consider themselves “centrist”, compared with 67% of Brits and 51% of French citizens. Germany’s economy is booming; the post-industrial grimness of swathes of Britain, France and America simply does not exist on that scale here. A lower proportion of Germans feel socially insecure than at any point since reunification. And in defiance of the apocalyptic predictions in the foreign press the country is coping with its refugees and starting to integrate them, as I explain in this week’s print edition.
So it is with caution that I predict that the country’s federal politics will take a rightwards turn at the election on September 24th. Mrs Merkel will be the next German chancellor. The country’s admirably cautious and reflective relationship with its identity and history will live on. It will continue to be a beacon of moderation and stability, the eye of the West’s nativist storm.
But I make the prediction nonetheless. The AfD is doing better than many expected. Its support spiked last year but had fallen again by the time of the party’s chaotic, rightwards-lurching conference in April. When, back then, I concluded that it was too early to write the AfD off, that was still a contentious prediction. But since the spring it has risen from around 7-9% in polls to the 8-12% range. Four of Germany’s six main pollsters have it on track to be the third largest party in the Bundestag. That would shake the political establishment.
Some in Berlin quietly wonder whether it might even outperform its polling, going deeper into double digits. The election campaign has given it new prominence, on talk shows for example, while mainstream opposition to Mrs Merkel has been relatively weak; consider her TV “duet” with Martin Schulz. That the chancellor’s centre-right CDU/CSU alliance is so far ahead of the Social Democrats (SPD) might tempt some centre-right voters annoyed by her refugee policies to vote AfD in protest (perhaps casting their first, “direct” vote for a CDU/CSU candidate and their second “list” vote for the populists). One strategist for a rival party reckons the AfD could beat the SPD in the former communist east, and even win one or two constituency seats there.
Moreover the current polls may not reflect all factors. At the first state elections contested by the AfD they underestimated the party’s support. This has changed as pollsters have improved their samples. At the election in North-Rhine Westphalia in May, for example, it got 7.4%, 0.1 points off the average of the final three polls. But this is the first federal election since the AfD’s initial surge, so new territory once more, and the six big pollsters’ latest numbers for the party range by four points, compared with two points for both the CDU/CSU and the SPD. They cannot all be sampling accurately.
Finally there is the ongoing possibility of a terror attack or a scandal in the final days of the campaign. Russian interests are believed to be behind a massive hack on the Bundestag in 2015 and subsequent hacks of individual politicians, but compromising material has not yet turned up on Wikileaks. This might remain the case, as in the recent Dutch election. Or it might not. That said, German voters have to date shown themselves politically resistant to sudden events: neither the Berlin terror attack in December nor previous Russian interference significantly moved poll numbers.
Near certain, in any case, is that the AfD will join the Bundestag. There it will bring a noisy and fractious edge to a legislature previously marked by a relatively calm and collegiate tone. As I wrote recently, the party’s record in state legislatures suggests its MPs will combine amateurishness with frenetic activity. Other parties will refuse to co-operate with it. But already it is clear that the AfD can influence them indirectly. The recent populist overtures from Christian Lindner of the pro-business Free Democrats (he recently said all refugees must be sent back) owe more than a little to the party. Some see in the newly patriotic colours and language of the CDU/CSU’s election campaign a more gentle gesture in the same direction.
Today the Bundestag is made up of just four groups: the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the Greens and the socialist Left party. Next Sunday they will be joined by an increasingly right-leaning FDP and perhaps as many as 70 or 80 AfD legislators elected on an openly ethno-nationalist platform (“‘New Germans’? Let’s make them ourselves!” runs one poster slogan over the image of a pregnant white woman). And that’s before the conservative tilt that many expect the CDU/CSU will take on Mrs Merkel’s departure, probably in the second half of the coming term. As wrong as the Anglo-Saxon doom mongers are, German federal politics is headed unequivocally rightwards.
And in the long term? Bundestag membership might see the AfD flame out or, more likely, split. But that is uncertain—unlike the fact that it will enjoy previously unavailable prominence and resources. And its rise has been accompanied by the emergence of an extensive “alt right” media infrastructure, parts of it Russian-backed, serving invective and half-truths to an angry minority of Germans. Just in the past hours it has come out that a major German supermarket chain now stocks a far-right magazine amid mainstream titles.
Events may also help the rightists. Beneath the placid surface, new divides in German society are opening up: the lowest 40% of earners have seen no real pay increases in two decades, for example, and an insecure, low-wage service sector is growing. Meanwhile those of us propounding ambitious moves towards Euro zone integration by Mrs Merkel’s next government must concede that these could give the nationalists new things to foam about. A fresh increase in refugee numbers would do the same. Melanie Amann, a journalist for Der Spiegel and author of a book about the party, even tells me that she can imagine the AfD, or a splinter from it, one day forming a coalition government with the CDU/CSU (an equivalent of which will probably come to power in Austria this autumn).
To be sure: for now Germany will remain a beacon of stability and reasonable, centrist government. But that does not make the shifts in its politics trivial. The country’s partners may need to pay more heed to its domestic politics. Its leaders may have to confront right-wing populism head on and in open debate, rather than merely defying it. A new, different political era looms.