The surge of the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party signals the end of German exceptionalism in Europe and a serious weakening of Chancellor Angela Merkel after 12 years in power. The country has been run from the centre right or centre left or by a coalition of Conservatives and Socialists that spread from the periphery of the European Union to its centre and most powerful economy.
With 13.3% of the vote AfD can claim 94 deputies in Berlin. Until now the party’s representation had been confined to regional parliaments. It polled well mostly in the former East Germany, often gaining twice the percentage of votes as in the western states.
That said, the fact that the party suffered a split a day after scoring such a stunning electoral success suggests it will not all be plain sailing for it.
Party leader Frauke Petry dropped a bombshell on September 25, announcing she was quitting the party because she found it too extreme. Petry said she found the words of her deputy, former Christian Democrat Alexander Gauland — that he would “hunt Merkel or whoever down” and “take the country back” — unacceptable. Gauland previously upset many Germans by saying Germany has a right to be proud of what its soldiers achieved in two world wars.
He may have the bulk of the party behind him but by positioning the AfD as a “party of anarchists,” as Petry said, Gauland made the possibility of securing a coalition partner inconceivable.
The ideology at the heart of the leadership must be understood: It is xenophobic and fearful of immigrants, particularly if they are Muslim. It is a broad church that brings together conservatives baffled and annoyed at Merkel’s decision to admit 1 million refugees, predominately from the Middle East and Africa, and right-wing ideologues who, like their peers in France’s National Front party, are haunted by a sense of cultural decline and fear of Islam.
This fear of the essentially Muslim “other” now stalks the politics of France, Hungary, Poland and Sweden.
Germany had appeared to be an island of calm in a stormy sea. Merkel was the great survivor as former French President François Hollande and former British Prime Minister David Cameron sunk in waves of populism. Germany had stable leadership. Therein, however, lay the problem.
Campaigning on a theme of cheery optimism, Germany brushed many issues under the carpet. Like in France, the Socialist Democratic Party’s (SPD) failure to defend marginalised workers who were getting poorer led to a switch of votes to the AfD. The SPD slumped to its lowest vote since 1948 while the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) received fewer votes than in any time since 1948.
More Germans, notably pensioners, are having difficulty making ends meet; many need two jobs to survive. Flexibility is the key word. Nearly 60% of the country’s wealth belongs to 10% of all Germans. Inequality is rising and the feeling of frustration is particularly strong in former East German states.
The surge of the AfD and its anti-establishment tone have solid socio-economic foundations. First it was anti-euro, then it switched to being anti-immigrant. By failing to explain her U-turn on refugees in 2015, Merkel sowed the seeds of distrust. If wealth is distributed less and less equitably, as it is in Britain, a reaction is bound to come. Near full employment in Germany makes the frustration of lower pay even greater
Just as Britain’s Brexit vote subverted the established order, Germany’s consensus-driven model has shown its weakness if not its limits. The model is extremely fractured. Matters were aggravated by the lack of state spending on schools, hospitals and roads from 2011-17, when millions of foreigners (mostly Europeans until 2015) entered the country. Strict budget discipline is a virtue until it fails its political test by encouraging extremism.
A xenophobic party in the Bundestag will complicate the way Germany interacts with Europe. What there is little doubt about is that Germany is likely to play hardball with its eastern neighbours who refused to accept any refugees in 2015, to the fury of many CDU/CSU members. Germany might well play hardball where refugees in general are concerned. Europe is entering a new age.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
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