The main political challenge may come from the mainstream left, not the populist rightby Nicholas Wright / March 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Over the last 12 months, populist anger on both sides of the Atlantic has seen insurgent forces turn the established order on its head. Both the UK’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States defied the predictions of pollsters and have ushered in a period of political fluidity, instability and uncertainty.
With presidential and general elections due this year in France, the Netherlands and Germany, the question is whether this trend is likely to continue. With a heady mix of Eurosceptic, nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, France’s Front National (FN), the Dutch Freedom Party, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), have all sought to capitalise on growing public discontent, hoping to ride the populist wave to power.
Their ambition and confidence was on show in January in a gathering of European populist right-wing parties in Koblenz, Germany. Billed as a “counter summit,” the parties’ leaders—Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Frauke Petry—shared a stage with Matteo Salvini of Italy’s anti-EU Northern League to set out their vision of Europe. The only common factor, however, seemed to be their desire to enact their own particular brands of nationalism.
The challenge posed by both Le Pen and Wilders is being taken seriously by their domestic rivals. The former is on course to win the first round in the French presidential race in April and thus be one of the two candidates in the decisive run-off in May. Meanwhile, Wilders’ Freedom Party has been ahead in the polls for long periods since November, although it has recently seen a dip in support ahead of the parliamentary elections on 15th March. While it remains to be seen whether other parties would join it in a governing coalition, it will still have a significant voice in Dutch politics. A victory for either populist would throw into doubt the viability of European integration as it stands.
The situation in Germany, however, is rather different. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor since 2005 and has faced no serious political challenge for over a decade. Not for nothing is she referred to as Mutti (Mum). She is the ultimate safe pair of hands, perhaps lacking in sparkling oratory and charisma but making up for it with her cautious, analytical and risk-averse approach. She is also Europe’s predominant political leader, and since Barack Obama left office, the custodian of western liberal values.
But over the last couple of years, cracks have started to appear. Merkel’s deft touch seemed to desert her when, in 2015, she announced an “open door policy” for refugees, leading to a major influx of people that Germany has struggled to deal with. This has exacerbated tensions within the governing coalition led by her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Coalition partners, particularly on the right, have been critical of her refugee policy, which has been accompanied by a slump in the polls. At the same time, Merkel’s longevity in office is starting to count against her. There is a growing appetite for change at the top.
In theory, then, this would seem to be the hour of the anti-establishment AfD. Since its founding in 2013, the AfD has enjoyed a meteoric rise, only narrowly missing the 5 per cent threshold that would have seen it win seats to the German Bundestag (Parliament) that year, and taking seven of Germany’s 96 seats in the European Parliament in 2014. In the federal elections in September, it could become the first radical-right party to gain seats in the Bundestag since the country’s first post-war election in 1949.
The AfD is the first party in Germany with broad appeal to seriously challenge the pro-EU political consensus. It seeks the dissolution of the Eurozone and a brake on further European integration. Moreover, with its anti-immigration stance and promotion of socially conservative positions, including opposition to gay marriage, it has deliberately sought to position itself as the “anti-Merkel” party, appealing to disgruntled CDU voters.
But all is not well within the AfD’s leadership ranks. There are disagreements among its senior figures over its direction and whether it should model itself on other successful right-wing Eurosceptic parties such as the Front National and Ukip. It has also been rocked by the fallout from a speech by one of its leading members who called for a “180 degree turn” in how Germany remembers and atones for its Nazi past.
The breaking of this taboo has seen divisions open up in the party between those who considered it simply a more economically liberal version of the CDU, and those with more nationalist and anti-semitic sympathies. This has contributed to a recent slump in support that could threaten its chances of reaching that all-important 5 per cent threshold. Exacerbating the AfD’s—and Chancellor Merkel’s—problems has been the arrival on the domestic scene of the heavyweight left-wing politician Martin Schulz.
Until January, Schulz was President of the European Parliament. Now, he has returned to German politics to compete for the most important office for his centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD). A highly experienced operator, Schulz is unsullied by involvement in recent coalition governments. He also has a charisma and gravitas that fellow SPD leaders lack and a proven ability to connect with ordinary voters, notably the working-class support that the AfD needs to poach from the SPD. Most importantly, Schulz has a genuine chance of unseating Merkel, reflected in the lead the SPD is currently enjoying in the polls.
With six months to go before Germans chose their next government there is still all to play for. Schulz’s popularity could easily diminish once German voters start to scrutinise him more closely. At the same time, Merkel may feel her best hope is to persuade voters that a change at this stage would be too risky—although this is a strategy that has failed in the US presidential and British referendum campaigns.
German voters may not be ready to give the AfD its national breakthrough, but they may be ready to instigate their own kind of political earthquake. In this case, though, it could involve ousting Europe’s most powerful leader in favour of an even more Europhile member of the establishment. This would be a whole new form of insurgent politics.