Popular concerns over immigration, ignored by politicians across the Western world, will at best be expressed at the ballot box, at worst surface on the street, says Douglas Murray in The Strange Death of Europe. After decades of suppressed concern, Germans have finally expressed their concerns at the ballot box by punishing its major parties and voting in significant numbers for the Alternative for Deutschland. And, despite the pearl-clutching of the German media, there is reason to believe that this is indeed a best case scenario.
Following the formation of the new government, the Alternative für Deutschland, widely known as a far-right populist party, has become the main opposition party in Germany and is effectively pulling the strings of policy. But Germany is not about to start goose-stepping again.
Anti-climactically for the German and international media, which have sensationalized the AfD as far-right populists, the party’s policy platform places the AfD well within a familiar liberal-conservative tradition. This reflects the personal philosophical traditions of its joint leaders, the former investment banker and classically liberal-inclined Alice Weidel and founder Alexander Gauland who – unusually for a German – is a devoted follower of the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke.
The new political constellation did not happen by accident – it has always been the young party’s intention to wield influence from opposition.
In 2017, I made a study of the German campaign, as an example of the changing dynamics of politics world-wide. I spent a number of weeks in Germany interviewing candidates, ordinary Germans and political campaigners. Among these was Gauland. When I spoke to him in June, three months out from the election, he flatly declared that the party was not ready to govern and would not be entertaining a coalition compromise.
‘You can’t close three-quarters of the border,’ Gauland told me. Until the AfD can command 20 to 30 per cent of the vote, he said, the party will shun the responsibility of government.
Of course, such compromise was purely theoretical. The AfD was not invited to join the party of parties. Well before the election was called, the mainstream parties explicitly rejected any idea of forming a coalition with the AfD, scared off particularly by the rough-speaking patriots it associates with in the former East German states and the party’s populist slogans. The voice of the people grates in the ears of EU aristocrats. Nonetheless, their impact was immense. Gauland does not doubt that without the AfD, Germany would now be trying to process two million asylum seekers, rather than the million Merkel’s ‘welcome’ policy ushered in.
Even after the election delivered the AfD a greater share of the vote than any other minor party, none of the legacy parties would have dreamt of joining with the AfD. Godwin’s Law is inverted in Germany, where he who invokes the Nazi past to tar his opponent first, almost inevitably wins.
Painted brown in the media’s imagination, the party’s platform has been mocked and derided more than it has been examined.
Both of Germany’s two major parties were punished in the September poll, which saw the conservatives slide by eight points and the social democrats secure very little over a fifth of the vote. The conservative CDU/CSU found itself trying to form a ‘Jamaica’ constellation with the liberal democratic FDP (yellow) and the Greens. The Jamaica plans blew up when the liberals wouldn’t bow to the Greens. The social democratic SPD, which was originally resolved to enter a phase of regeneration after years of co-dependence with the left-sliding conservatives, sidled back into a grand coalition against the advice of its members, who repeatedly voted against the move, and to the general disgust of the wider German public.
It took five months, but Germany finally has a new government, of sorts. But with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s illusion of unassailability eroded, the grand coalition is a mucilaginous version of its former self. Clinging to power alongside the conservatives has never served the social democrats well. Now it has cost them dearly: the most recent opinion poll, taken after the coalition deal was formalised, has seen SPD support dive to 15 per cent.
The Alternative für Deutschland, on 16 per cent, finds itself the second most popular party in Germany, and effectively the major opposition party. Over the last few months while the legacy parties haggled over whose Wedgwood should go on the mantle, the AfD has set the house rules. The flow of asylum seekers has slowed right down and unsuccessful applicants are being deported. The long-neglected question of integration is back on the agenda, and Germany has taken a slower approach to the whole Euro-project.
The change has influenced internal party staffing decisions as well. The SPD is planning to bring Franziska Giffey, former mayor of the Berlin immigrant ghetto Neukölln, into the federal cabinet. Until now she has been described within the party as ultraconservative for her muscular law and order approach to cleaning up her electorate.
It’s not beyond imaging that the SPD might rehabilitate its former finance minister Thilo Sarrazin, made an un-person for examining the challenges of multiculturalism in his 2010 book Germany Is Abolishing Itself, as proof the SPD has always been ahead of the curve on immigration.
Germany is changed, changed utterly. And it offers hope for Europe.
The AfD is a powerful political force because it communicates clearly and well on issues that Germans have feared to debate. Europe and the USA have learnt over the last couple of years that if you squash the expression of popular anxieties, you end up facing them in upset elections.
The greatest strength of the Western democratic system is that it saves us from something far worse. A more balanced political landscape may prove the best inoculation Germany could receive against darker tides. May other Western democracies follow suit.