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Not just Trump: In German elections, anti-immigrant populists chalk up wins

Shifts in political norms

A wave of public unhappiness with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies helped the Alternative for Germany party take more seats than expected in Sunday's regional elections.

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    Frauke Petry, chairwoman of AfD (Alternative for Germany), points her finger at the gathering of the right-populist party in Berlin Sunday after the closing of the state elections in the German federal states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt. Three German states were voting Sunday in the first significant political test since the country saw a massive influx of migrants.
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At best they’ve been dismissed as geistige Brandstifter, or "intellectual arsonists." At worst, as outright xenophobes.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) has this nation on tenterhooks after the party scored bigger than expected in regional elections dubbed Super Sunday here. The elections are considered the best barometer of the national mood ahead of federal elections next year, and the results show a clear rejection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies on the refugee crisis.

AfD garnered nearly a quarter of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, in the former communist east Germany, becoming the second biggest party there. It also reached double-digit percentages in two western states, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate.

Founded three years ago, AfD now sits in half of the country’s 16 regional assemblies, filling a "gap of political representation," says Werner Patzelt, a political science professor at Dresden’s Technical University. The migrant crisis has pushed Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) too far left for many supporters, leaving the true German conservative feeling “homeless," he says.

But the rise of AfD is certain to bring more vitriol to German politics, which, until now, have been among the most civil in the West.  The party's leader, Frauke Petry, has gone as far to suggest that authorities could shoot migrants at the border. 

Many dismiss AfD as a single-issue protest party that is bound to fail if Germany gets the migration crisis under control, which Ms. Merkel will seek to do on Thursday as European Union leaders meet to negotiate a deal with Turkey to contain the flow of refugees to Europe. But the results of Super Sunday have rocked the consensual environment in which politics has played out here since the end of World War II.

“One of the secrets of German success is that we avoided crisis by forging strong, stable coalitions, and that was due to the fact that we had a limited number of parties in Parliament,” says Mr. Patzelt. Now, as has been the case across Europe and the US, coalition-building and politics generally could become more unruly as populists on both sides of the spectrum eat away votes for the established parties.

'Appealing to people's fears'

AfD began as an anti-euro party amid the backlash over bailouts in southern Europe. But after a record 1.1 million migrants applied for asylum in 2015, it shifted almost solely to an anti-migrant platform. The party's base is in east Germany, but its original neoconservative message has helped it gain support in the west too.

The residents of Halle in Saxony Anhalt say they feel left behind by the ruling classes. AfD managed to bring previously apolitical voters to the polls. But it also took votes from the mainstream right and left, and from the far-left in Saxony-Anhalt, where the successors of the communists typically do well.

Petra Sitte, a Halle native and a member of the federal Parliament for the far-left Linke party, says she understands how the migrant crisis has made the east fertile ground for AfD. She says many here, like herself, lived through the trauma of the end of communism, endured a lot to “make it,” and now fear “losing the little they’ve achieved."

But many say the party is unnecessarily stirring up anxieties. “They won power by appealing to people’s fears,” says Petra Tomczyk-Radji of the CDU in Halle, which used to be a chemical industrial center of former East Germany, but has seen most of its industries shut down. “And it suggests that people’s fears are justified. But that’s not true. Nobody in Halle,” for example, “has lost their apartments because of the refugees.”

Overall, a mixed message

The CDU still remains the most popular party in the country – and in fact won in Saxony-Anhalt. But it, along with the other main party with which it rules in a grand coalition, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), suffered unprecedented losses. Analysts say the results are the clearest punishment against Merkel’s refugee policies. 

In a paradoxical twist, Merkel’s policies on refugees had support among the victors who beat the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate under contest. But while Germany has seen the most robust welcome towards immigrants in Europe, it has also seen the most violent opposition to them, from burned down refugee centers to the rise of the anti-Muslim Pegida movement. Most "Pegidians" voted for AfD, says Patzelt, an expert on the group.

This is not the first time that the far-right has shaken Germany. In the 1990s, amid another wave of refugees, the populist, anti-immigrant German People’s Union (DVU) entered the Saxony-Anhalt regional parliament with 12.5 percent of the vote. But it, and other similar movements, have always fizzled.

Everhard Holtmann, who studies extremism at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, says he won’t be surprised if AfD, despite its surge, faces the same fate. “When a party has its roots in protest, it is barely in a position to conduct constructive work, and it is usually voted out soon after,” he says.

Normalization of racism?

In the meantime, many Germans, refugees among them, are looking at the political situation uneasily. Mamad Mohamad, a Syrian Kurd who fled to Germany 20 years ago as a teenager and ended up in Halle, held a “mock election” for refugees Friday as an exercise to fortify refugee rights.

“We are scared. We see how racism has become an accepted thing here,” he says. With Pegida and AfD, “it's part of the normal discourse.”

Hans Vorländer, founder of the Center for the Study of Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Dresden who just wrote a book about Pegida, says violence against refugee centers quadrupled between 2014 and 2015. He blames Pegida and AfD, even if indirectly, because of their radical rhetoric.

Ms. Petry “made violence against refugees socially acceptable,” he says. “Until now German society had found itself in the middle … and the real threat is that, if it consolidates, it could divide politics and society.”

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.

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