The Refugee Crisis and the Transformation of the German Party System

15. 3. 2017

Last year it seemed as if the AfD would quickly disintegrate completely. But then mass immigration suddenly became a major problem.

Europeans who are observing these days the primaries in the USA are often bewildered by what they see, if not outright shocked. It seems to be more than likely that the Republicans will be led into battle by a right wing rabble-rouser whereas within the Democratic Party the position of candidate for the presidency seems to be a family heirloom claimed in this case by a politician of somewhat dubious reputation.

What strikes the European observer as remarkable more than anything else is the enormous polarization of politics in the US, any sort of dialogue let alone compromise between conservative Republicans and Liberals seems to have become impossible. Nothing could be further removed from the political landscape one beholds if one looks at the German party system where moderation, pragmatism, and compromise reign supreme. Or so it could have seemed until less than three years ago.

The two large parties the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) are much more similar in outlook and in their policies now than in the past, the Greens, no longer a movement of fundamental protest, have become a party of progressive and pleasantly guilt-ridden middle class voters, and even the former Communists— the Linkspartei mostly confine their longings for a socialist world order to rare moments of nostalgia. Chancellor Angela Merkel like no other politician embodies this new spirit of post-ideological compromise—or should one say fudge? Moving her party first gently, then more energetically to the center-left she got rid of many principles and policies which had once been dear to the right wing of her party; for example general conscription, the defense of the traditional heterosexual family, opposition against affirmative action in favor of women, or the rejection of mass immigration and of a multicultural society, and what is equally important—she also got rid of the—mostly male —politicians promoting such policies.

Admittedly, success at the ballot boxes came rather late in Merkel’s political career. Only in 2013 did the CDU win again an impressive share of the votes (more than 40%) after very disappointing results in 2005 and 2009. Clearly Merkel is no great electoral campaigner and in 2013 she benefited primarily from the fact that the leaders of other parties were so successful in shooting themselves in the foot. The SPD (the Labor Party) in particular had already half destroyed itself when it had imposed harsh and sometimes brutal reforms of the welfare and pensions system on its own voters during Schroeder’s second term in office (2002-2005). Furthermore, the German Labor Party could never quite decide whether to give priority to the interest of Greek pensioners and unemployed Spanish construction workers or to the interests of their own voters when Southern Europe needed financial support and fiscal guarantees after 2009/10. Merkel, on the other hand, gave the impression of someone staunchly fighting for German interests during the crisis, perhaps not always with great success, but at least she put up a good show, without making Germany and the Germans significantly more unpopular than they had always been in countries such as France—Greece may be a different matter of course.

Nevertheless, Merkel is now confronted with a problem none of her predecessors as leaders of the CDU ever seriously had to deal with: There is now a populist, hard line conservative party (similar in outlook to the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria) competing with the CDU, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Under the impression of the refugee crisis a sizeable percentage of voters (between 10 % and 12 % at the national level according to the latest polls in March) is inclined to vote for this party. How could this come about?

The AfD was founded in 2013 by Bernd Lucke a Hamburg professor of economics and himself a moderate conservative, as a party fighting against the various attempts to rescue the euro by creating a system of collective liability for the debts of the weaker countries within the eurozone. However, in July 2015 Lucke was pushed aside by more ruthless and more radical rivals and left the party he had founded.

Lucke’s principal opponent was a 40 year old woman from Saxony, Frauke Petry, a natural scientist, an exceptionally gifted student in younger years, and no mean but quite ruthless politician. It seems that Petry is herself no extremist, despite a sometimes rather aggressive nationalist rhetoric, but she is not too fastidious about co-operating with political allies who stand further to the right than she does either. She shares the position of party chair with Jörg Meuthen, a softly spoken economist from Kehl in South Western Germany. Meuthen is even less of a fanatic than Petry, but he is, people say, quite good at turning a blind eye to the antics of the various fruitcakes, loonies, and radicals within his party when it serves his purposes. Among these radicals, the chairman of the party in Thüringen Björn Höcke is probably the most prominent one, although others such as Alexander Gauland (a great supporter of an everlasting alliance between Germany and Russia) also come to mind.

