The Threat to the German Political Balance

Franco delle Donne

11 mins - 6 de Julio de 2023, 23:10

The symbolic weight of the image is enormous. Three men pose in front of hundreds of cameras that have come from all over the Republic to immortalise the moment: Germany’s far right has won an election. And not only that, but it also has done so against the other parties overall. The victory of Robert Sesselman, the future Landrat of Sonneberg, is just the excuse for Björn Höcke, one of the most radicalised members of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and the head of the Tino Chrupalla party to travel to the small county of Thüringen in eastern Germany. They know they have won more than a local election. 

The result is merely a symptom of a situation that has been going on in Germany for months. While the tripartite coalition government of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals is losing popularity, and the opposition Christian Democrats are unable to seize the momentum to position themselves as an alternative party, the AfD is growing in the polls as never before since its founding ten years ago. This growth has led it to fight for second place at the federal level and even to lead the polls in the east of the country.

In a context of inflation and uncertainty, it is tempting to point to social discontent as the main reason for this growth. A reasonable hypothesis, if we take into account that throughout its history, this party has been characterised by capitalising on the crisis of representation in Germany, especially in the east of the country. However, in order to understand the rise of the far right in the polls, it is necessary to focus on other factors: the predisposition towards nativist discourses, the victimhood narrative, the fear of social decline, and, above all, the normalisation of the radical right. 

The Party of the East
AfD has managed for the first time to exceed 20% of the vote at the federal level. This allows it to condition the formation of a government, reducing the parties’ room for manoeuvre since, at least for now, they all express their refusal to cooperate with the far right. This scenario is more acute at the regional level in the eastern Bundesländer, where the AfD vote ranges between 24 and 29 points. 

The far right finds its stronghold in the territories of the former GDR. In fact, it would obtain 32% of the vote there, nine points ahead of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) according to a Forsa poll. In addition, it would currently hold 34 direct mandates in these regions. Practically all the districts are at stake (see map below).

At the cost of the collapse of the post-communist left, represented in Die Linke, and the fall in votes for the mainstream parties (SPD and CDU), AfD has managed to establish itself as the “voice” of those sectors that, for various reasons, largely justified, feel marginalised or ignored. Here the populist aspect of the far right’s discourse, which divides the world into two homogenous but mutually antagonistic groups (people vs. elite), functions as a key for the radical right to penetrate the public debate with a certain degree of legitimacy. Indeed, in the last regional elections in each of the five eastern Bundesländer between 59% and 74% of voters felt themselves to be “second-class” citizens.

While the AfD’s current electoral base is fuelled by this discontent, possibly rooted in a certain disappointment with the consequences of reunification, it is not the only cause. It is worth noting that inequalities between the two Germanys are evident. Depopulation in some regions, the low percentage of people born in the East occupying important positions in the private and state sectors, and the lack of investment and economic opportunities in relation to the West have been studied and identified as the country’s great unfinished business. 

However, this is only one of the variables that explain the vote for a radical right-wing party that flirts with extremism. Political scientists Cas Mudde and Roger Eatwell have analysed the theories that explain the vote for such parties. Without intending to give an exhaustive account of them, we could say that studies on the subject emphasise political and representational crises, economic crises with their corresponding social inequalities, the pre-existing authoritarian motivations and attitudes of a segment of the population, and the thesis of the mediatisation and amplification of ultra-right narratives.

The conclusion of both scholars is that no single theory explains the phenomenon, but that it is necessary to look at the constellation of elements in each particular place and historical moment. And this leads to an analysis of an AfD that is quite different from the party it was when it was founded in 2013.

The Third Phase of AfD
The birth of AfD was marked by the euro crisis. For Germany in 2013, this new party brought with it a novelty: a Eurosceptic discourse. It was the first step towards the formation of a classic radical right-wing populist party like those in Austria, Switzerland, France, and other Western European countries. A few years later, a second phase in the life of this political force took shape around the humanitarian crisis caused by the arrival of thousands of refugees in late summer 2015. It was an event that, together with the attacks in France, Spain, and Germany, allowed the far-right force to enter the Bundestag in 2017. Subsequently, internal fights and its inability to lead the anti-government and anti-scientific discourse in times of pandemic, as other parties of the radical right in the world did, led to a slowdown in its growth and placed it at around 10% of voting intentions. This stagnation did not, however, prevent the party’s more radicalised sectors from gaining ground in the decision-making process. 

