Lessons from four years of far-right in Germany

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When Germany heads to the polls this weekend, the far-right Alternative for Germany will again be at the polls, once a marginal presence that has become the largest and most important opposition party. hated in the Bundestag. He has been at the center of scandal after scandal, but unlike other far-right parties across Europe, his experience in mainstream politics has not had a dampening effect on his outlook. The AfD of 2021 is more established, but also more radical.

With Angela Merkel set to step down after 16 years in power following this weekend’s election, all eyes are on who is set to replace her. Whatever the outcome, however, the AfD is almost certain to be excluded from any future government. And if the polls are any indication, the far-right party is expected to win just 11% of the vote, below its historic performance in 2017.

Four years ago, many feared that the AfD would eventually gain power, so it would be easy to deregister the party as having failed. One would think that Germany may have proven the limits of far-right populism.

The reality is not so simple: if there is one lesson to be learned from Germany over the past four years, it is that the populist right does not need to be in power to be politically effective. . On the sidelines, the AfD has succeeded in setting the terms and tone of the German political debate, while breaking down taboos and challenging the limits of what constitutes acceptable political discourse in the country. Regardless of the outcome of the election, that is unlikely to change.

Conventional wisdom suggests that once a far-right party enters mainstream politics, it begins to self-moderate in an attempt to broaden its appeal. Such was the case in France, where Marine Le Pen attempted to rename her far-right National Rally (formerly Front National) as a more acceptable choice – a process which involved the expulsion of the party founder and his father. , Jean-Marie Le Pen, while turning away from much of his xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. (The party’s other policies, including its nativism and Islamophobia, remain intact.) The same was also true in Sweden, where far-right Swedish Democrats sought to distance themselves from their neo-Nazi roots. .

The AfD, however, has only gotten more extreme. Although it was founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party (its name was a pointed response to “There is no alternative,” one of Merkel’s signing statements), it quickly pivoted during the 2015 migrant crisis, which saw Germany absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and beyond. The party’s far-right policies have paved the way for it in the Bundestag, and its leaders seem convinced that this policy can keep it there. In addition to doubling down on the anti-immigration rhetoric during this election (“Cologne, Kassel or Constance cannot face more Kabul”, one reads on an AfD poster, apparently referring to the Berlin decision. to accept thousands of vulnerable Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban rule), the party has also sought to capitalize on more pressing issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, positioning itself as a political hotbed for opponents of the closure and climate change skeptics.

German voters have not embraced the AfD’s change. The party suffered a heavy blow this year in a regional election in East Germany, a defeat that has been attributed in part to the decline in voter interest in immigration as a wedge issue, as well that in the internal battle between the more moderate and extremist wings of the AfD, the latter drew the attention of the German internal intelligence agency, which is responsible for monitoring extremist forces in the country. “They are under surveillance, not yet officially under observation,” Kai Arzheimer, political scientist and right-wing extremist expert at German University in Mainz, told me. “But in the public mind, they are marginal extremists.” (AfD management did not respond to requests for comment.)

Poll numbers and election results, clear as they are, can also be limited indicators of a movement’s impact. Indeed, as several populist forces across Europe have demonstrated, the far right does not need to gain power to achieve its political goals. This was the case in Britain with Nigel Farage, who, although he never won a seat in Parliament, managed to elevate his favorite problem, with Britain leaving the European Union, to the rank of fierce national debate, which ultimately led to the result Farage wanted: Brexit. Elsewhere in Europe, mainstream parties have adopted harsher rhetoric on immigration in an attempt to undermine the growing populist and nationalist wave.

“It may seem at one point that the far right is not doing very well,” Hans Kundnani, director of the Europe program of the London-based think tank Chatham House, told me. “Centrists can say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? We have seen the populist wave. But what really happened is that the center-right has completely taken over its agenda. “

Although the main German parties have maintained a cordon sanitaire around the AfD, they have not been immune to the trend described by Kundnani. Indeed, a number of politicians belonging to the Christian Social Union, Merkel’s sister party to Christian Democrats, have repeated AfD talking points on Islam and migration in an unsuccessful attempt to undermine far right in the 2018 state election. Even now, some of the most right-wing members of Merkel’s party look more like AfD supporters than Christian Democrats – the most Noteworthy being Hans-Georg Maassen, the party candidate for the East German state of Thuringia and the former head of the country’s internal intelligence agency, a post from which he was sacked for being accused of having far-right sympathies.

By claiming even a small share of German political real estate, the AfD has forced the country’s main parties to expand their tents and, in some cases, even normalize far-right positions. It has also forced them to consider heavier coalitions which not so long ago might have been unthinkable, making it harder to calculate the formation of a government in a country where a single party rarely wins a majority. overall. “Its mere existence makes two-way coalitions at the national level almost impossible,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German expert at the Brookings Institution, told me, noting that the country’s previous attempt to form a governing coalition without the AfD had taken hold. five months to negotiate. . This time could be similar.

“We are examining the possibility of protracted coalition negotiations and a German capital turned in on itself at a time when I would say German responsibility in Europe is urgently needed,” Stelzenmüller said. “This is a significant impact of the AfD, whether in opposition or not.”

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