Germany’s spring regional elections had even mainstream and bourgeois commentators talking about the “great moving right show” in German politics. The reading is not wrong: the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) finished third in Baden-Württemberg (with roughly 15 percent of the vote) and Rhineland-Palatinate (12 percent) and second in Saxony-Anhalt, an eastern region of the former German Democratic Republic (24 percent).
But the story is a bit more complicated. The election results mark two separate, yet intertwined shifts to the right in German politics, of which the AfD is merely the most visible manifestation.
The Best Laid Plans
Both rightward shifts started in the early 2000s, when Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) led the country. Under Schröder, the SPD moved further and further to the right, beyond the Third Way policies it had implemented during the first term of its “red-green” government in 1998–2002.
Emulating Bill Clinton’s attempt “to end welfare as we know it,” Schröder had the SPD adopt his “Agenda 2010” policies — policies that radically cut unemployment benefits and expanded precarious employment, weakening labor union power.
Incidentally, this move marked the opportunity for the founding of the Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG), which would later merge with the mainly East German–based Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) to form Die Linke.
Schröder, who got his way by threatening to resign if his party did not adopt the policies, also paved the way for Angela Merkel’s attempts to push the Christian Democrats (CDU) rightward toward even more radical neoliberal policies.
Merkel, then in opposition, had become party leader thanks to a donation scandal involving undisclosed contributions to the party, affecting even the former long-time German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schäuble, his direct successor as party chairman.
While a long-standing brotherhood of CDU-affiliated German state leaders had preempted her candidacy for chancellorship, the narrow defeat of Edmund Stoiber, Bavarian state leader and chairman of the Bavarian-based CDU sister-party Christian Social Union (CSU), during the 2002 federal elections enabled Merkel to dispose of known and potential rivals for party leadership.
So while Schröder was blackmailing his own party into following his Agenda 2010 reforms, Merkel appointed a committee headed by former German president Roman Herzog to work out an even more ambitiously neoliberal reform strategy for Germany’s welfare state. Indeed, had it actually been implemented, their plan would have ended much of the system that postwar Christian democrats built.
Herzog’s committee called for significant reductions in health care benefits, replacing the proportional contribution scheme with a regressive capitation payment one, reducing the unemployment benefits eligibility period, and replacing the progressive tax system first by a step-based and ultimately by a flat tax one.
Merkel was so confident about the plan that she had the CDU adopt it as its binding platform in 2003. She was certain that the CDU would win the federal election originally slated for 2006 — a confidence shared by political and economic elites eager to rid Germany of its welfare state and troublesome trade unions.
The political climate heated up in 2005 when Schröder’s SPD lost state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia, the country’s biggest region and former political backbone of social democracy, to the CDU. As a result he dissolved the Bundestag, triggering early federal elections.
Elites were hopeful and viewed the early election as an opportunity to build momentum for their push to dismantle Germany’s social safety net. 250 economists, in what later became known as the “Hamburg Appeal,” supported a plan for an even more ambitious neoliberal dismantling of welfare policies and firm fiscal austerity. Economist Bernd Lucke, one of the appeal’s initiators, would go on to co-found the AfD years later.
But it wasn’t to be. Betraying most opinion surveys at the time, the CDU/CSU and their allies in the Free Democratic Party (FDP) didn’t get the votes to win the necessary absolute majority. They were forced to form a “grand coalition” with the SPD.
And in what has now become her signature move, Merkel buried the CDU’s new neoliberal platform. The shift was probably politically sensible, considering the program’s role in squandering a seemingly guaranteed electoral victory, but the decision came about without any serious debate. Bernd Lucke and his acolytes were furious. The eager hopes of neoliberals inside and outside the CDU were crushed.
The Alienated Right
Perhaps the only force more disappointed with Merkel’s policies as chancellor than staunch neoliberals were social conservatives. Although Merkel seldom took a stand to push through progressive policy positions in the CDU, she organized the party not to resist them, let alone build alliances to counter underlying trends towards gender equality, incorporation of the migrant population, or acceptance of Islam as a part of German public culture.
