On September 24, Germany will vote in what will is one of the least interesting and yet most important electoral contests since the Federal Republic’s founding in 1949.
The campaign has been excruciatingly boring. Most observers take Angela Merkel’s victory as a foregone conclusion. The televised debate between the current chancellor and the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) lead candidate Martin Schulz on September 3 got mixed, but altogether negative, reviews, ranging from pure indifference to bewilderment and anger at the candidates’ painfully inoffensive style. This reaction is all the more remarkable given that German politics isn’t known for its confrontational style.
Indeed, while the rest of the European political landscape is marked by upheaval and polarization, in Germany, the center is set to triumph, propping up the hopes of liberal commentators desperately awaiting a liberal fight back. But this picture is misleading: these elections are taking place in a period of growing uncertainty.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) casts its shadow not only over Merkel and Schulz but also over the resurgent liberals of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). For example, approximately 47 percent of the Merkel-Schulz debate concerned migration and refugees. No AfD spokesperson participated, but the party’s presence nevertheless permeated the room.
These fascists in suits have set the election’s agenda, steering it away from any socioeconomic problem they can’t exploit for racist purposes and toward cultural issues of identity and immigration. While the election appears to represent business as usual for Germany, the results will fundamentally change the balance of the power.
The Fight Back That Isn’t
Anyone entertaining hopes that Merkel’s cosmopolitan center will roll back the far right’s recent successes should seek professional help immediately.
Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as if taking its cues from Donald Trump, recently declared war on so-called left-wing extremism. This attitude became visible in the police’s heavy-handed repression of the G20 protests in Hamburg. The government also cracked down on the German section of the alternative Indymedia website in late July.
Some German liberals heap praise on conservatives like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who condemned Trump’s comparison of antifascist and fascist protesters after Charlottesville, but remain silent while the German establishment revives the Cold War tradition of equating the radical left with neo-Nazis.
We should not take such equations lightly. In recent months, Germany has been rocked by a series of neo-fascist scandals, including the discovery of Nazi cells within the army. Furthermore, the trial of the National Socialist Underground group, responsible for deadly attacks on Turkish and Greek residents over several years, has produced a constant stream of evidence that demonstrates authorities’ chronic negligence in response to the threat of far-right terrorism.
It is no exaggeration to state that the greatest threat to public safety in Germany does not emanate from Islamist terrorism but from homegrown fascists who have easy access to weapons and benefit from a criminal justice system willing to turn a blind eye on their activities.
Unfortunately, the CDU isn’t the only party that has tried to weaken the AfD by attacking the Left. In recent months, the liberal — but fiscally much more neoliberal — FDP has experienced a remarkable resurgence after being kicked out of the Bundestag during the last elections.
Its leader, Christian Lindner, has taken on a Macron-esque role, becoming the focus of his party’s campaign. Posters depict him staring at his smartphone, rejecting the bureaucratic obstacles standing between Germany and technological innovation. The slogan reads “Digital first, concerns second.”
Beneath his seemingly charming exterior beats the heart of a politician who wants to prop up internal surveillance and — as he recently stated in an interview with Bild — send all refugees home. With liberals like these, who needs Bavarian right wingers?
The SPD has also joined this race to the right. When Schulz announced his bid for the chancellorship, he appeared somewhat popular: more honest than Gerhard Schröder and less tainted with the legacy of the Agenda 2010 neoliberal reforms than the rest of his party. But this image soon began falling apart. Trying to appeal to both the bosses and the German workers, Schulz pleased no one. While talking about scaling back some elements of Agenda 2010 at the start of his campaign, a series of electoral defeats on the state level saw Schulz orienting himself towards the center and proclaiming Emmanuel Macron his role model. This was a hopeless move, and not only because this political space is already occupied by Angela Merkel. The SPD has problems beyond its candidate. Most importantly, it belonged to a coalition with the CDU between 2005 and 2009 and another from 2013 until the present, a history that prevents the party from assuming a plausible anti-establishment posture.
So, in the hopes of improving his standing, Schulz broke with standard SPD policy and joined the chorus of Turkey bashing, voicing his opposition to that nation’s entry into the European Union. We can only interpret this risky gesture — some 70 percent of Turkish Germans vote for the Social Democrats — as a subtle dog whistle designed to attract voters considering supporting AfD. Far from providing any meaningful help to Turkish democrats, Schulz’s move helps Erdoğan secure his autocratic hold on the country.
The Greens offer no relief. The party has arguably hit rock bottom, not necessarily in the polls but certainly conceptually, as mainstream parties long ago took over the theme of eco-friendly capitalism. Socioeconomically, the Greens represent an upwardly mobile middle class and are therefore less and less inclined to form a coalition with the nominally working-class SPD.
Indeed, they would make a perfect match for the CDU, a formula already tested on the local level. However, such a deal would embarrass the party, considering recent diesel emission scandals and the CDU’s corporate-friendly response to the affair.
But U-turns on supposedly key questions of identity have been a Green trademark for decades, as their foreign minister’s support for the war in Kosovo, the nation’s first war of aggression since World War II, testifies. Further, the party’s affluent demographic ensures a minimal loss of voters after each rightward shift.
Regardless, a CDU-Green coalition will only take place if the FDP also participates: unlikely considering the liberals’ and the Greens’ deep-seated antagonism, a phenomenon created in part by the parties’ similar agendas and demographics.
Fascists at the Bundestag Gates
The AfD is poised to enter the Bundestag, marking the first time a fascist party has entered the German parliament since 1945. Grown in the fertile soil of Islamophobia, which the mainstream parties cultivated for years, the AfD’s rise came with a string of arson attacks on refugee shelters. Like the American alt-right, the AfD combines Zionism with virulent antisemitism, maintaining organizational ties to an assortment of Nazi “intellectuals.”
