Posted on September 25, 2017

What Can We Expect from Germany’s AfD?

Michael Walker, American Renaissance, September 25, 2017

The elections to the German parliament (Bundestag) on Sunday, October 24th, were overshadowed by one issue: How many votes would the anti-immigration party AfD win? (AfD stands for Alternative für Deutschland or Alternative for Germany).

Candidates are elected to the Bundestag following a two-tier voting system that no German I have met has ever been able to explain to me. Essentially, voters vote twice: once for a list of candidates to be elected directly for representative districts, and also for a list based on proportional representation. Parties are financed by the taxpayer, and receive more state funding the more votes they win. Campaigning is mostly confined to a few rallies and television debates. The system ensures that top politicians are re-elected to the Bundestag, since they will be at the top of their party’s candidate list for proportional representation.

Before the last election, the ruling coalition consisted of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) representing Bavaria as a sort of sister party to the CDU, and the Social Democrats (SPD). In nominal opposition were the Green Party and the Left Party (imagination is not a German strong point).

Alternative for Germany — whose fortunes were so closely watched — got its name as a response to Chancellor Merkel’s oft-cited statement that “there was no alternative” to opening European borders to Syrian migrants. The public media, without exception, have been campaigning against the AfD. Voters were warned not to vote for them, all parties both in the government and in opposition spoke out against them, and “antifascists” have been tearing down AfD posters and shutting down AfD meetings and rallies. All parties ruled out any kind of cooperation with the AfD. Apparently, there have even been distressing scenes among party leaders over which party would suffer the shame of sitting closest to the AfD in the Bundestag!

Frauke Petry of Alternative for Germany at a press conference on the day after the elections. (Credit Image: © Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

The election gave the AfD 12.6 percent of the vote and 94 deputies, making it the third largest party in the Bundestag. Although the AfD has been represented in local assemblies, this is the first time it has achieved the 5 percent threshold required for representation at the federal level. The SPD vote slumped from 23 percent to 21.6 percent, and its results were not helped when the Turkish president called on his million countrymen eligible to vote in Germany not to vote for any of the mainstream parties — which he accused of anti-Turkish attitudes.

The SPD promptly announced it would go into opposition. This means that the Chancellor will have to create a governing coalition out of four parties: CDU, CSU, FDP (Free Democrats — a classically liberal party), and Greens. The opposition is unlikely to be effective, for neither the Left nor the SPD will talk to the AfD, much less work with it, and the SPD and the Left Party have historical reasons for distrusting one another.

There are actually points of agreement between the AfD and the Left Party (often calling an anti-immigrant party “far right” is a misnomer). Both are only cautiously supportive of the EU rather than emotionally committed to it, and both are sceptical of a NATO-motivated anti-Russian foreign policy. However, any attempt by the Left Party to cooperate with the AfD would cause an uproar. So despite the departure of the SPD as a coalition partner, the German chancellor can look forward to governing for another four years with no coherent opposition.

The media are at least as concerned by something else. How could over 10 percent of voters (and in some regions of the former East Germany, the AfD is the strongest party) vote for a “racist party”? The CSU says it is a sign that Chancellor Merkel’s CDU needs to “polish up its right-wing profile” in order to win back voters. Other contributions to the blame game will doubtless follow. The CDU claims to have achieved its target of remaining the top party, but it is 8 percent down on the previous general election.

The astonishment of pundits at this modest showing by an anti-immigration party is surely misplaced; support for an anti-immigration party should be higher. After all, in 2015, the government announced an open-borders policy that was once exclusive to the hard Left. The question ought to be: Why did not more people vote for the AfD?

I think there are three basic reasons. One is the usual fear of conjuring up Germany’s past. Secondly there is a stick: Every conceivable legal and sometimes illegal hindrance has been used to stop the progress of the AfD. Anyone who admits to supporting the party risks social ostracism and even his job. Third, the carrot: The euro has boosted the German economy, especially exports. Employment is at an all-time high, and the Chancellor has played very successfully on popular fears of disruption and strife. The “mother of the nation” seems to promise peace and prosperity in a conflict-torn world. But there seems to be little emotional commitment to the CDU or SPD. If either stick or carrot snapped, establishment politicians would have more to worry about than who is going to sit next to the AfD in parliament. They might face a real political alternative.

In the meantime time, what can AfD deputies accomplish? This is the question both supporters and detractors are asking themselves. The party will receive government funding, and Germany will benefit from scores of new, full-time campaigners against immigration. Still, supporters should not expect anything momentous.

West German political structures — especially the constitution, drawn up in 1949 to the requirements of the victorious Allies — make it extremely difficult for just one political faction in the Bundestag to achieve anything without support. This is especially true of a group that is not only not in government but ostracized by the entire opposition.

Legislative proposals under the German Constitution first of all require a majority (in some cases a two-thirds majority) of the Bundestag, and are then subject to intense scrutiny. They can be rejected through many different procedures, and at every stage they can be altered and watered down.

All other parties in the Bundestag have undertaken not to cooperate with the AfD, so its influence will be limited to statements when its members are permitted to address the parliament. Other deputies will probably leave the chamber when AfD members speak, but in the age of YouTube, their speeches will go viral and AfD members should train themselves to make sure their words carry weight. They will be the voices in the Bundestag for the view that immigration must be stopped.

Their presence in parliament has a further effect. It is the election of AfD members that has compelled the SPD — the former coalition partner to the Chancellor Merkel’s CDU — to go into oppostion, which itself will give the SPD more leeway to criticize the Chancellor. The CSU itself is already calling on a return to the CDU’s former right-wing positions. Nobody doubts that this hardening of the CSU’s position on immigration is a direct reaction to the AfD’s success. The more discerning part of the public will notice this and conclude that voting for the anti-immigration party has already had an effect on the political landscape.

Most of the AfD members have no experience at all of parliamentary politics. They will be subject to exclusion, and their every error will be highlighted and ridiculed by a virulently hostile media. They will get no help or support from members of other parties, but their very presence in the Bundestag will shift the question of immigration to the forefront. The AfD will need to be very media savvy and have a feeling for what is likely to reach the daily news and how. In short, they need to learn quickly how to keep appearing in the headlines and to appear to be influencing events.

The AfD must never allow its voices to be drowned out. This is a real risk, for the time-honoured trick of establishment parties — not only in Germany — has always been to reduce anti-immigration parties to insignificance by excluding them from procedures and consultations. Established parties then turn to the public at the end of a legislative period and say: “You see, you didn’t gain anything by voting for this party. They didn’t do anything. They are unprofessional. They are lazy. They tricked you.”

The AfD must avoid this trap. It must keep the fire of dissent burning in the very place where decisions so disasterous for Europe are being made. This is a grave responsibility and a real challenge. I hope the AfD will meet it.