When the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that barely registered on the electoral radar in 2013, secured the third-largest share of the national vote in the German federal elections, it became harder than ever to shake off the suspicion that Germany’s and Europe’s “Weimar ghosts” had risen from the grave.
For more than a decade, talk of a resurgent far-right has been haunting liberal mainstream parties. Without doubt the electoral trend has been broadly favourable to populist anti-establishment parties of the right. The long-predicted electoral breakthrough, however, failed to materialise in Europe. Apocalyptic predictions for the elections in Austria in 2016 and in The Netherlands and France in 2017 did not come to pass.
But the story of a hyper-nationalist, populist, anti-immigrant, europhobic party winning more than 5m votes in Germany has a significantly more symbolic dimension. Was the AfD’s success the hardest proof so far that the post-war liberal chapter is already on a death spiral? Was it evidence that the fabled post-war liberal consensus was simply a noble but short-lived parenthesis rather than the triumphant “end of history”?
The post-war liberal consensus is indeed showing signs of stress. That has been the case for some time, even on the emblematic ground of the Federal Republic of Germany, where “never again” became a rallying cry for burying the ghosts of fascism once and for all. Mainstream parties have become complacent and unimaginative. Radical right-wing populism seems an attractive and effective option for voters in rebellious protest mood against the liberal establishment.
The success of the AfD is even more painful and symbolic because the entire trajectory of post-war Germany was hailed as an emblematic liberal triumph. This was a state that, emerging from the ruins of Nazism and the dark shadow of the Holocaust, was rebuilt to represent a paradigm of moderation, openness and the supreme rule of law. Extremism would be outlawed. It would be rendered taboo by courts and castigated by a society longing for stability while vowing never to forget. Nationalism would be tempered by the memory of its horrific excesses and replaced with the most emphatic embrace of Europeanism.
The collapse, literally and symbolically, of the Berlin Wall in 1989 fed the liberal illusion that history had “ended” in moral triumph. The renowned stability of the German party system and the relative electoral weakness of far-right populist parties, until now, belied a quietly hardening public mood in relation to identity, multiculturalism and European integration.
It is now clear that the overwhelming majority of AfD voters in 2017 were attracted by a cocktail of anti-immigration/anti-Islam rhetoric as well as euroscepticism and security concerns.
Ceding political ground
But populists offer a quasi-utopian alternative vision of change to the tired promises – and faces – of continuity. Their attraction lies more in voting for them as a gesture of rejection of established parties in various elections. That’s not the same as positively embracing their political programmes.
The temptation for mainstream parties is to try to address this electoral discontent by conceding political ground to the AfD hyper-nationalists. It seems as though the best way out of the bind is to placate voters by moving further to the right on social, cultural and security issues.
This has never worked in the longer term, even if it may have on occasion delivered short-term, temporary electoral respite. Instead, mainstream parties need to set the diversity, cohesion and internationalism bars even higher. They must make an energising new case for these visions. They must also accept that in the process there will be an electoral penalty to pay for drawing clear ideological lines.
Out of this populist spasm, on both sides of the Atlantic, comes an opportunity. Liberal parties must grasp it, reframing their vision positively and recasting it as an energising alternative vision to both right-wing populism and the exhausted, distrusted mainstream politics. They must recover some of their own brand of radical thinking that drove their political momentum in the second half of the last century. They must inject it into a new progressive mainstream vision. Crucially too, they must do so before the populists claim the same political space.
And what of the 12.6% of people who voted for the AfD? In very stark contrast to its European counterparts, Germany had already set the bar of openness very high. It has welcomed and sheltered more than a million refugees since 2015. Angela Merkel refused to reverse course on this widely praised but also polarising and risky political journey. She held fast even when confronted with dissenting voices within her coalition, with adverse electoral results or even terrorist attacks.
In so many ways, the overwhelming majority of voters stood by her policy of “welcoming” and what it symbolically stood for. They have not done it unconditionally, nor without reservations or occasional wobbles. But they have done it in rejection of the AfD’s alternative of hyper-nationalism and scaremongering. In hindsight – and against the backdrop of significantly higher results for the far right in other countries where mainstream parties chose to indulge the divisive agenda of the populists, 12.6% may be a fair price to pay for boldly standing up to the “Weimar ghosts” and for resisting the temptation to blink first.