Step by step, potential rivals within the party were sidelined by regional electoral defeats, by being forced to resign after scandals, or by being offered promotion to the European Commission. And although the German political system offers favorable conditions for party splits (given its comparatively low 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation), the country never experienced a successful party to the right of the Christian Democrats and the FDP above the regional level.
So while social conservatives, nationalists, and right-wing populists did in fact interact (i.e. on the pages of the right-wing weekly newspaper Junge Freiheit), they never came together permanently to form a common party before the AfD.
Part of the explanation for this rests on the country’s history: Germany’s fascist past made it so any attempt to build a party to the right of Christian democracy was stigmatized.
The effect was not just to isolate Nazis, but also to discourage non-fascist right-wingers from publicly organizing.
An Opening for the Right
Nevertheless, a small but remarkable window of opportunity opened when the same neoliberal economists and party activists vexed by Merkel’s 2005 reversal felt growing outrage about her policies during the eurozone crisis.
Although Germany managed to impose the austerity and deregulation regime that remains in place until today, Bernd Lucke and his supporters strongly disapproved of the deviations from German ordoliberal doctrine that Merkel’s policies entailed.
They were particularly angry at the de facto suspension of the “no bailout” rule enshrined in the European treaties and Merkel’s silence on the European Central Bank’s (ECB) expansion far beyond its mandate by announcing its bond-buying Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) program and implementing extensive quantitative easing programs.
Having exhausted every other traditional option — a proclamation of economists protesting the policies, constitutional complaints, support for dissenters within the then-governing coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP — Lucke and his allies, many of them economics professors and officials from business associations, finally took the plunge and formed the Alternative for Germany.
The party received media attention and proved electorally successful; with 4.7 percent it missed entry into the Bundestag by less than 125,000 votes. It marked the first time a party less than a year old had come so close to winning federal seats.
But with Bernd Lucke’s early triumph also came the seeds of his demise: Analyses showed that two-thirds of AfD voters had chosen the party not for its opposition to Merkel’s crisis management, but for its calls for immigration restrictions and tough talk on crime.
This pattern was confirmed in three regional elections in 2014, when the AfD entered parliament with double-digit results in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia.
By this time, a sharp division between a classic conservative and neoliberal wing and a more radically social-conservative but economically populist one within the party had already become obvious. Lucke tried desperately, but not very skillfully, to secure his grip on party leadership by becoming the sole spokesperson, against his then-co-chairperson Frauke Petry from Saxony and Konrad Adam from Hesse.
But a mid-2015 convention left Petry the unquestionable winner against Lucke, who left the party with most of his professorial colleagues and business-elite allies. Many thought the AfD had become a kick-starter for radical right-wing movements like the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (Pegida) and the various embodiments of the proverbial “Wutbürger” (angry citizens) that discharge bigotry through social media and in the comment sections of popular news websites.
Still, things were not looking particularly good for the party. The AfD would probably have burned out electorally (except perhaps on a regional level in Eastern Germany and in some municipalities) had it not been for the most surprising move of Angela Merkel’s career.
Shortly before she allowed refugees from Syria and the Balkans to enter Germany late last summer, the AfD had been performing poorly and hovering around 3 percent in opinion polls. Even in Saxony-Anhalt, where it would later come in second, the party struggled near the 5 percent threshold.
But the decision to let in refugees proved decisive. Exit polls in all three regions on March 14 confirmed that the “refugee crisis” was the main concern of AfD voters, followed by crime and social inequality.
The AfD was saved by a widespread perception that the “refugee crisis” was spiraling out of control, with a Merkel-led government unwilling or incapable of a commensurate response.
Many failed to see how the austerity and deregulation policies imposed by Merkel’s governments, the troika, and their willing executors among conservative and social democratic elites in Europe, had turned the populations of Spain, Greece, Italy, France, and Portugal against Germany.
