Amid a rare September heat wave, Berliners of all ages fanned themselves with newspapers as they packed a room for a talk on the rise of the political right and how civil society should band together to stop it.
It may have been just a panel discussion, but had the feel of no less than that of a mainstream, pre-election war room – centered on winning what some see as one of Germany’s biggest political battles at the moment: Berlin state elections this weekend.
Panelists spoke of the need for dialogue across parties and of how too often exclusionary arguments are used to attract voters. But they also optimistically opined that "civil society is engaging more than it has in the past," said human rights activist Anetta Kahane.
The public forum was held exactly one week after the conservative Alternative for Germany (AfD), campaigning on a platform opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relatively permissive refugee policy, outpolled her Christian Democrats (CDU) in elections in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. AfD finished in second place behind the Social Democrats (SDP) in the rural east German state.
And the Berlin event was one week before voters in Germany’s capital elect a new state government that almost certainly will include the AfD, which is expected to receive around 14 percent of the vote.
Now that the AfD is in 9 out of 16 German states – 10 after this weekend’s vote – many fear this is a tipping point for the party and for Germany: a right-wing party, long taboo in postwar Germany, is now moving from the margins to the mainstream.
In national parliamentary elections next year, it would need five percent of the vote for a seat in the Bundestag. It just missed that threshold in 2013.
“This brings us to the question: are you openly confronting, opposing the growing right, or do you try to appease them?,” says Rana Islam, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
The political climate in Germany has turned increasingly more polarized as Chancellor Merkel has watched her party’s approval rating drop from more than 70 percent before the European refugee crisis to 45 percent today. Her hotly contested policy of allowing 1.1 million refugees into the country in 2015 helped spawn the rise of right-wing movements and protest parties.
Now the rise of the right is becoming especially clear in poll numbers that show many previous non-voters, or supporters of other parties, to be casting their ballots for the AfD. Many are motivated by their distaste for Merkel’s largely open-door policy, especially after attacks carried out by some recent refugees this year in Cologne and Bavaria.
“We’re the only party that opposes this Wilkommenskultur [welcome culture],” says Berlin AfD spokesman Ronald Gläser. “We don’t want huge numbers and we don’t want criminal people to come into our country and be burdening the taxpayer.”
Parties woo lost voters
In what’s normally a sleepy corner of the Lichtenberg neighborhood in former East Berlin, a series of “citizen festivals” sponsored by Merkel’s CDU have resonated across the main square every Saturday leading up to the Sept. 18 elections. Hundreds of mostly older locals, but also a CDU youth group, pour into the courtyard to chat with their representatives, and listen to live music.
Having lost some of its traditional conservative support, the party is trying to lure back swing voters by focusing on community values and security.
“The CDU will have to push back in a more conservative direction,” says Joerg Forbrig, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “These are swing votes you can regain, but you need to sharpen your conservative profile.”
Posters plastered on nearby telephone poles read, “More video technology with us,” in reference to surveillance. And earlier this month, Merkel’s conservatives called for a ban on the Muslim burqa and on dual nationality, such as that held by the many Turkish immigrants.
Two days before the elections, the CDU set up a booth at the Kottbusser Tor subway stop – which has become a hub of drug dealing and petty theft – handing out brochures about increasing the number of police officers in the city. "Security and crime prevention are two of the main priorities for the CDU," says Timur Husein, a CDU candidate for the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
It’s not just the ruling party that feels threatened. The Left party (Die Linke), which was founded in 2007 to challenge the Social Democrats, has also seen the AfD seize some of its support in the east. In the Sept. 5 elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, 18,000 former Left voters recast their ballots for the AfD. Now the Left – which is also known as an anti-establishment, protest-party – is scrambling to showcase what sets it apart.
“We try to tell people that refugees are not the problem if they are having a hard time economically,” Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for the Left, says three days before the Berlin elections. The party, instead, proposes concrete measures, such as better rent protections, in the largely lower income neighborhoods in which they campaign.
For many disenchanted voters, though, the Left party – which poll numbers indicate will form a three-party coalition government in Berlin with the center-left Social Democrats and liberal Green Party – has become too cemented into the mainstream. “There will always be people we just can’t convince” to vote for us, says Mr. Liebich.
Most politicians in Germany have already banded together in their distaste for the openly far-right National Party of Germany (NPD), at one point proposing legislation to ban the party from parliament altogether. Yet there is not as fervent a response to the AfD, seen by many as a relatable right-wing party that was originally founded in 2013 on an anti-Euro platform.
“AfD does not take any racist standpoint, and we are not an extreme party,” says Mr. Gläser, the AfD spokesman.
While the NPD usually receives seven or eight percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, its support was down to three percent in the latest elections, with much of its usual votes going to the AfD.
Ostracized by the mainstream when first elected into some state parliaments a year ago, the AfD is now being treated as any political party, says Mr. Forbrig. Its members are being invited on television talk shows and into election debates.
“Now I think there’s more of an engagement,” says Forbrig. To defeat them, he says, “ignoring them is not going to do the trick.”