Höcke is a genuine right wing intellectual who is very much at home in the mental world of conservative German thinkers active during the Weimar Republic, in particular men who formed part of the somewhat vaguely defined so-called Conservative Revolution. Some of these intellectuals were actually murdered by Hitler after 1933 and they were as a rule no Nazis as such, but they were all ardent nationalists and certainly no great supporters of democracy. Höcke also sympathizes with the pan-European “identitarian movement” which has its intellectual center in France and wants to preserve the alleged ethnic purity of European nations. Petry and Meuthen would probably like to get rid of Höcke these days, whom they see as an embarrassment, but Höcke has his supporters within the AfD not just in the Eastern Länder, the real stronghold of the party’s right wing, but also in the West and is too popular among many party members to be pushed aside, at least for the time being.

Until very recently it would have been inconceivable in Germany that a party led—at least at the regional level—by politicians such as Höcke would become a serious player in German politics, but this is not so clear any longer. Admittedly, after Lucke left the AfD with about 5 000 moderate supporters last summer (a quarter of the membership at the time, including perhaps up to 50% of the party activists), it seemed as if the AfD would quickly disintegrate completely.

But then mass immigration suddenly became a major problem. With over a million immigrants and refugees in 2015 and another million or more to be possibly expected in 2016, many Germans, in particular those who are less affluent, feel that both their accustomed lifestyle and their prosperity—often quite limited—is under threat. The conservative Islam which many immigrants probably subscribe to is not exactly confidence-inspiring as an ideology, but there are more practical problems as well. For example, the majority of German families do not own the flat or house they live in, they are tenants, especially when they do not belong to the upper middle or upper class. Rents have already gone up considerably due to the asset price inflation which the European Central Bank has deliberately produced with its QE and zero interest rate policies, so the great question is where is a cheap accommodation both for immigrants and for local people to come from?

The situation is not improved by the fact that the political class seems to have lost its bearings in the present crisis. Merkel herself keeps insisting that the refugee crisis can only be resolved at the European level. In practice this means that if no European solution is forthcoming—and it is not forthcoming at the moment (early March)— Germany will take in all the immigrants or refugees who seek shelter in Europe regardless of the numbers involved, whereas other countries are at liberty to shut their doors. Such policies are understandably difficult to sell to many German voters and the CDU seems to have lost between 15 % and 20 % of the supporters it had in 2013 due to the crisis, depending on which poll you look at.

Its main rival the SPD has problems of its own in coming to terms with the situation. Having made its own contribution to dismantling the severely underfinanced German welfare state before 2006 it now promises more benefits, cheaper housing, and higher pensions to “native” Germans as a compensation for the probable annual cost of 25 to 30 billion EUR (if not more) of support to refugees over the next couple of years, unless the numbers arriving in Germany decline dramatically quite soon. And where is this money to come from? Higher taxes and driving up the national debt are the natural answer, but this is not to everybody’s taste.

Still, the problem the SPD is facing is a deeper one. Like other socialist or social democratic parties in Europe it has gradually all but abandoned its traditional clientele. The number of industrial workers has declined in Germany and elsewhere so there did not seem to be a lot of mileage left in wooing such voters. It seemed to be much more promising to attract voters with a background in immigration by promising them an open multicultural society. However, this has had the effect of further alienating many people among the culturally often quite conservative traditional working and lower middle classes who were unhappy about the welfare reforms imposed 10 years ago anyhow. Such voters may initially just abstain at elections, but in the long run they become potential supporters of protest parties as the example of France, Britain, and Scandinavia demonstrates.

