Trouble brewing on the right in Germany

Angela Merkel is in a safer position than most politicians in Europe. She is the head of a grand coalition with the SPD, relegating them to minor coalition partner. She is also very popular with the general population, helping the CDU stay around 40% in the opinion polls. She has also benefited from her party being the only party on the right, especially after the collapse of the FPD. This however looks like it is set to change and there is a chance Germany, like most other European countries, could see a rise in right-wing parties. This could draw the CDU into the same dilemma faced by the Tories in the UK and the newly dubbed Republicans in France (formally the UMP).

First up is the AfD (Alternative for Germany) party which has filled the void of a eurosceptic party on the right in Germany, wishing to stay within the EU but ditch the euro. The party has popped up to the right of the CDU during the recent euro crisis, giving a voice to those in Germany that are becoming more sceptical about the feasibility of the common currency. AfD has come out strong, securing seats in several state parliaments in 2014 and 2015, including Saxony, Thuringia, Brandenburg, Hamburg, and Bremen. It reached a high in the Brandenburg state election where it secured over 12% of the vote, coming in fourth. The party fares better in East Germany, where the CDU scores his highest percentages (often over 40%). Nationally, the party is hovering around the 5% threshold to get into the Bundestag, something it failed to do in the 2013 federal elections.

However, the party’s rise is anything but linear. AfD has run into a string of bad press recently due to infighting, a situation that eventually saw the demise of the German Pirate Party. The founder of AfD, Bernd Lucke resigned after losing a leadership vote to Frauke Petry. Lucke has accused the party of drifting further to the right and is rumored to be behind a new party that has developed after his resignation.

From here the AfD could go either way. The party is way too young and not popular enough to be established in the mind of the German electorate. If it is to succeed in the future, it needs to come out of this debacle with a unified voice and vision. If not, it risks dropping off the radar completely just like the Pirate Party a few years back. But if it does pull through, the AfD could keep rising and poaching votes from the CDU, especially in the former East Germany states. This is by no means a safe bet. Following the resignation of Lucke, 2,000 (of just 21,000) party members left the party.

The other development on the right in Germany is that of Pegida (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West). It has sprung up as an anti-Islam party on the right and has established itself in Dresden and Leipzig with smaller associated groups creeping up across the country. Earlier this year, it secured nearly 10% of the vote in the mayoral election in Dresden. The organization has attracted tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest what it believes is the islamization of Germany and Western Europe (although counter protests have drawn even higher numbers).
The movement has recently announced plans to create a political party, fielding candidates in next year’s four state elections (Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony-Anhalt, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). It is still too early to see how far this party could go, but without another such party on the far-right that has seen as much success, Pegida could take a significant slice of the electorate.

A bright future for these two movements on the right in Germany is anything but sure. The AfD may indeed collapse from the recent split and Pegida may also see itself unworkable as a political party. However, there is a void on the right in Germany where CDU standing alone. If other European countries are anything to go by, this cannot last, especially as anti-Greek or anti-immigrant sentiment rises in the country.

You do not have to look far to see how quickly a party on the far-right can see success. UKIP in the UK and the FN in France have both seen enormous success in recent years. Both won the 2014 European Elections in their respective countries. UKIP reached 12% of the popular vote in the 2015 UK General Election (although limited to just 1 seat in Westminster thanks to the UK electoral system that favors larger parties) and Marine le Pen has led her FN party to local election victories and to the second round in many more.

The Tories in the UK and the Republicans in France have both had to turn their rhetoric to the right, especially on immigration. In local elections in France, which has an electoral system that gives smaller and newer parties a better chance of succeeding, the FN was able to go into the second round of many districts, putting it head to head with one of the major parties, or against both of them at once. It is now well established as the third largest party in France, and most polls put the party easily into the second round of the 2017 presidential elections.

Could this same political context arrive in Germany? It is certainly possible – the CDU stands alone on the right, especially after the collapse of the FPD, and recent protests and violence against immigrants prove there is an appetite for such right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is something that Merkel and the CDU will need to watch closely as their dominance in German politics rests on not being challenged on the right. While the SPD has to contend with the Greens and the Left consistently garnering 10% of the vote each.

But would such a political context be good for the SPD? At first glance it would appear so, as a fragmented right would give the left a better chance at regaining power. However, looking at the UK and France as examples, the rise of the far-right has not benefited the left in either of these countries. The Socialists in France continue to fall deeper and deeper with presidential ratings in the 20s and losses in the recent departmental elections. Meanwhile in the UK, Labour lost seats (and lost its support in Scotland) in the latest election, failing to come to power despite being the opposition party for five years.

In fact, UKIP and FN have made inroads in historically socialist or labour strongholds such as northern France or northeast and northwest England. The party has capitalized on disillusioned voters in these regions that used to be rich off of industry but now suffer from high unemployment. These right-wing parties are taking votes from both the right and the left in their respective countries, making them nearly just as dangerous to the PS and Labour than as to the Republicans and the Tories. In Germany, the former states of East Germany fit the same description and are already giving more support to AfD and Pegida.

Germany has so far been immune to the rise of a far-right anti-immigration party, perhaps for various economical and historical reasons. The CDU cannot take this for granted and there appears to be an appetite for a grouping that is perhaps further to the right and either anti-immigration or eurosceptic, or both. While Merkel enjoys her high popularity rankings and the CDU rides those rankings to electoral victory, a storm could be developing on the horizon.

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