Frida Ghitis: Biggest upset in German election was strong showing of far-right AfD party
We can now say goodbye to sedate and predictable politics in Germany, she says
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Don’t be deceived by the placid news that Angela Merkel just won re-election to Germany’s top job. Sunday’s election was an earthquake. You won’t detect the tectonic movement by looking at who came in first, Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, or at the second-place finisher, the center-left Social Democratic Party.
It is the strong showing of the third biggest vote-getter, the far-right nationalist populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which has sent jolts at home and abroad and will have lasting consequences.
As the results emerged Sunday, protests broke out across the country, with shouts of “Nazis out!” Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had warned voters that supporting the AfD meant putting “real Nazis” in Parliament for the first time since World War II.
The AfD denies it is a Nazi party. But it embraces extreme right ideas, and it broke countless taboos during the election – including arguing that Germans should be “proud of the achievements” of their soldiers in World War II – signaling a new turn for postwar Germany.
AfD almost tripled its vote share from the last election, going from 4.7% in 2013 to 12.6% in 2017. This means the far right will be stronger in the legislature than at any time since the war, with more than 90 seats in the 631-seat Bundestag. They will have staff, more offices, more money and a more influential voice than ever.
But that’s just the most visible part of the impact. Merkel has vowed to regain the votes of those who backed the AfD. That will likely end plans for closer ties to the European Union, and it means German politics and policies will need to move to the right. The country that we thought was inoculated, immune to nationalism after its experience last century – nearly destroying itself and large swaths of the world by backing a populist nationalist party – will no longer recoil from those ideas.
It is Germany that taught the world just how dangerous those ideologies are. Now Germany has discovered that appeals of nationalism, as attacks on “the other,” retain their political magnetism even on its blood-soaked soil. That lesson will not be lost on other parties as they try to rebuild.
The AfD was propelled to victory by its attacks on immigrants, Islam and refugees. The party started as an intellectuals’ anti-Euro group, criticizing the common currency and later the bailout of eurozone member countries. When Merkel opened German doors to more than 1 million refugees, AfD found a theme that resonated.
AfD appealed to ethno-nationalism, that old “blood and soil” theme, famous from 1930s and ‘40s Germany, and from Charlottesville, Virginia, linking nationality to ethnicity. One of their posters showed a pregnant white woman under a legend, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”
AfD won because it was able to exploit anxiety about Muslim immigration and terrorist attacks by Islamists. It finished second in the east, the old East Germany, where the lessons of German responsibility for the Holocaust were not taught. Instead, East Germans were taught that the atrocities were committed by “fascists,” which meant that they, communists, were the good guys, bearing no historical responsibility.
But AfD also benefited from Merkel’s bold move to allow refugees. And because voters who opposed the mass influx or other Merkel policies did not see good options.
The “grand coalition” that has been governing until now brought together the Christian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party, center-right and center-left parties, respectively, that have each moved so far to the center that some people say they have become indistinguishable.
Both parties, traditionally by far the two largest, suffered deep losses at the polls, with their worst showing since the late 1940s. The surge of small parties at the expense of the larger ones is a sign of discontent with the status quo.
Now Merkel, whose party captured 33.5% of the seats, will set out to build a coalition to top the 50% mark in Parliament.
“The grand coalition” will end. The Social Democratic Party, which dropped to 21.6%, said it will not join the government because doing so would produce the unthinkable, making the AfD leader of the opposition, with the right to respond to the Chancellor after she addressed Parliament, and much more resources and exposure.
So Merkel, to reach 50%, will try to cobble what’s being called the “Jamaica coalition,” with the colors of the Jamaican flag, the Christian Democratic Union’s black, with the Greens and the pro-business rightist of the Free Democratic Party, or FDP, (yellow). The Greens and the FDP have starkly divergent views. Such a coalition will not only be difficult to assemble, it will also be unstable – and that’s because of the AfD’s success.
We can now say goodbye to sedate and predictable politics in Germany.
In fact, the AfD already showed what may become the new normal, with a high-drama press conference on the first day after the election. Party leaders sitting at the podium Monday were shocked along with the audience when AfD Chairwoman Frauke Petry walked out, announcing she would not sit with the rest of the party in the Bundestag, widening a rift within the AfD. The party has been deeply divided over a number of issues, including its position regarding the Holocaust. Those divisions are even greater now that the party is in the spotlight and, for the first time, will sit in Parliament.
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Despite AfD’s internal strife, its strong showing is a troubling sign for most Germans, who want an open, democratic, liberal country. It is particularly disturbing for minorities and immigrants, especially Muslims who have been the main target of AfD’s campaign. But also Jews, who have experienced a rise in anti-Semitic attacks and rebuilt a community in Germany after the Nazis sought to eradicate Europe’s entire Jewish population, killing 6 million. Jewish groups around the world decried the AfD’s strong showing.
The challenge is now for Merkel and for Germany to find a way to respond not only to the AfD’s success but to the vulnerabilities it revealed. One in eight voters supported a party that said Germans should be proud of the soldiers who fought in the Nazi army.
Merkel will need the sharpest combination of her political instincts and her principled politics to keep this electoral earthquake from causing more serious damage.