While Angela Merkel remains in power for the fourth election in a row, there has been a shift in Germany’s government. For the first time, the country’s far-right party has won seats in parliament.
The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party won 13.3 percent of the vote, three times as many votes as the last general election. They are now the third largest party in German parliament.
The AfD has garnered recent criticism for its anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. They are a far-right leaning party that strongly opposes Merkel and her policies, and recently, specifically opposes her refugee policies. Supporters have held rallies alongside anti-Islam groups and party members have called out open immigration policy, asking for more security. The party’s anti-Islam poster campaign, which included phrases such as “Stop Islamisation,” has also sparked outrage.
There are easy comparisons to draw between the situation in Germany and the rise of far-right movements across Europe, and with Trumpism in America. However, the parliamentary system in Germany as well as the strength of Merkel and other leaders make the situation different.
Upon election, members of the AfD have promised to strongly oppose, or “hound” Angela Merkel. According to The Independent, Merkel referred to the AfD’s new seats as “a challenge [for] the future.” Even Martin Schulz, the leader of the opposing SPD party commented that, “What is depressing for us [is] the result of the AfD.”
They seem to already have had some influence. In Merkel’s speech post-election, she commented that security would be a focus of policy in the next months, indicating that the values of far-right voters are in fact being taken into consideration. Merkel herself has acknowledged that the interests of these voters must be considered, and has already woven them into speeches.
While other German leaders may already be calling AfD negative, the question of whether the AfD’s newfound power is good or bad for democracy still stands.
Some may argue that it is negative – that clearly, a far-right, nationalist party gaining power and momentum through fear tactics is a negative thing. That people can be easily convinced and manipulated, and that parties with extreme views are a clear first sign of an eroding democracy.
Others, however, may argue the alternative: that despite the negative messages of the party itself, and whether you believe the morals of the party to be right or wrong, this is democracy at work. The people can elect whomever they choose, but true democracy is leaders such Merkel and Schulz speaking out against these fear tactics, acknowledging the fear of those voters, and pushing forward positively.
Merkel’s push to bring security to the agenda is key to Germany’s future. With this acknowledgment could come a solution. In Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stephan’s The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, they explain that a strong government comes with the people’s belief that it is the best choice.
In the United States, many are disappointed with the government and are adamantly against all those in power. Germany’s parliamentary system makes this power more even, thus giving more than one group or party the guarantee of being heard. Merkel may have more power than the AfD, but their increased support is a convincing enough reason to begin acknowledging their grievances. Even those who oppose Merkel – AfD supporters – could increase their faith in their government because their concerns have been addressed, however slightly. This could further strengthen Germany’s democracy.
With leaders addressing the concerns of those who support the AfD, it’s possible that this potential obstacle proves to be a positive twist for democracy.
Photo by John MacDougall, Getty Images
Great post, Naba. I like your concluding phrase where you raise whether the representation of the AfD might be an obstacle or a “positive twist” for democracy. This is especially poignant given the context of democracy in the US, where we have a congress unable legislate, much less agree, and a president who’s vitriolic, irresponsible, unstable rhetoric has not really aligned with the congress. Certainly with the atmosphere in which we are immersed, Germany’s situation is a “positive twist” for the vitality of democracy. But, I wonder how a Trump supporter might see their political views being represented if, for example, Secretary Clinton was our president. Would American politics be any less polarized than they are now? Do you think Democrats would agree that addressing the concerns of Trump’s followers would be a “positive twist?” I would like to believe this would be the case, but I don’t have the faith that it would ring true. Having said that, I wonder how the US could get to a point that sees addressing the opposition’s grievances as a positive, instead of negative. Is the two party system conducive to this happening? Remember what Sunstein said? When people operate in group settings comprised of like-minded individuals, they tend to gravitate toward the extremes. Perhaps if the US had a multi-party system, with more (and different) ideological presentation in congress, the legislature would be more willing to collaborate and actually make progress.
Merkel’s response to the AfD is an interesting departure from the ways American liberals have dealt with Trump supporters. It raises an interesting and terribly complex question: how do you respond to populism without alienating its proponents on the one hand and legitimating it on the other hand?
Take the first case. The AfD fuels itself on Merkel’s opposition. A key part of the party’s populist narrative is the division between the corrupt liberal elite and the “true” German people ravaged by terrorism and cultural erosion. Entrenching that perception by refusing to address AfD’s supporters would likely only strengthen AfD’s power. In this case, Merkel’s attentiveness to AfD supporters might actually help weaken the party’s anti-democratic traits. As Jan-Werner Müller points out in What Is Populism?, dismissing a movement as angry and irrational only fuels the fire. Countering with facts is simply ineffective.
But what about the other case? It that linking the AfD’s inflammatory rhetoric to actual political achievements is also dangerous. By addressing the party’s concerns, Merkel helps lead them to believe that their racist, intolerant viewpoints are normal parts of a democracy. AfD populism as expressed now is not just a set of reasonable policy propositions. It is built on the superiority of “true Germans” over Muslims, Jews, and immigrants, as well as the anti-pluralistic and fabricated division between “liberal elites” and the “German people.” Therefore, I think there is a middle solution. Merkel should, like you identified, address concerns like security and immigration. However, this does not mean she need support the party, its leaders, or its rhetoric in the process. In other words, the solution might be to drive a wedge between the party and its supporters.
I appreciate how you looked at a variety of possible outcomes of the AfD’s newfound success, as it is often easy to immediately fall on one side or the other. I think you made a great argument as to why parliamentary systems can help spur on democracy – because they give a voice to the opposition and help hold the party in power accountable.
However, I can’t help but wonder how this analysis might change based on the difficulties that the German Parliament has had in forming a coalition to serve as the majority. It has taken months for the coalition between Merkel’s CDU and the SPD to form this current coalition, and even now it seems very distressed and weak. Could this be an opening for the AfD, and lead to more opportunity for Populist rhetoric to resonate with the German population? It seems to play into the emphasis of Populist dialogue (along the lines of Müller’s book What is Populism?) on corruption and ineffectiveness among the establishment – if anybody could count as the elite establishment, it would be Merkel. Although unlikely, it seems to me that there is an opening here for discussions about making structural changes due to the inability to form an effective coalition through the existing democratic system.