Instead, the majority of Germans remained in “hegemonic ignorance,” seeing the harsh deregulation, workfare, and austerity since 2003 as the only viable response to economic downturn. In the German public’s perception, their country contributed nothing whatsoever to the eurozone crisis, but was instead left to foot the bill for fiscally irresponsible governments.
Correspondingly, they regarded imposed austerity as a fair course of action, and the Syriza government’s opposition as ungrateful insolence. Indeed, popularity for Merkel and her finance secretary Wolfgang Schäuble actually peaked in Germany when they brought Syriza to its knees.
But since late 2015, as the “refugee crisis” came to overshadow everything else, the bubble burst. Most Germans still believed they had done everything by the book, but quickly realized that leverage had moved to their neighbors.
Their government asked for a redistribution of refugees among EU member countries, many of which were sheltering far less of them than Germany. But any such move failed due to a lack of consent in the EU.
The surprisingly strong rebound of the AfD is first and foremost a reaction to this experience of powerlessness. As the “refugee crisis” loses salience in the coming months and years, the AfD will probably lose some of its luster. It is unlikely that the party will see the kind of success it saw in Saxony-Anhalt, where it gained thirty seats with a regional association counting only three hundred members.
However, the AfD might use this window of opportunity to build itself up as a platform for other grievances beyond disapproval of mass immigration. Let’s discuss probable consequences in the short, medium, and long term.
The Short Term
Before the real extent of the ongoing “refugee crisis” in Germany had emerged, various authors and activists had argued that a substantial economic stimulus in Germany and Europe would be necessary to supply jobs, housing, public infrastructure, and social services, effectively reversing the current austerity paradigm.
Without a policy reversal of this magnitude, social conflict would erupt, exploited by right-wing populist agitation. The policy shift didn’t happen, and the funds that have been approved are simply not enough.
Underprivileged and some middle-class locals are already being forced to compete with refugees for gymnasiums, housing, and before long, jobs in unskilled and low-pay sectors. These situations and the fears they produce mix with existing prejudice to build the core of this latest shift to the right.
Potential AfD voters see reasons to be worried. For example, Labor Secretary Andrea Nahles had her bill to re-regulate temporary work watered down substantially after pressure from the business lobby.
To many, it must seem that policies surrounding the refugees have full priority and firm support from a chancellor who never committed to anything in the past, while ending precarious working conditions is put on the shelf despite approval from voters of nearly all parties.
Worse still, the window of opportunity for a Keynesian stimulus policy may have closed with the regional elections, since composition of the upper chamber will have shifted to the right. SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel came out shortly before the elections proposing some improvements for low-earning workers and seniors, but it was too little, too late.
Nor will Gabriel put forward a proposal addressing the foundation of social hardship in Germany, namely the growing social and income inequality that he himself was partly responsible for bringing about during the second grand coalition (2005–9). Instead, the mainstream narrative since then has focused on how Germans are living “beyond their means.”
This shift to the right was perfectly exemplified by Die Zeit, the country’s leading liberal weekly paper, which has pejoratively labeled the majority of Germans “left-leaning” for refusing to give up the Bismarckian welfare state (which includes the pension system, protections against layoffs, collective bargaining rights, etc.).
And Die Linke was labeled “leftist,” not for being in favor of economic democracy (which had figured in the SPD’s platform until 2007), but because it stood as the single unshakable defender of regulatory and redistributive welfare policies that all other parties had chosen to undermine.
The paper’s prognosis missed the mark on its own terms, too. Since Schröder’s Agenda 2010, a majority of Germans believe that the country had been living beyond its means for too long, and that Schröder’s reforms, while perhaps unjust, were necessary to pull the country out of the recession that began in 2006.
Research shows the opposite to be true, but social democrats were so consistent in presenting these erroneous arguments that when Germany quickly recovered from the 2009–2010 financial crisis using two stimulus programs (which exceeded €100 billion in total), the SPD did nothing to “own” it in the upcoming general election.
