Germany is on edge as it goes into this Sunday’s elections for the Bundestag, the lower house of the nation’s bicameral legislature.
But the anxiety is not over the outcome, as there is little doubt that incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel will stay in power.
The disconcerting possibility is that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) – which many brand as nationalist or even neo-Nazi – will wind up as part of the official opposition.
A ‘grand coalition’ that suddenly don’t seem so grand
German politics is traditionally dominated by two major parties: The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Minor parties often pull enough votes in Germany’s proportional representation system to deny a single party a majority. Thus, governments are often formed as coalitions. For much of the Cold War, the CDU and its Bavarian CSU partner were bolstered by the Free Democrats, a market-liberal party that was also staunchly anti-communist.
Other times, the only combination of parties able to form a government are the two major parties together in a so-called “grand coalition.”
Merkel’s current government is such a grand coalition: The CDU/CSU and the SPD have together agreed to form a government that controls a majority in the Bundestag, with Merkel as Chancellor.
Since both major parties are in the government together, minor parties form what is known as the official opposition to the government. Currently, that opposition is controlled by the far-left Die Linke, which literally means “The Left,” and the ecologically-minded Green Party. They use their parliamentary perch to pose questions and criticisms of the government, as well as various other perks in appointing members to parliamentary committees and the like.
For the first time, a nationalist voice in Germany
Given this status-quo situation, there is currently no real representation of the far-right opposition to Merkel in the national legislature. The Free Democrats were once seen to play that role, at least on matters of economic policy. They fell below the 5 percent threshold for seats in the last election.
Now, the 5 percent threshold is a concern that surrounds the upstart AfD.
How to describe this party is itself a point of contention. In a broad sense it is seen as embracing the same sort of nationalism, anti-immigration sentiment, Euroscepticism, and xenophobic traditionalism that has been the hallmark of other European nationalist parties.
AfD is distinctly on the more radical end of that spectrum, however, compared to Britain’s UKIP or even France’s National Front under Marine Le Pen. Many accuse the party of in fact embracing neo-Nazi and other far-right extremists, long banished from respectable German politics.
AfD disputes that accusation. That’s a matter of positioning, as they are attempting to take fringe positions into the mainstream. But it’s also a matter of staying on the right side of the law.
The German constitution bans parties that are deemed “anti-constitutional,” which is mainly targeted at neo-Nazis. Germany still has strict de-Nazification laws, and groups found in violation can be banned and their assets seized.
Policing that line is difficult and subjective, and a task that falls to Germany’s constitutional court. Political parties advocating a return to the days of Hitler presented fairly clear-cut cases.
AfD on the other hand, presents itself as a middle-class party of professors and working-class Germans who simply oppose immigration and the European Union. AfD members have been caught crossing the line and veering close to denying the Holocaust — which is also illegal –but the party has responded by initiating expulsion proceedings against some of those members.
A far right ‘official’ opposition?
Whether it is fair to call AfD the heirs of Hitler is debatable. Still, its rise in the polls and possible election results has many Germans concerned. The AfD currently has members elected to 13 out of the 16 state parliaments. In recent local elections, it polled more than 7 percent of the vote.
This presents a distinct possibility: after Sunday’s election, Germany will probably still be governed by the CDU’s Merkel in a grand coalition with the SPD.
But the official opposition in Parliament, with significant power to influence and shape the national debate, will be held not by the far-left, but instead by the nationalist far-right. Current polling indicates this is a likely scenario, as support for the two far-left parties has declined.
It will be the first time since the fall of the Third Reich that far-right nationalists held such prominence in the nation’s political affairs. And the long-term implications of that have many Germans worried.
As Merkel’s nominally center-right party has become more center than right, some are concerned that mainstream German conservatives will be driven into the arms of a more extreme representative. Likewise, the continued viability of the center-left SPD is dubious if they continue to serve as the perpetual junior partner in an apparently permanent grand coalition.
Marine Le Pen might have taken a crushing defeat in France’s presidential election. UKIP has all but withered away after winning the Brexit vote. But the rise of AfD shows that the rise of European nationalism is not over yet.
(Image of Angela Merkel via Wikipedia, used with permission.)