By Aidan Regan
After 12 years as Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel won another four-year term in Germany’s Sept. 24 election. But for the first time since the 1950s, a xenophobic, far-right party will enter the German parliament.
The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 12.6 percent of the national vote, campaigning in opposition to many of Angela Merkel’s policies, including immigration. It is now Germany’s third-largest party with 94 seats in the Bundestag, the German parliament. Parties are elected into the Bundestag based on proportional representation, and Germans elect the representatives of those parties as well, by simple majority.
Germans get two votes in each election — one for a candidate, and one for a party. “Instead of the two-party, winner-take-all system we have [in America], Germans can vote their conscience … and have the satisfaction that their elected officials, however small in percentage, are representing their interests,” Puget Sound German professor Kris Imbrigotta said.
“Merkel and her center-right CDU [Christian Democratic Union] party were effectively punished at the ballot box for doing the right thing and standing up for German values: open society, respecting and acknowledging the dignity and rights of all people, the tradition of ‘Gastfreundschaft,’” Imbrigotta said. Although the CDU remains the largest party in the Bundestag, they are down about 9 percent from the last election.
According to the German public broadcasting organization ARD, 99 percent of right-wing AfD voters said that Germans no longer feel safe and would like to reduce the influence of Islam. 85 percent said they wanted to protest the established political parties. AfD found the most support from voters in parts of the country that were formerly East German, an area which continues to have lower standards of living, lower salaries and lower employment rates.
AfD also campaigned with promises to protect German national identity. Since the end of World War II, expressing German national identity has been a cultural taboo. To Germans, any level of patriotism is reminiscent of Nazi nationalism. But AfD has called for a return to national pride.
During my first weekend in Berlin, I saw a far-right march outside the Bundestag building. Protesters held German flags and signs promoting the AfD. Protesters’ chants of “Wir sind das Volk” (we are the German people) and “Deutschland über alles” (Germany above all else) filled the usually-somber air of the nearby Holocaust memorials. Both phrases have a long history in Germany, but also carry Nazi connotations.
Much like President Trump did as a candidate, AfD found populist support by framing themselves as victims of the mainstream media and the political establishment. Meanwhile, controversial statements kept them in the media’s spotlight.
Although AfD found success in the election, their success in governing is far from guaranteed. Several members have left AfD due to internal disagreements on the party’s politics and goals, including Frauke Petry, AfD’s former co-leader and public face. Further, other German parties are uneager to work with AfD, instead opting to form a coalition excluding them.
As an American, the number of political parties in Germany seems remarkable. This plurality ensures that no one party gains too much power. It also keeps the nation away from two-party gridlock. There are now six major parties represented in the Bundestag, and many more active throughout Germany.
Germany’s number of parties also gives the nation’s political discourse a striking breadth of topics. Women’s liberation, weapon exports, animal rights, the surveillance state and the price of rent were all common themes on the campaign posters lining Berlin’s streets.
The importance of campaign posters was also a key difference from American elections. Political posters cover most streetlamps and billboards, in place of the TV advertisements and debates that characterize American elections. For Germany, elections are much less of a spectacle, and reliance on cheap campaign tools helps keep moneyed interests from dominating the political arena.
Common posters from Germany’s Green Party said, “The environment isn’t everything, but without the environment we have nothing,” and “Healthy food doesn’t come from nature that’s sick.” Merkel’s CDU posters displayed her face with phrases such as “for safety and order.” One controversial AfD poster showed a pregnant white woman with the words “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” Another said, “Burkas? We prefer Bikinis.”
Despite the anti-immigrant sentiments of AfD, Germany is more multicultural than ever. Guest workers from Turkey and Vietnam who immigrated to Germany in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are now part of the fabric of German culture. And the 1.1 million refugees admitted into Germany in 2015 (according to Politico) now call it home.
Additionally, Germany’s Nazi past keeps the nation especially wary of the far-right. Brass-plated cobblestones are on every block of Berlin, commemorating the Jews murdered by the Third Reich in front of the houses where they once lived. Berlin alone has over 5,500 of these brass cobblestones, and another 40,000 exist across Europe.
Although the return of the far-right in Germany is alarming, Germans’ level of civic engagement, their government’s division of power and the nation’s multiculturalism all suggest that AfD’s success has its limit.