‘Serious danger’: Far-right surge rattles German politics

Tue, 4 Jul 2023 9:34 GMT
AfD party’s historic election win reveals failings of existing strategies to curb far-right gains, warns analyst.
‘Serious danger’: Far-right surge rattles German politics

It has been referred to as a watershed moment in Germany’s politics – a candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party winning an election for the first time in the country’s history.

This was in Sonnenberg, an area in the eastern state of Thuringia, where the AfD’s Robert Sesselmann secured 52.8% of the vote in a runoff to become the district administrator, a position equivalent to a mayor.

His win over Jurgen Kopper of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has shaken Germany’s political landscape, coming at a time when the openly xenophobic and Islamophobic AfD is seeing its polling figures surge to record highs.

Since it was founded in 2013, the AfD’s extremist and far-right views have seen mainstream parties formally refusing to cooperate with the party.

However, it is finding increasing space amid growing public discontent with the center-left ruling coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats.

For months, the government has been dogged by infighting over domestic policy and budget issues.

Hovering around 19% to 20% in polls, behind the opposition conservative CDU/CSU coalition, the AfD is tapping into voter fears and anger about a recession, migration, and the green energy transition.

Scholz, though, has tried to dispel the notion that disputes within the ruling bloc have fueled the AfD’s rise.

If you give the impression that this motivates people to vote for AfD, “then you make the topic ... very, very easy,” he recently told public broadcaster ARD.

The German leader did acknowledge, however, that government infighting does not give a good impression.

“The challenge we face in this regard is deeper. Above all, you have to strive to ensure that there is a good future for everyone in the country and that you show mutual respect.”

His remarks were partially echoed by Omid Nouripour, co-leader of the Greens, who emphasized the need for unity within the coalition in the wake of Sesselmann’s win in Sonnenberg.

At the federal level, the government seems too divided to the outside world, Nouripour told public broadcaster ZDF, warning that German “society has been in crisis for years.”

“I think the coalition has to ask itself what it did wrong. We, Greens, have to do that too,” he said.

One must now make sure “that we take people with us and explain why the changes are necessary,” he added.

“People want to know what we’re doing about the problems.”

Not enough to isolate them

While far-right parties are on the rise across Europe, the AfD’s ascendancy in Germany is a particularly sensitive matter, given the country’s Nazi past.

Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, termed the AfD victory “a watershed (moment) that this country's democratic political forces simply cannot accept.”

Similarly, Hajo Funke, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Free University of Berlin, called for a comprehensive new strategy to counter the AfD.

“It is right to isolate them as they are a far-right party that wants another autocratic, racist government, but it is not enough to isolate them,” he told Anadolu.

“One needs a different policy and a much more responsive approach to the far-right destructive nature of AfD politics.”

In his view, the AfD has managed to “become so strong mainly because the current government has fallen out or presents such an image.”

Threat in the east

Funke cautioned that the AfD could become a “serious danger” to German democracy if it comes to power in areas in the country’s east, where polls indicate the party could win elections in three states next year.

His words were given more credence by a Leipzig University study published last week, which confirmed clear right-wing extremist tendencies in eastern German states and warned that the AfD could continue to grow its influence there.

It found that a comparatively large number of people in those areas express strong prejudices against foreigners and Jews, and wish for a “single strong party” and a powerful Germany.

AfD exploits that sentiment and has a large base, especially among non-voters with extremely right-wing views, according to the report.

The authors said a survey of around 3,500 people found high approval ratings for right-wing extremist and anti-migration views, adding that the level has been almost stable for some three decades.

Some 7.1% of the respondents had a “closed right-wing extremist worldview,” according to the study, slightly below 8% in comparable studies from 2002 to 2010 and 9.7% from 2012 to 2020.

Nevertheless, this is “a very high percentage, which poses a challenge for democracy that should not be underestimated,” the report said.


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