Instead the party did quite the reverse by agreeing to inscribe a “debt brake” (balanced budget amendment) in Germany’s basic constitutional law, condemning Germany to apply austerity in the foreseeable future, even against a backdrop of historically low interest rates.
With their repeated genuflections before neoliberalism, German social democrats deprived working-class voters of optimistic expectations of social progress. Many formerly loyal SPD voters abstained in following elections, some of them temporarily switching to Die Linke.
However, in these latest regional elections, the AfD became the party many workers and unemployed Germans turned to. It’s a trend that echoes other successful radical right-wing populist parties in Europe like the Austrian Freedom Party, the French National Front, the Dutch Party for Freedom, and their Scandinavian siblings, who repeatedly outperform their respective social-democratic opponents among poorer voters.
The underprivileged have been told time and again by social democrats not to expect progress, so it is the radical right wing-populists who appear as the most reliable defenders of what they have left, and what they are afraid of losing to refugees and migrants.
Shortly before the elections, a draft version of the AfD party platform was leaked — filled with the expected radical social conservative positions (a rollback on divorce law, restrictions on single parents, Muslims, abolition of asylum seeker rights, reintroduction of compulsory military service with duration contingent on risk level, etc.).
But it also took staunch neoliberal stances on many economic and welfare policies, including privatization of unemployment and accident insurance, increasing the retirement age, complementing the “debt brake” with a ceiling on income taxes, and repealing the inheritance tax.
But these proposals came under fire by the social-conservative wing (party chair Frauke Petry and her deputy Alexander Gauland) who feared it may alienate the AfD’s newfound voters, and were subsequently watered down or deleted altogether.
The Medium Term
The AfD’s success in local and regional elections continue to shake German politics. In Saxony-Anhalt and Baden-Württemberg, party elites are preparing “Kenia” (black, red, and green) and green-black coalitions respectively (with black representing the Christian Democrats, red the SPD) to block their participation.
With Die Linke also considered an unacceptable coalition partner for mainstream parties, these parties lack other choices than to become strange bedfellows. But with former rivals forming governments, the established parties are poised to confirm precisely the impression of a colluding party cartel that the AfD often conjures.
This is basically the story of the FPÖ’s rise in Austria since the 1980s, as it took on a never-ending grand coalition of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Social Democrats (SPÖ). The FPÖ incessantly exploited the politics of gridlock and cronyism that such grand coalitions unwittingly produce. With the brief exception of an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in the early 2000s, Austria has remained trapped in the same pattern to this day, with the FPÖ growing stronger with almost each election cycle.
Hopes for a switch in economic and social policies are faint in Germany today. Realistically, a U-turn ending the austerity paradigm could not come about without the SPD. But the party agonizes over its course.
While its left is notoriously weak, lacking even the resoluteness to position the party against the neoliberal TTIP and CETA negotiations despite majorities in its favor, the party’s right remains complacent as they still control a majority of state governments.
Ironically, Angela Merkel might herself decide to support some expansionary and redistributive policies to prevent social unrest before the SPD can bring itself to abandon the “grand coalition.”
Meanwhile, the composition of governments will be further removed from voters’ choices. Voters are using different benchmarks than the ones political elites would like them to. They aren’t considering the probable composition of government but grievances they feel are ignored by the political mainstream.
The more people protest by voting for the AfD, Die Linke, or abstaining, the more often governments will be based on grand coalitions, while at the same time representing constituencies noticeably narrower than before.
Consequently, back door-negotiations between governments and lobbies will carry more weight, as has already been the case for the aforementioned thwarted re-regulation of precarious work and the secret TTIP and CETA talks.
And what will follow is somewhat obvious: back door-collusion will be grist for the mill for the AfD. Moreover, on local and regional levels, the right-wing populists will have options of referenda at their disposal which they lack at the national scale.
Plebiscites on mosque sites, schooling regulations, allocation of living space and other resources for migrants and refugees may become normalized. Using strategies of this kind will enable the AfD to reach people who refrain from overt racism but succumb to the appeal of its arguments while in the anonymity of the voting booth.