In recent weeks, the party has made an anti-establishment media push: they invited Nigel Farage to speak at a rally, and chief candidate Alice Weidel theatrically walked off the set of a televised debate.
Some mistakenly hoped that the AfD’s recent decline in the polls indicated slowing momentum or increasing institutionalization. Various commentators have attributed this to the lower number of refugees thanks to the European Union’s shameful deal with Turkey, which Merkel played a large part in negotiating. But this assessment fails to capture the current moment’s stakes.
If the AfD is indeed losing steam, surely the mainstream parties wouldn’t try to copy its positions. In every historical case where such an emulation occurred, it led far-right formations to success, not failure. The goal of an AfD-free Bundestag remains a distant prospect, as various polls put the party between 8 and 11 percent support, well above the 5 percent threshold.
And the Left?
The Left´s fortunes — specifically the fortunes of its largest party, Die Linke — are stagnant, with the party polling around 8 to 10 percent. Where Die Linke threw itself in with social movements, as in Hamburg, its prospects have improved. A recent poll there put the party at 12 percent, a remarkable achievement given that Hamburg sits far from the Left’s traditional strongholds in eastern Germany.
The fact that the party is now being pulled in two seemingly opposed and equally disastrous directions helps explain this stagnation. On the one hand, the reformist wing is unrealistically hoping to form a coalition with the SPD and the Greens, a plan that has already cost the party dearly at the local level.
This drive to government comes partially from an ideological commitment some Die Linke members share with the rump of Syriza currently governing Greece, but there are also material incentives for it, given regional party organizations’ participation in local governments and the connected processes of political socialization and reproduction.
On the other side of the intra-party spectrum stands Sahra Wagenknecht and, to a lesser degree, former chairman Oskar Lafontaine. Despite her anti-neoliberal and anti-militarist credentials, Wagenknecht has joined the other parties’ rightward drift, seeking to capitalize on it for the sake of her own brand of left-wing populism. When it comes to issues like Turkey or Islamist terrorism, Wagenknecht sounds more like a law-and-order conservative than an anti-racist internationalist.
The problem for those in Die Linke wishing to push the party into a movement-building, anti-capitalist direction, is that Wagenknecht`s comments are ammunition for mainstream commentators eager to invent similarities between the “two extremes” of Die Linke and the AfD, making a critical defense of Wagenknecht imperative. However, Wagenknecht isn’t making things easier for those wishing to defend her against critics from the Right, both within and outside of the party.
The party’s twin leadership of Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping could provide a way forward. Riexinger is a seasoned left trade unionist with the right ideas about building the party as a grassroots organization rather than as an electoral formation. But he has a narrow power base within the party’s higher echelons, forcing him to balance these competing forces and make concessions in the process. Kipping may be a youthful libertarian socialist, but her call for universal basic income is unlikely to extend the party’s appeal to disenfranchised working-class voters at risk of turning to the AfD.
All this makes the role played by social movements within the party crucial. During the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia this May, cities with high levels of antifascist mobilization, such as Cologne and Münster, rewarded Die Linke with above-average results. The same applied in working-class neighborhoods, where Die Linke’s branches devote themselves to building the party building rather than winning elections. The potential, not only for stopping the fascists but also for reviving the fortunes of the Left, is there and it must be exploited to the fullest extent. A defeatist resignation at this moment would be suicidal.
Dangerous Times Ahead
The idea that economic deprivation and rising inequality push the average German to the right has dominated this election, with nearly all parties scrambling to block the AfD’s rise by dancing more or less to its tune. History has repeatedly proven the hollowness of such common-sense assumptions. Instead, those engaged in the daily struggles for social justice and against war and racism will take on defining roles in the coming period.
The math doesn’t bode well for the stability of German capitalism’s political superstructure. The two most likely outcomes — a continuation of the Grand Coalition or a new alliance between the CDU, the FDP, and the Greens — will require key players to make embarrassing U-turns. The latest polling data seems to indicate that neither a “red-red-green” coalition (between Die Linke, SPD, and the Greens) nor the bosses’ wet dream of a CDU-Liberal coalition are likely.
The AfD’s presence in the Bundestag will likely complicate matters further: will other parties form a cordon sanitaire around them? Or will some, like the Bavarian Christian Social Union, seek casual arrangements? Die Linke will squander its chances to appear as the main oppositional force if its leaders try to sweet talk the SPD into a red-red-green coalition — a prospect the SPD has done everything to distance itself from.
As the global capitalist crisis deepens, the edifice of stability in one of its key players is slowly eroding. This is a contradictory process, marked by both a growth of the far right and the apparent resilience of the center, coupled with the Left´s stagnation. Two interrelated events previously deemed unthinkable in postwar Germany – the emergence of a mass quasi-fascist formation and the gradual self-destruction of German Social Democracy – indicate just how far to the right the German political spectrum has moved in the last two decades, despite its social-liberal facade.
Conversely, the tasks of the Left become more pressing. A re-think is urgently needed, given the hollowing-out of effective democracy from neoliberal capitalism. This implies a strategic re-orientation of the radical left, both within and outside Die Linke. A policy on the grassroots of society, which avoids the twin chimera of social-liberal government experimentation on the one hand, and a “populism” that takes an inherent shift to the right for granted, is imperative.
The contours of such a re-orientation cannot be delineated programmatically. Instead, they must grow organically from the field of mobilization against the danger of the AfD, with a class-oriented antifascism that is neither moralistic nor prone to even the slightest rhetorical concession to the far right.