The AfD’s third phase began with the energy crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine and the acceleration of the inflationary process. The lack of perspective created a climate of uncertainty ideal for right-wing extremists to sow fear. Indeed, one of the concepts they almost single-handedly appropriated the concept of “peace”, although Sahra Wagenkneckt of die Linke also pointed in that direction, comes very close to this idea. While the other parties argue about sending weapons to Ukraine in order to protect democratic values and prevent Vladimir Putin’s government from growing in power, the AfD demands an end to the conflict at all costs. What they fail to explain are the negative consequences of a total collapse of Ukraine and the threat this poses to the European Union in every respect.

The Nativist Agenda
The “chauvinist welfare state” is a concept related to the “second winning formula” of the radical right that aims at the social question of income redistribution in a nativist key. That is, the state should be concerned with social justice, but only for natives. The definition of who is native and who is no longer native naturally falls under the ethnopluralist logic of the New Right. A concept that aims to replace the old biological racism with a “cultural” one.

In the case of AfD in particular, the agenda combines anti-immigration measures, deportation of refugees, and a strong narrative of inequality that places citizens from the east of the country as the supposed losers and victims of other parties’ policy decisions. A process that, according to the far right, begins with German reunification, the West’s failure to fulfil its promises and the current lack of recognition for the efforts of the East. Indeed, the idea of “Reunification 2.0” (Wende 2.0) used in the Thüringen campaign in 2019 is very representative of this discourse, which is now gaining power in the face of negative economic variables and the fear of the consequences of a strong recession in the country.

This agenda is being strengthened when at the federal and European level the debate on migration reforms, refugee policies, and other similar issues that revive the ultra-nationalist frame is being positioned. In fact, emboldened by the poll numbers, the party leaders rushed to publish a statement calling for the dissolution of the European Union. This idea is also encouraged by data published by Infratest dimap showing a decline in Germans’ confidence in the EU.

Standardisation Is the Key
According to the INSA Consulere survey of June 2023, cited above, another relevant figure can be observed. It is about the rejection of parties and to measure it the following question is posed to the respondents: “Which of the following parties can you not imagine yourself voting for?”

In July 2019, the AfD received a 70% rejection rate on this variable. It was by far the least-accepted party among those represented in the Bundestag. Four years later, that rejection has been reduced by more than 15 points. In 2023, only 54% cannot imagine voting for AfD.

This is indicative of a process of normalisation that has accelerated in the east of the country where, as we have seen, the fear of expressing support for AfD has evaporated. In this process, the political debate plays a very important role, as it encompasses narratives and positions typical of the far right.

One example of this problem was the statements made by the leader of the Freie Wähler (FW), Hubert Aiwanger, who co-governs with the Christian Social Union (CSU) in Bavaria. The conservative leader said a few weeks ago that “we have to take back our democracy”. A phrase in line with the expressions of the radical populist right that criticise democratic institutions and express their distance from a supposed general will of the people.

This is nothing new and some political leaders are beginning to understand that this is not the way forward. Daniel Günther, minister-president of Schleswig-Holstein and a well-known CDU figure, expressed his concern about this course. In an interview with the t-online portal, he expressed the need to offer a centrist discourse that does not get lost in “shouting about secondary issues”. He added: “At the moment we are not succeeding in conveying to people what we would do differently”. Günther’s statement reflects a need, not only of his party, but of the entire democratic political spectrum. It is to account for the existence of competing projects that can provide concrete solutions rather than anti-democratic and reductionist narratives.

Günther’s approach reflects the most recent scientific findings on the futility of betting on copying the far right to attract its voters. In fact, political scientists Marcel Levwandowsky and Aiko Wagner find that AfD voters feel so alienated from other parties that it is almost illusory to try to seduce them.

In this context, German political parties in both government and opposition bear joint responsibility for a rising radical right that feeds on their mistakes, present and past. The danger is that in addition to not perceiving this, they believe that the normalisation of AfD can be a solution. 

Accepting to compromise or agreeing on policies can have very negative consequences for liberal democracy, starting at the regional level, but going all the way to the federal level. AfD as part of a regional government would also gain a seat in the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house – a real tipping point for the country’s political decisions. What happened in Sonneberg was just a warning, but there is still time.

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