The mainstream parties will suffer the most in their unwillingness or inability to provide convincing frameworks to cope with urgent political problems. When belief in the viability of politically achieved improvements evaporates, the will to act politically dwindles to the defense of vested interests and possessions.
The Long Term
We face an unsolved question about how political agency and hegemony are produced in our digital-age capitalism. Up till now, parties had to build connections with a broad spectrum of civil society to survive electoral defeat and lean periods. Before the AfD, radical right-wing parties failed to build stable grassroots membership bases precisely because their activists could not openly espouse their politics without losing good standing within local communities.
Today, a high profile in civic associations has much less value. Internet and social media allow communication in complete anonymity and enables commitment to radical right-wing values in widespread, but close-nit circles.
Web fora function as virtual communities. If they enable the fostering of loyalties in a way that circumvents traditional institutions of civil society, we may be witnessing a “silent revolution” in the requirements for political capacity.
The radical right has grasped this development faster than the anti-neoliberal and radical left. They have tapped into the new avenues to disseminate anti-migrant framings, to mobilize pressure against unpopular policies, and manifest right-wing “organic intellectuals” who seem to need no approval from the mainstream commentariat.
The anticapitalist left shouldn’t run scared. While the AfD’s election results are impressive and Die Linke’s lackluster performance is regrettable, there were special circumstances at work. The AfD could not have performed this well at the polls without the refugee crisis. Once this crisis loses salience, the leverage effect will recede.
It is of no use to evoke dangers of fascism, since exit polls show a majority of AfD voters would just as well have supported the CSU, had it been on the ballot. And while the CSU is the most socially conservative mainstream party and has repeatedly supported xenophobic and isolationist policies, it is undoubtedly not fascist. The AfD has its opponents’ weaknesses to thank for its recent success, not its own strength.
The task at hand is to prevent the AfD from building a durable mass base. Unfortunately, the establishment parties have already embarked on a path of what Wolfgang Fritz Haug calls “helpless antifascism” — nervously and loudly denouncing their new opponent, while downplaying their remaining differences, thereby effectively reducing themselves to Angela Merkel’s vermicular appendix.
Stefan Petzner, a long-time companion of legendary Austrian right wing-populist Jörg Haider articulated this self-defeating logic in his political biography:
During my time at Haider’s side, I was always aware how much he relied on his opponents. They always repeated the same mistake, from their own point of view. They reacted with outrage to every single of his provocations, to each broken taboo, thereby serving our interests and thus shifting attention towards us instead of towards themselves. The established parties did so from the start, and they still act the same way when in dispute with right-wing populists.
There are two potential strategies to stop the AfD’s momentum. One would entail a further shift to the right by all mainstream parties, effectively and officially abandoning the “welcoming culture” they already helped to erode through the back door.
This is what happened in the early 1990s, when the SPD surrendered to pressure from the CDU/CSU and helped to mutilate the asylum rights in Germany’s basic law.
The other strategy would amount to a sharp U-turn reversing austerity, deregulation, precarious working conditions, and workfare policies. The current neo-Malthusian common sense in particular would have to be replaced forcefully by an understanding that Germany is living not beyond but under its means. Working-class and underprivileged voters would have to experience that politics can yield real results as that reversal is struggled through.
From this it follows that Die Linke should not strive to follow the mainstream’s faintheartedness, but instead build alliances in civil society against the overarching sense of despair. In mid-June, SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel surprisingly called for an alliance of all “progressive forces” against the rightward shift in Germany. He even mentioned growing economic inequality as a major concern.
But he remained peculiarly silent on where the inequities had originated, unwittingly exposing the SPD’s main problem to this day: without appreciation for its own policies’ role in preparing the ground for the AfD, it cannot produce sound conclusions about how to tackle the problem. Consequently, Gabriel’s abrupt proposal was dismissed as halfhearted even by mainstream commentators.
Anticapitalist forces should ignore sham offers. Instead they must fight to shift the political agenda away from right-wing populists, thereby depriving them of their single most important asset.