The real lesson of the German elections

Magdeburg, Germany, March 13, 2016: Supporters of the AfD party react as the results of the Saxony-Anhalt state elections are announced. AfD won 24% of the vote, becoming the second largest party in the state government (source: dpa)
Magdeburg, Germany, March 13, 2016: Supporters of the AfD party react as the results of the Saxony-Anhalt state elections are announced. AfD won 24% of the vote, becoming the second largest party in the state government (source: dpa)

On March 13, three German states – Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt – voted for new state assemblies. Three interesting results can be observed, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

The election outcomes were a disaster for the two main parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. The loss of prestige for Chancellor Angela Merkel was substantial, and the changes in party representation were dramatic.

The premiers of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate – a Green and a Social Democrat, respectively – had enough local popularity to stay in office, but now must scramble to piece together majority coalitions in the reconfigured local parliaments.

The real headline was the success of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a new opposition party. Founded in 2013, the AfD has been labeled by its critics as a populist, nationalist and extreme right-wing organization.

All over Europe, media and politicians expressed shock that such a party could draw double-digit support in two populous states in western Germany, while becoming the second largest party in Saxony-Anhalt, in the eastern part of the country, with 24 percent support.

What happened? For the first time in many years, voter turnout increased in local elections. It appears that the AfD succeeded in tapping the large pool of disaffected and first-time German voters.

The conventional wisdom is that the AfD owes its success to fear of refugees. In this superficial narration, the established parties and Chancellor Merkel assume (quite hypocritically) the role of political martyrs in the service of humanity.

The refugee crisis certainly played a role in the election result. However, the main problem many Germans have with refugees is not xenophobia, but the fact that Chancellor Merkel appears to be welcoming them without any plan or provision for the future. In short, they are reacting to a lack of statesmanship.

The AfD has meanwhile undergone an interesting evolution. It was founded three years ago by a group of respected economists as a purely free-market party. The new movement was skeptical about the euro and the policies of the European Central Bank, and criticized the Greek bailouts as showing lack of foresight.

Whatever one’s point of view, these are valid concerns. They could even be called essential to debate in a functioning democracy. Yet as soon as the AfD began to get a hearing with the voters, the mainstream parties and Ms. Merkel rushed to marginalize the party by branding it – surprise, surprise – as populist, nationalist and right-wing.

Germany’s political establishment got what it wanted. Thanks to the public defamation campaign, the AfD’s founders were squeezed out by their rivals in the party’s non-economic wing. The result was a transformed and more radicalized protest movement.

This story shows how we have misconstrued the main threat to democracy in Europe. It does not come from parties such as the National Front in France or the AfD in Germany. The real danger is the establishment parties themselves, which have blocked any new developments or ideas that diverge from their party programs, already closely aligned with each other.

This suppression of opposition and political innovation, if it is allowed to continue, will be the death of democracy.

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