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Germany: With Centrists Like These…

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Supporters of Germany’s far-right AfD party holding a banner that reads, “Chancellor-Dictator Resignation Now!” on the day that Chancellor Angela Merkel was narrowly elected for a fourth term, Berlin, March 14, 2018

I spent the fall working at a wire service here in Berlin. When something newsworthy happened, I would often be dispatched to a street corner or subway entrance to ask people what they were thinking about. Usually, they were thinking about the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the far-right party that entered parliament for the first time in the elections this past September. What did it mean for Germany when, months after the election, the possible coalition government collapsed? “The AfD would gain in power.” What might happen if another so-called grand coalition between the center-left and center-right parties, Germany’s third since 2005, were to form? “That would be a boon for the AfD.”

People seemed to be waiting in doubled anticipation: for the new government to finally come together and, with it, for the AfD to assume its new opposition position. Politicians from other parties complained about having to share a room with Holocaust deniers and fear-mongers. The seating arrangements of the new Bundestag were the source of many newspaper articles. No party wanted to be seen next to them. Acquaintances from a charitable foundation traded complaints about the presence of AfD politicians at an annual party. Would they really have to shake hands with politicians who had campaigned on “Bikinis, not burkas”? Newspapers fixated on passing quotes by Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland, the AfD party leaders. When those two were occasionally silent, the papers moved on to members who seemed to have far less influence, like the Identitäre Bewegung, the right-wing “It girls” of Instagram.

As the latest grand coalition finally creaks into gear, much of this fear seems well-founded. At the government’s official inauguration, Merkel entered her fourth term as chancellor with only nine more votes than the required minimum. Names for possible replacements are already being bandied about within her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Criticizing Merkel is now a good way to get ahead. Germany’s political direction, however, depends far more on decisions within her party than on the AfD.

Because the AfD doesn’t have the necessary numbers to change laws, most of its efforts in the Bundestag have been designed to nudge conversation instead. Ever since the election, discussion of events in the public eye has had to include the AfD’s spin. When Deniz Yücel, a German-Turkish journalist, was released after a year in jail on false charges of espionage, AfD members declared him a “hater of Germany” and called for him to renounce his German citizenship. (A day earlier, André Poggenburg, an AfD leader in the state of Saxony­ Anhalt, attacked the entire Turkish community in Germany, which currently stands at some three million people. They were all “camel­drivers” who should be “sent back to the Bosphorus,” he said.) In recent months, the AfD has introduced legislation to make German the country’s “national language” and to alter the laws governing dual citizenship. These proposals have little legislative weight but a strong pull on the media.  

For people working with minority groups in Germany, the AfD’s presence in the Bundestag poses an additional problem. Now that these anti-immigrant views are being expressed by a parliamentary party, not individuals, members of government cannot criticize them as racist—by law, ministers are required to be neutral in their treatment of political parties. Last month, the German constitutional court judged that an education minister had acted unconstitutionally when she called for a “red card” boycott of the AfD over its anti-refugee politics three years ago. AfD politicians had brought the complaint.

Pundits often marvel at how quickly the AfD has acquired power. But if the party has gained prominence—in some polls even surpassing the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD)—it is because the anti-immigrant sentiment it represents has, in fact, been present as an undercurrent in German politics for years. There was latent support, says Carl Berning, a lecturer at the University of Mainz, “but no supply… Now we see a normalization toward what we observe in other western European countries.” Even if the AfD, constantly beset by internal conflicts and scandal, implodes, he says, “there will be another right-wing populist party” to take its place.

But German politics depend far more on the two center parties, the SPD and especially the CDU (and its sister party in Bavaria, the more conservative CSU). It is true that a grand coalition could stoke further growth of the AfD, Timo Lochocki, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund, told me. Because such coalitions must compromise and govern jointly, they give the impression to voters that there is no disagreement at the center. Only the fringes offer an alternative. But, he cautioned, the AfD’s power depends less on its own success than on what the CDU and CSU do together in the next few years. Do the center parties attempt to move further right to try to capture the voters they feel they have lost? Or do they steer the conversation away from topics like immigration? The potential new leaders of the CDU—the young Merkel critic Jens Spahn, who is the coalition’s health minister, and the new general secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a protégé of Merkel’s—will be in large part responsible for party policies and could determine whether the conservatives will eventually work with far­-right parties, as has occurred in neighboring Austria. 

It may not take long for Germany’s centrist parties to absorb at least some of the AfD’s rhetoric if the new coalition agreement, a blueprint for the next government, is any indication. When it comes to questions of social security, health care, and domestic policies, the coalition agreement mostly takes up center-left positions—concessions to the SPD, whose leadership only narrowly voted to enter into another coalition because of the threat another such entanglement poses to the future of the party. The SPD has seen its share of the vote decline to 20.5 percent in the most recent elections from 25.7 percent.

On the issue of immigration, however, there is a clear shift in tone. The 2013 coalition agreement had talked about Germany as a “cosmopolitan country” that saw “immigration as an opportunity.” The picture presented in the most recent agreement is much darker: “We’re continuing our efforts to mitigate migration to Germany and Europe appropriate with regard to the ability of society to integrate, so that a situation like 2015 is not repeated,” referring to the nearly two million immigrants who arrived in Germany that year, many of them asylum-seekers from Syria. For the first time, a cap has been set for the number of asylum-seekers who can come to Germany: 180,000-200,000 a year. And while the Social Democrats can claim, as immigration expert Astrid Ziebarth explained to me, that the path remains open—that these are simply guidelines, not a hard and fast rule—the overwhelming impression conveyed by the current policy is a denial of the number of immigrants already in Germany and a misrepresentation of how many newcomers the country would need to welcome in order to maintain the current workforce (400,000 a year, according to one estimate). The name of the Interior Ministry has been changed: it is now the Ministry of the Interior, Development and Heimat—a somewhat uncritical choice of words for a country that claims to prize historical awareness.

In mid-March, in an interview with the tabloid Bild, the new head of this ministry, Horst Seehofer, declared that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” Reprimand was swift. Newspaper commentators argued that what he really meant was that Islam did not belong to Germany historically; perhaps, with some time, it could become a part of the country’s identity—as long as integration was promoted. In her opening speech to the Bundestag, Merkel used her platform to counter Seehofer. “There is no question that the historical character of our country is Christian and Jewish. But as true as that is, it is also true that with the 4.5 million Muslims living with us, their religion, Islam, has now become part of Germany.” Yet she also used the speech to reiterate that Germany’s acceptance of millions of immigrants in 2015 had been an exception. Germans should be proud of how they reacted, but it would never happen again. And all over Berlin, one saw Seehofer’s words written in bright bold letters on the black background of Bild’s cover. “ISLAM DOES NOT BELONG TO GERMANY!” With centrists like these, who needs the far right?