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German elections could bring a new wave of extremism

Election posters in Frankfurt tout German Chancellor Angela Merkel and request votes for her CDU party. German elections will be held on Sunday but, as usual, the action begins after the race is over. The slogan reads “Successful for Germany” (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

German elections could bring a new wave of extremism

Not with a bang, but a whimper. T.S. Eliot’s famous line could apply to the end of most German election campaigns. There are campaign posters and some rallies and one or two rhetorical flourishes which reflect a disquieting undercurrent of xenophobia, but on the whole these elections are rather tame.

The action heats up once campaigning stops. Since German elections rarely produce a majority government, the end of the campaign marks the start of negotiations between the largest faction in the Bundestag (federal parliament) and other parties willing to join a coalition government. Newcomer party, Alternative for Germany, (AfD), running on an anti-immigration platform, could become the major opposition party - and an obstacle to Angela Merkel’s CDU.

The jockeying will begin the same evening the election results are announced. In a peculiar German tradition, leaders of all major parties will appear together on TV to discuss the outcome.

This Elefantenrunde (elephants’ roundtable) is something to behold, and impossible to imagine in North America. The leaders usually just rehash the campaign, but sometimes it’s a little more exciting.

A xenophobic election campaign poster for the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The tagline reads: Burkas? We’re more into bikinis. The party has seen success by embracing German fears about immigration. CC BY

To grasp the significance of the right-wing AfD party’s potential influence, one must first understand the context.

Negotiations begin after the elections

In 2005, then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democrats (SPD) was bested by Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Angela Merkel. Her margin of victory was minute, but still a victory. Even so the Elefantenrunde was treated to the sight of Schröder futilely claiming that he had, in fact, won the election.

This year’s elephants’ roundtable won’t be that sensational, but the negotiations afterwards will be more important for Germany’s future than the election campaign that preceded them.

All polls predict Chancellor Merkel’s parties (the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union - CSU) will win the most seats, though not enough for a majority. Merkel will have to find a coalition partner, or partners.

From 2006 to 2009, and again since 2013, Merkel has governed in a “Grand Coalition” with the SPD, the country’s second-largest party. Ironically, while the CDU/CSU have based their entire campaign on the steadiness of Merkel and her government, the SPD have had to criticize a government they’ve helped run. That tends to take the wind out of one’s rhetorical sails. The SDP party was buoyed by the early positive response to the naming of former European Parliament president Martin Schulz as their candidate for chancellor, but the joy was short-lived.

The impact of globalization and the labour market reforms of Schröder’s government have weakened the SPD’s grip on the worker vote. To halt the decline, members of Germany’s oldest political party argue that the SPD must return to the opposition, otherwise it will continue to be boxed in by Merkel’s unerring political tactics.

If a coalition with the SPD proves impossible, Merkel can look to two other parties: the Free Democrats (FDP), a right-of-centre party; and the Greens, the environment party that governed with the SPD under Schröder.

Green party’s platform now a universal one

In one way, the Greens have been very successful. Climate change is accepted as fact in Germany. After the Fukushima catastrophe of 2011, Merkel reversed course and began phasing out nuclear power. The “green consciousness” is now widely shared by Germans, making it difficult for the party to develop a platform that is uniquely theirs.

Merkel could partner with the FDP. In the last election they failed to obtain the 5 per cent of the vote required to enter parliament. For years the party was criticized as having no other platform than to be the junior coalition partner for either the CDU/CSU or the SPD. That and poor leadership cost them dearly.

This time round they will return to the Bundestag. Their improved standing is almost entirely thanks to leader Christian Lindner’s charisma. An untraditional marketing campaign featured Lindner in a photo that would be at home in a fashion magazine. The tagline “impatience is also a virtue” was tantalizing. But what did it mean in political terms?

A non-traditional campaign poster for the FDP, features the right-of-centre party’s leader, Christian Linder. The tagline reads: Impatience is also a virtue.

Unfortunately for Merkel, neither the Greens nor the FDP is polling spectacularly well, so their parliamentary factions might be too small to help her form a government. She could try to work with both of them, but Lindner has said that he can’t imagine participating in a government with the Greens and their more relaxed policy on immigration.

Extreme politics pose challenges to Germany

Two other parties will also be entering Parliament, though Merkel has ruled out a coalition with either of them. By occupying extremes on the political spectrum, these parties pose the greatest challenge to Germany’s political order.

The offspring of a leftist splinter group of the SPD and the Party of Democratic Socialism (the successor to the East German ruling party), the Left Party has been shunned by the older parties for its connections to Soviet-era politics. It has a solid core of support in the former East Germany, where it channels eastern disgruntlement with the loss of socialism.

But the Left Party’s attacks on capitalism have become a lot more respectable, or a lot less noticed, since a new kid arrived on the block: the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Originally focused on euroskepticism, the party has seen success by embracing German fears about immigration.

The AfD has no chance of winning, but has gained outsized media attention with little provocations. It currently trails only Merkel’s CDU/CSU and Schulz’s SPD in voter surveys. Its leaders have made racist and anti-Semitic statements. Like other populist movements, it has challenged the usual campaign norms, making other campaigns look stale by comparison.

One AfD campaign poster shows a pregnant woman with the caption “’New Germans?’ We’ll make them ourselves.” Another, picturing women from behind wearing skimpy bathing suits, reads: “ ‘Burqas?’ We’re more into bikinis.” For the anti-Islamist AfD, women are merely baby machines and sex objects.

A xenophobic election campaign poster for the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The tagline says: New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves. The party has seen success by embracing German fears about immigration.

The AfD’s xenophobic nationalism has struck a chord, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by Merkel. She has tried to block further gains by the AfD by hardening her party’s stance on immigration. She called for a burqa ban, and has continued to resist calls that asylum seekers be permitted to have their immediate family members join them in Germany.

Whatever its make-up, the new government will face multiple challenges. Germany’s automobile industry is in the doghouse over its reluctance to part with eco-unfriendly diesel motors. The country’s relationship with Turkey is on the brink of collapse. The impact of Brexit on the European Union is still uncertain.

But two issues will predominate. The first is German identity. The presence of the AfD in the Bundestag will challenge Germany’s sense of itself. If Schulz’s SPD rejoins the government, the AfD could well be the largest opposition party. It will not forego any chance to hammer home its displeasure at the changing make-up of German society.

The other issue is Merkel herself. No other politician in Germany today has her knack for straddling the political centre and neutralizing the opposition. Only Merkel could have convinced Germans to welcome upwards of one million asylum seekers, and then still be praised for that openness while supporting a burqa ban.

But many think this will be her last election. Her eventual exit from the political scene will create a vacuum in her party and the country as a whole. Will extremism fill the void if the strength of Merkel’s centrism can’t be duplicated?

Yes, the 2017 campaign was bland. Nothing new there. But the resulting political atmosphere will be highly charged. The potential for drama is high.