Germany: Dangerous times ahead as far right makes gains

March 18, 2016
Far-right group Alternative for Germany made significant gains on March 13.

Although many readers are watching voting results in the United States with baited breath, it is worth taking a look at Germany's partial state elections on March 13. They are far from pleasant, but important all the same — and not just for Germany.

Only three of Germany's 16 states voted, with national elections not due until 2017. But if the present trends continue, watch out.

Readers from nations with two big parties and only a few small splinters may find it hard to follow Germany's six parties. That number of rivals makes it almost impossible for any one party to gain a full majority in the legislature (and it's the same on a national basis).

This means that two or three parties must agree to govern together in a coalition, splitting the number of cabinet seats according to strength, with the strongest party taking the top post.

Mostly worse

Nationally, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the two “Christian” sister parties (one in Bavaria is separate) have joined with their old rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). This leaves the Greens and Die Linke (The Left) in opposition. This can be very different on the state level, and on March 13 it became more different and difficult than ever — and mostly worse.

Each of the three elections had a different winner. In two states, the Greens barely squeaked past the 5% hurdle needed to get any seats in a legislature. But in more prosperous Baden-Wurttemberg, with Daimler-Benz corporation untouched (as yet) by the emission scandals engulfing other sectors of Germany's auto industry, Green minister-president Winfried Kretschmann triumphed again.

On the right edge of his party, which is generally moving rightward, Kretschmann remains very popular with his gruff, jovial manner. All other older parties suffered, except for the reborn right-wing “free market” Free Democrats.

As for the once proud SPD, it failed more miserably than ever before in two states, getting only between 10% and 13%. But one single result was a bright spot in their gloom. In far western Rhineland-Palatinate, known for wonderful vineyards and less wonderful US military bases, they won a neck-and-neck race.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who attacked their own party leader Merkel on the refugee question, lost out to the SPD, which may invite its rival to join the government as a junior partner.

Merkel's CDU has been speedily slithering down-hill owing to her welcome to waves of immigrants; briefly, even her rule seemed to be threatened.

That danger seems to have past, but her party suffered tough defeats in the states mentioned above. As a mild consolation, it kept its long-lasting lead in the East German state of Saxony-Anhalt. However, its previous partners, the SPD, lost so heavily that it will be hard to paste together 50% of the seats to form a new coalition.

Racist gains

With all those losses, who won? Undeniably, it was the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party founded in 2013. Its position resembles that of Donald Trump, except that its head, attractive young Frauke Petry, spreads her verbal poison cleverly without his bluster. And Petry wants no frontier wall — she prefers police shooting at “illegal immigrants”.

Her party got two-digit results in all three states, 15% and 13% in the west and a frightening 24% in eastern Saxony-Anhalt. It now has seats in four eastern and four western legislatures.

Merkel's pleas for a humanitarian welcome for the refugees, as dictated by German Basic Law, thus reached only part of the population. The chancellor and her government have been retreating week by week, but for many this was not enough.

Nationalism and fear, infected with large doses of racism, were fuelled in the media by coded or openly hostile reports on every case where a young male “foreigner” was caught in a crime or misdemeanour. More horror stories were invented and spread over the internet, often brutally fascist in tone.

Less spectacular was the fact that the great majority of refugees, often mothers and fathers with children, had done nothing worse than wait on long lines for some kind of basic support — and hoped to escape mass cot or mattress accommodation in gyms and airplane hangars. Indeed, most violence, increasingly, was directed against them.

But hoarse calls of “We are the people” echoed those oh, so libertarian slogans of 1989 against the Berlin Wall and meaning now (and then, too): “We are the German people”.

More and more signs read “Throw Merkel Out” or “Merkel resign!” because of her refugee welcome. The looks on the faces of those in such marches recalled many a photo or film of 80 years ago.

Left loses ground

But the big tragedy was for the left-wing Die Linke, which lost everywhere. It failed to reach the 5% hurdle needed for representation in the two western states (with a disappointing 2.8% and 2.9%).

It also crashed from a high-ranking second place in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt to a crushing 16%, a loss of seven points. It fell far behind the AfD. Die Linke's main candidate had once spoken of becoming minister-president in the state.

The refusal by Die Linke's spokespeople to depart from support for humane, friendly treatment of the refugees — in unusual concurrence with Merkel — was admirable. But it won no votes.

What was missing was a sharp rejection of the government policies that helped cause the refugee flight: support for US policies in Syria and Turkey, and sales of weapons worth billions to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Even more needed were aggressive responses to the fears of so many people, especially in eastern Germany, about no jobs or rotten ones at weird hours and low wages. Or about the mean, demeaning treatment of all who have lose their jobs, or against higher rents and gentrification, rising rates of electricity, medical care and transport.

The AfD built on such fears. Die Linke took good positions, but was all too rarely seen on the streets in active, vigorous protest. It often aimed at coalitions with the Greens and SPD, in Saxony-Anhalt and elsewhere. As a result, many saw it as just one more of the corrupt old parties.

Fightback spirit needed

Die Linke might have even dared to insist that the whole rotten system was more and more a case of the “1%” versus “the 99%” set-up — and needed more than just band-aid improvements. Rebelliousness in a vicious direction has won too many AfD converts; rebelliousness in the other direction might also win angry protesters.

This fightback spirit has been demonstrated, sometimes with more success, sometimes with less, but always admirably, by protesters in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. It has also been expressed courageously by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain — and in many ways by Bernie Sanders in the US.

Their vigour and courage, also their originality and even humour, are as badly needed here as in those places. Germany has long been a powerful force in Europe, usually in a bad way.

But there remains potential on the left. With a large, devoted membership — and still with many delegates in the Bundestag to support (not replace) action in the streets — Die Linke could play a valuable role, one needed more urgently than ever.

[Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin. Email to subscribe.]

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