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In Drama-free German Election, Far Right Party’s Move Into Parliament Makes History

Besir Ceka
Besir Ceka

Though the 2017 German national election may end not with a bang but with a whimper–centrist Angela Merkel is favored to win a fourth term as Chancellor–extremism is creeping into German politics. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist, far-right party, will likely gain parliamentary representation for the first time since World War II.

Besir Ceka, assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, says that though Merkel's expected victory is an overall endorsement for continuity, anti-immigration populism will continue to push political discourse to the right in Germany and in Europe.

In 2016, Germany admitted more than one million Syrian immigrants, setting off a wave of anti-immigration sentiment that threatened to overwhelm Merkel's political power. Now, however, Merkel is expected to win Sunday's election easily. How has she pulled that off?
The primary explanation is that Germany is going through a golden economic age. Unemployment rates are low. Things are going well and that has blunted the edge of the immigration backlash.

Germans don't want to rock the boat. Merkel is the perfect centrist candidate for a happily centrist people. (In a recent poll, over 80 percent of Germans identified themselves as centrists.)

The real uncertainty in the 2017 election is not about the electoral outcome–the uncertainty is which other parties will join Merkel to form a governing coalition.

The economy may have tempered the anti-immigration movement but it has not prevented the far right from grabbing power, right?
The far-right, anti-immigrant AfD might actually become the third largest party in the country. It's unprecedented in the post-World War II era for a far-right party to gain representation in the German Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. (The AfD is expected to win approximately 80 of the 630 Bundestag seats.)

Because of their recent past and earnest efforts to deal with it, Germans have been particularly sober in their vote choices and have resisted the temptations of ethno-nationalist chauvinism. That's obviously changing. The refugee crisis coupled with an aging population that is being replaced by immigrants causes existential anxieties among some Germans. The AfD has been able to exploit such feelings as exemplified by one of their taglines: "New Germans? We'll make them ourselves," showing a white, pregnant woman.

How will the AfD's entrance into German politics affect actual policy?
The AfD will not enjoy any actual political power because they are considered beyond the pale and will not be included in any governing coalition.

However, the far more sinister effect they are likely to have on German politics is to move the discourse further to the right by pushing mainstream parties to adopt more of their stances on immigration. As can be seen in many other European countries (e.g. the Netherlands), mainstream parties have responded to challengers from the far-right spectrum by internalizing many of their policies and, thus, legitimizing their politics.

We are already seeing signs of this in Germany in Merkel's discourse and in the stances taken by the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a classical liberal party poised to make a comeback to the Bundestag after a brief hiatus outside it since 2013.

How does a Merkel victory affect Europe in general?
Not much will change in Europe as a result of this win. Merkel is a known quantity with an aura of stability and calmness, which is valued by her partners in Brussels (EU's capital) and elsewhere.

Germany is a staunch supporter of European integration, and the failure of Eurosceptic far-right parties to gain power in the Netherlands and France earlier this year will further calm nerves about the danger that such parties pose to the post-World War II supranational order embodied by the European Union.

That said, the EU is not out of the woods yet from the 2010 Great Recession and many things need to be worked out institutionally at the European level to avoid another such crisis. One thing to keep a close eye on is the partnership between Merkel and Macron and how that develops in the future.

Jay Pfeifer