Merkel and the Alternative(s)

AfD leader Bernd Lucke

By Connor Phillips.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s election victory on September 22 was nothing short of historic.  Her conservative party, the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union of Bavaria), took 41.5% of the vote, a twenty-year high that almost guarantees Merkel a third term as chancellor.  Only two other postwar chancellors have reached this milestone:  Konrad Adenauer, rebuilder of Germany, and Helmut Kohl, architect of the modern EU.  For Merkel, who has sought for the past four years to maintain a balance between preserving the euro and protecting Germany’s interests within the common currency, it is a hugely symbolic company. 

Yet although Merkel seems immune from the political tempests that have deposed twelve European leaders in the past four years, the campaign saw one element that has become very familiar since the Euro crisis began:  the emergence of a populist, far-right challenger.  The seven-month-old Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) received 4.7% of the vote, barely missing the 5% total needed to enter the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament.  Its sudden rise is even more astonishing when one considers how far it lies from the political mainstream.  The party advocates removing southern European nations like Spain, Italy, and Greece from the euro, or even doing away with the euro altogether and reverting back to the deutsche mark—ideas that would have been unthinkable during the last election four years ago.  In this respect, the AfD is part of a burgeoning trend of Euroskepticism on the political right in Europe. 

For Europe, far-right agitation is nothing new.  Over the past few decades, the right fringe has relentlessly attacked EU integration and the euro (along with its other pet issue: accusing immigrants, primarily Muslims, of eroding European culture and taking advantage of the social safety net).  Its message is familiar, but it is now gaining much more traction.

What has changed?  In large part, the euro crisis has destroyed optimism about the future of Europe.  Many Europeans, who have grown up with the implicit guarantee of economic security provided by the welfare state, see the crisis and the resulting austerity measures as nothing less than the dissolution of the social contract.  Joblessness has fed the outrage.  In Spain and Greece, unemployment currently sits above 25%, while more than half of the “lost generation” under 25 cannot find work.  When coupled with a sense of Europe’s decline as a world leader, the dismal economic climate has stoked fears that prosperity may never return, engendering despair and anger.

This pessimism has offered a convenient opening for far-right political elements, which offer a simple us-versus-them narrative with a convenient scapegoat:  fellow-Europeans.  Whether the problem is the greedy Germans who impose austerity on the long-suffering southern Europeans or the lazy southern Europeans who leech bailouts off of the thrifty, hardworking Germans, the only logical response, so the argument goes, is to split up the euro.  If [insert country here] could only go it alone, free from the other nations of Europe, it would prosper.  Such reasoning is refreshingly simple—why stay in a currency that has only brought so much pain?

In contrast, mainstream politicians like Merkel insist that the survival of the euro is non-negotiable, and justifiably so.  Any discussion of letting members leave the currency would likely prompt a run on those members’ debt that would only compound the crisis.  But this answer—stick with the euro because the alternative is even worse—has proven unsatisfying to many voters, forcing those who have doubts about the common currency to turn to the political extremes.  

Euroskepticism is by no means limited to the right, but it has become a winning issue for it over the past few years.  Marine Le Pen, recently elected leader of France’s National Front party, inherited a party primarily known for xenophobia.  Tempering its inflammatory tone while emphasizing opposition to the euro, she garnered 17.9% of the vote in France’s 2012 presidential election, coming in third.

 Obviously, right-wing radicalism is a phenomenon that carries ominous historical overtones for Europe.  While most of today’s right fringe is still a far cry from Hitler and Mussolini, there is valid cause for concern.  In Greece’s 2012 parliamentary elections, the extremist Golden Dawn Party won an astounding 21 seats in Parliament, despite its overtly neo-Nazi image.  Worryingly, it was recently revealed that members of Greece’s armed forces helped train paramilitary “hit squads” for Golden Dawn.  If it fails to successfully crack down on the party, the coalition government’s own stability could be called into doubt.    

Germany is quiescent by comparison.  It has faced little economic pain, but the fear that taxpayers will be bled dry to pay for the profligacy of Mediterranean nations is nevertheless very real for a nation that has spent two decades painfully integrating the former East Germany.  Nevertheless, Bernd Lucke, the former World Bank economist who leads the AfD (above, far right), insists he has no problem with European integration so long as the German people approve of it.  His main issue is with the euro, which he says hurts the German economy by yoking it to those of less competitive states like the Mediterranean countries.  This argument may seem reasonable on the surface.  Yet the underlying narrative is still the same:  we would be better off without “those people.”

What is perhaps most astonishing, however, is that a far-right party has been able to gain this much traction at all in Germany, where history has given voters a visceral distaste for anything even hinting of the right fringe.  Merkel herself may be partly responsible for the AfD’s rise—by shifting the CDU/CSU towards the center over the course of her chancellorship, she has left a wide political opening on her right flank.  It will be interesting to see if the AfD eventually replaces the libertarian Free Democratic Party (FDP) as the main alternative right-of-center party (the FDP, with 4.8% of the vote, departed Parliament on Sunday, partly due to votes lost to AfD).  If so, Merkel and her CDU successors could someday find themselves facing a similar situation to that of her main electoral opponent, the Social Democratic Party (SDP).  Germany’s parliamentary system makes it nearly impossible for any party to gain a majority of seats in the Bundestag; therefore, parties must form coalitions to create a government.  Although left-wing parties (the SDP, the Greens, and The Left) hold a narrow majority of seats in Germany’s new Bundestag, most SDP members refuse to enter coalition with The Left, the successor to the hated East German Communist establishment, and thus the new government must be formed at Merkel’s discretion.  It is another reminder that Germany has seen more than its fair share of political extremes within living memory. 

With Merkel now facing a “grand coalition” with the SDP to govern in her third term, she will likely move even closer to the center.  But despite apparently strong support for mainstream politics-as-usual in Germany, she would do well to avoid complacency:  The Left, too, received a strong protest vote, and it is now the third-largest party in the Bundestag.  Germany may have empowered the center, but over 13% of its voters went for the fringes.

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