What does the success of the right-wing AfD mean?by / September 23, 2016 / Leave a comment
Last Sunday’s state elections in Berlin provided conclusive proof, if it were needed, that the right-wrong populist party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) threatens the settled and often cosy world of German politics. As in other German state elections, such as the recent shock result in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the AfD took votes from all the mainstream parties. But the political class has been particularly shocked by the fact that this has happened in the nation’s capital.
Whereas the AfD’s performance in a small, rural, eastern German state like Mecklenburg could be written off as a protest vote by the old, “the left behind,” the socially conservative, or just plain racist, Berlin is the most cosmopolitan and socially liberal city in Germany. It is full of educated young people, is a European hub for high tech start-ups, and prides itself on being a Weltstadt or “world city.” Despite this, the AfD gained just over 14 per cent of the votes in Berlin. This was only enough to put it in fifth place, behind the social democratic SPD, Christian democratic CDU, the Left Party and the Greens, but it has nevertheless spooked Germany’s risk-averse politicians. For if the AfD’s vote can get comfortably into double figures in Berlin, many are thinking “what could it do elsewhere?” And with the Federal election due in September next year, what are the AfD’s prospects of gaining a vital foothold in German national politics as well?
The manner in which the AfD has emerged to threaten the political status quo is a familiar one. Like UKIP in its original incarnation as the Anti-Federalist League (AFL) a quarter of a century ago, the AfD originated in an intellectual milieu. In the mold of the LSE’s Alan Sked, who founded Ukip’s forerunner, the AfD was set up in late 2012 by Alexander Gauland, Konrad Adam, and Berndt Lucke. Gauland was a former Department Head of the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Adam was a former editor of the influential Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung newspaper, and Lucke was a tenured Professor of Macroeconomics at the University of Hamburg. They were well-informed and well-networked and their joint manifesto was soon publically endorsed by an impressive array of economists, journalists, business leaders and political activists, many of whom were former members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Last year, however, the original leadership was forced out and replaced by a more explicitly right-wing and nationalist team, led by the plausible but to many quite sinister Frauke Petry. Under Frau Petry’s leadership, the AfD has focused relentlessly on the theme of immigration. In the context of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly unpopular open door policy to refugees, and with German finances kept under such a tight rein, the AfD’s message has hit home.
The rise of the AfD is most obviously threatening to the CDU, which has successfully managed to avoid being outflanked by competitors from the political right since the 1950s. Berlin’s local CDU figurehead Frank Henkel resigned the day after the election but the Chancellor’s position is also under threat, although it would be a mistake to under-estimate Merkel’s political survival skills. And although the Social Democratic Party (in a coalition government with the CDU) won the election it too will be looking nervously at polling data that suggests it lost significant numbers of its core blue-collar vote to the AfD. As it was, the SPD’s result of 21.6 per cent of the vote was its worst performance in a state that used to be one of its heartlands and was also the lowest winning vote in a major election in modern German political history. The fact that the SPD’s leading candidate, the Governing Mayor Michael Müller, is the most popular local politician in Berlin suggests the result could have potentially been even worse for the party.
Nevertheless, it falls to the humbled SPD to try to form a new state government in Berlin. And it is here that something intriguing could be developing a little over a year before the 2017 Federal election. German states have often been the testing grounds for new governing formations. For instance, Red-Green coalitions (made up of the SPD and Greens) in Lower Saxony and other states in the 1980s and 1990s preceded Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green government that came to power nationally in 1998 and effectively cleared the political ground for it. In this context, the talks around forming a so-called Red-Red-Green coalition (made up of the SPD, Left Party, and Greens) in Berlin have the potential to take on a similar significance. There has been informal cooperation between these parties in many German states in the past and a formal Red-Red-Green coalition formed in the state of Thuringia in 2014. But Thuringia is not Berlin and in 2014 the Left Party was still not considered a viable coalition partner at the national level.
However, the Left Party’s former pariah status within the German party system has shifted to the AfD and the party may now be welcomed into the political mainstream. These are strange days—and still early days—but it is worth keeping a close eye on developments in Berlin in the run-up to what promises to be a momentous election year in Europe’s most populous and powerful nation.