Men are apparently much more likely to vote for the AfD than women. This may be partly because women voters are generally less prone to support right wing or conservative protest movements, but perhaps this is also due to the fact that all older parties with the possible exception of the FDP (the Liberals, essentially an upper middle class party) now subscribe to the principles of affirmative action and positive discrimination in favor of women. This does not go down well with all men, in particular those who are less well off. In the same way in which Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are less well educated white men, in Germany male voters who somehow feel left behind— and this applies to many Germans living in less prosperous regions, in the Eastern Länder in particular—see the AfD as a party expressing their anger and providing an outlet for their frustration.

The question remains, whether the AfD will have a lasting impact on the German political landscape. It is probably too early to tell. Theoretically the Merkel government could manage to contain the refugee crisis with the—unsolicited— help of countries such as Macedonia and Austria. In such a case support for the AfD might evaporate as quickly as it has emerged because the euro crisis in itself (the original mainstay of the AfD) may not be sufficient to keep a political movement of this kind going; this was in fact one of the reasons for Lucke’s downfall. But apart from the fact that Merkel has at the moment no truly realistic plan of her own to curb mass immigration, there have been tectonic movements in the German party system over the last couple of years which cannot be undone that easily unless the CDU becomes credible again as a party which has something to offer to conservative voters, and that will not happen any time soon. Probably up to 20 % of all German voters feel alienated by the party system as it stands. Moreover, the gap between the world in which the political elite lives (and which it believes to be the only real one) and the world in which the average voter lives, who is not global or international in his or her outlook but confined by educational and economic constraints to a much narrower perception of society, has grown considerably over the last two decades or so.

Essentially, in Germany even more so than elsewhere significant sections of the economic and political elite are convinced that the nation-state is dead. For this transnational elite, legal systems based on international treaties, supranational institutions such as the ECB, or confederations such as the EU are at the center of politics instead. The problem with this approach is that none of these institutions and systems enjoys full if any democratic legitimacy. There is no government one can call to account by voting for another team of politicians than the present one if one is fed up with them, and it remains often quite unclear where responsibility for individual decisions lies in the first place. All this tends to undermine trust in the democratic process.

Does the AfD therefore pose a danger to Germany’s political stability? Its presence in politics will certainly make it far more difficult to form governments and may in the end lead to a situation where Germany is permanently governed by a grand coalition in the same way as Austria, which will further undermine the democratic credibility of political decisions. However, those who now want to fight the AfD by excluding it altogether from political debates and by imposing such strict rules on all political discussions that certain kinds of grievances (as for example those related to immigration) can no longer be voiced may overlook the underlying causes which have spawned a protest movement such as the AfD. They tend to forget that undermining the nation state as a framework for democracy (by either abolishing all borders and turning the state into an open space anybody can settle in at will, or by shifting most decisions to the post-democratic machinery of the EU) may be a risky thing to do.

One may find in the end that democracy (at least in its present form) will not survive such an experiment. As the eminent British intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, definitely no man of the political right, has put it recently: Announcements about the death of the sovereign state may be somewhat premature. The close relationship between sovereignty, democracy, and the nation cannot that easily be ignored, even if a nation should be defined primarily not in ethnic terms but both as a society of stakeholders in a given welfare system and as a community of citizens sharing constitutional rights and entitlements and—that is an important point—a common historical narrative providing the foundation for a specific political culture. If this unity, however, is largely dissolved, majority decisions as such may cease to appear legitimate. In such a case the emergence of a protest party like the AfD, which expresses the deep dissatisfaction of many voters with a system that tends to present the most important political decisions as the mere product of ineluctable necessity and as being beyond any debate, may soon seem to be a minor disturbance compared to the problems politicians will have to confront in the future.

Ronald G. Asch

Ronald G. Asch is professor of early modern history at the University of Freiburg. The focus of his research is the British history of the 16th and 17th century, the history of the Thirty Years´ War and the European aristocracy. His latest monograph is Sacral Kingship between Disenchantment and Reenchantment. The French and English Monarchies 1587-1688, Berghahn, New York / Oxford 2014. Until July 2015 he was a member of the party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

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