After all other European countries, the Federal Republic will also have a right wing party in the midst of its national parliament. The 13 percent, which the party achieved on Election Day, September 24, can be called a landslide victory. Beyond strongholds in the East of the country where they gained nearly thirty percent of their followers, their voter base now also extends to wide parts of the West of the country, where they numbered, in many places, in the double digits.
The country, however, even 26 years after its reunification, still shows regional electoral preferences. In the nineties and the early ‘aughts the far left party Die Linke attained power in all states in the former East. They have now lost plenty of voters to the new right. In the West, on the other hand, right wing parties have sparked every ten years or so, only to disappear after a short while. Usually, they had a try-out period in state parliaments where they did not convince the electorate. They were not voted for again.
Until now Germans in the West, so it seems, had had enough of this extremism, for it led the country into the catastrophe of the Second World War and the Shoa. Nazism should never return to the country. The notion of a strong leader with claims to have the capacity to solve all the country’s problems was frowned upon. Moreover, today’s right wing extremists, the so called Alternative for Germany, did not fall in with one chairman but with a whole array of front row politicians, some of them using extreme right wing vocabulary. That included praise for the German Wehrmacht and revisionist utterances when it comes to German’s commemoration of the Holocaust. The new right wing populism is a pan-German phenomenon. And that was the real news in the results of this year’s election in Europe’s largest country.
Since the election, both German and international media are trying to wrap their head around the success the AfD had in this years voting. Undoubtedly the refugee crisis of 2015; where up to one million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia made it into Europe and further on to Germany; has played a role. The Alternative for Germany before the crisis had plummeted in the polls. Created in 2013 as a party mostly opposing the European Union and the European currency, they had initially lost momentum. When the refugees entered into Germany, one of their AfD chairs, Alexander Gauland, cheered: the refugees were a godsend to his party. With their xenophobic, anti-Muslim voice they indeed quickly re-gathered followers: in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt they gained 24 percent of the votes in the state election, in Baden-Württemberg 15 percent. Mr. Gauland is the one who recently claimed that Germans ought to be proud of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and their doings in both two world wars; this outrageous statement only surpassed in egregiousness by Björn Höcke, who claimed that the Holocaust Memorial Site in Berlin should be considered a monument of shame for the Germans, urging the country to move on and leave any narrative commemorating the Shoa behind. The pundits disagree on whether the AfD receives their support for this sort of rhetoric. They are now in 13 of the countries 16 state parliaments and in the national parliament, the Bundestag.
The Bundestag in the Reichstags-Building is now the international stage for the party. They are in their view on equal terms with other similar movements all across Europe. But, more importantly, they are also on the radar of the international media that usually does not report about the ongoings in state-level German politics. That’s why the former right-wing movements disappeared rather unnoticed. Focusing on a single topic, they fail to govern once confronted in parliament with actual legislative work (“what is your stance on the pension funds, the retirement age or environmental protection?”). As a matter of fact, AfD made it into the Bundestag without having a concise pension model. And this in an aging society such as Germany!
In the weeks before the Election Day, the AfD had sunk to seven percent in the polls, as one could expect given the prior experience of right-wingers. But all of a sudden – and there is lots of guesswork why this has happened – it went up again to 12, 13 percent, a figure very close to their final result. As a result of the success of the right wing populists the political spectrum in Germany has shifted to the right. It is a dangerous approach: the hope that people will return to traditional parties simply because they may use sharper rhetoric against the AfD is delusional. In Bavaria the conservative CSU (Christian Social Union), sister party to the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) that governed the country for almost seventy years, lost 11 percent in the federal election. They tried to mimic the new appeal and rhetoric of the AfD. But when people have the choice between an original and the copy, they go for the original. Very sadly so in this case.
Alexander Görlach is an affiliate professor with the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy Program. He is also a fellow to the Center for Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Alex holds a PhD in linguistics and a PhD in comparative religion. He is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. This article represents his views alone, rather than those of the FDR Foundation.