Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Phoenix of the German right?

The polarisation of German society has become more visible in the wake of right-wing populist gains in last week’s elections, writes Salma Nosseir in Berlin


Phoenix of the German right?
Phoenix of the German right?

Last Sunday, German citizens went to the polls to elect a new federal parliament that would then form a government headed by a new chancellor for the upcoming four years.

The results of the elections were highly anticipated, considering that they were occurring in a relatively unstable environment in which the European refugee crisis, populist resurgence in the Western world, and the fear of terrorist attacks have been said to have affected the way people were expected to vote.

With the initial results published since the polls closed on Sunday night, it is safe to say that the political arena in Germany is radically changing.

Overall, 76.2 per cent of the electorate cast their votes, a bit higher than the 71.5 per cent in 2013. The conservative Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU/CSU), headed by current chancellor Angela Merkel, came out as the strongest party with 33 per cent of the vote, followed by its current coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD), with 20.5 per cent.

The right-wing populist and Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) managed to secure a place in the parliament for the first time in its history, coming in third with 12.6 per cent of the vote. After its failure to achieve the minimum five per cent threshold required to enter the German parliament in 2013, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) returned to the parliament by receiving 10.7 per cent this time round.

 Other parties represented in the parliament will be the left-wing Linke Party with 9.2 per cent and the Greens with 8.9 per cent, respectively.

While the CDU managed to come out as the strongest party, it would be mistaken to talk of a victory. Compared to the last election results, it lost 8.7 per cent of its electoral base in this round, making it the biggest loser of these elections. The SPD lost 5.2 per cent of its vote, reaching a historic low, whereas all the other parties achieved gains, significantly for the FDP (+6.0 per cent) and the AfD (+7.9 per cent).

The CDU gained 20,000 votes from former SPD voters and 380,000 votes from previous non-voters and lost significantly to the FDP (-1,360,000) and the AfD (-980,000). The SPD lost voters to every party, especially to the Linke, but managed to mobilise 360,000 previous non-voters to its cause. The votes received by the AfD were strongly accounted for by previous non-voters, of whom 1,200,000 voted for the right-wing populist party.

Shifts within the electoral bases of different parties serve as indicators of the desires and grievances of the German electorate and frustrations with previous policies. The CDU has been criticised for losing its conservative character and shifting more towards a centrist political position in order to appeal to a mass electorate.

Those who identify more strongly with right-wing policies have felt neglected by this and have moved more towards the AfD. Internal differences, triggered especially by the refugee crisis and Merkel’s decisions on this, have also been factors in the elections.

Horst Seehofer, the current leader of the German state of Bavaria, a member of the CDU/CSU and one of the biggest critics of Merkel’s refugee policies, said that the losses could be explained by the CDU’s neglect of its traditional right-wing base and that this void would have to be filled in the days and months to come. Merkel has already vowed to win back right-wing voters.

The SPD seemed to have gained new energy when it selected Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, as its leader in contesting the elections. However, the euphoria quickly subsided when opinion polls showed that despite his perceived closeness to citizens, the overwhelming majority of the population deemed Merkel to be more competent, trustworthy and sympathetic as chancellor.

 The opinion polls suggested that German voters thought the following policy areas to be of high importance in the elections: refugee policies, pensions, the economy, education, criminality, employment, social justice, family policies, tax policies and the environment. Out of these ten areas, the SPD was deemed best at handling issues of social justice, family and tax policies, while the Greens were considered most competent in environmental policies.

The CDU was thought most capable of dealing with the other six policy areas.

The AfD benefitted most from voters, and specifically male voters, in the former East Germany, where the party has already been represented in regional parliaments for a few years. If women had voted more for the party in the elections, it would have received some nine per cent of the vote.

Almost one in every six male voters voted for the AfD, and among male voters in East Germany the AfD came out the winner. Almost 19 per cent of male working-class voters voted for the AfD. Educational background also proved to be a significant factor among AfD voters: voters with only a secondary school diploma voted by 17 per cent for the party, while only seven per cent of people with university educations voted for it.

The 30-59 year age group provided the AfD with most of its votes, whereas younger and older voters gravitated more towards the CDU or SPD. Whereas most voters for all the parties said they had cast their votes based on convictions, only 31 per cent of AfD voters voted based on their beliefs and 60 per cent voted based on their disappointment with the establishment parties.

 This highlights the hypothesis that the AfD electoral base is acting based on protest votes, and it partially explains why the AfD is more concerned with rhetorical opposition than with actual policy recommendations. Alexander Gauland, a prominent figure in the AfD, said that it was “not the goal” of the party to formulate policies. Known for his controversial statements, he made a victory speech after the elections in which he vowed to “hunt Merkel down” and to “reclaim the country and its people.”

However, the election results are just the beginning of a long political process. The CDU will now have to form a coalition government, either with the FDP and the Greens (the so-called “Jamaica Coalition” because of the three parties’ colours), or with the SPD (the so-called “Grand Coalition”). The SPD has already declared that it intends to go into opposition and not form another Grand Coalition with the CDU, leaving the Jamaica Coalition as an alternative.

Despite the political differences of these parties, such a coalition could work if the CDU were willing to sacrifice a few policies to accommodate a wider spectrum of policy proposals. This could lead to an interesting government programme, in which both left and right-wing policy positions are included.

The coalition will also have to defend itself on new territory, since the parliament will include major oppositional parties from the left and the right. It remains an open question as to how the AfD will act once it is in parliament. On Monday, leader of the party Frauke Petry walked out of a victory press conference and declared her intention to leave the AfD caucus and not to participate in the AfD group in parliament.

She criticised the “empty rhetoric” of the party and its lack of substantial policy content. A few hours later, four AfD Party members followed suit in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. If this is any indicator of the future of the AfD, it will have to deal with internal matters as a matter of urgency.

With anti-AfD hashtags now going viral on social media and clashes erupting in various German cities, the polarisation of German society is becoming more visible. While Merkel will resume her position as chancellor and the CDU will remain the biggest party in government, changes will be necessary in order to react to developments in the political system and the electoral bases in Germany.

This is the first time in 34 years that a new party has entered parliament or one that has been accused of being extreme-right in its policies in a country that has vowed never to forget its history of extremism. This development, and the losses of the major parties, is bound to shake things up, and the question remains of how these changes will shape up in future.

Whether or not there will now be a general shift to the right in German politics, a more moderate AfD, or difficulties in keeping the political system intact is still unknown.

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