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angela merkel

German chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mark Bergfeld talks to Counterfire about Merkel‘s popularity and the deeper roots of the rise of the right-wing AfD

A comfortable victory for Angela Merkel is widely predicted. What is the reason for her popularity?

The Merkel phenomenon needs to be understood in three ways. Firstly, one needs to acknowledge that the CDU under Merkel’s leadership has moved from being a traditional conservative party to being a party of the ‚extreme centre‘. They have absorbed positions from the Greens such as the phasing out of nuclear energy, liberal positions on same-sex marriage as well as right-wing positions on security and civil rights. This makes it very easy for a number of different constituencies to see some good in her. Her strategic silences on other subjects mean that the electorate believes that Merkel has her own political position but promotes rational positions as the Chancellor. This style of politics will shape the position of the German chancellor in the long-run.

Secondly, as a woman Merkel brings personal qualities into politics which previously would have been castigated as representing weakness. Thus, she often admits to mistakes and addresses how she will work to rectify these. The famous tv debacle in which she made a young Palestinian girl at risk of deportation cry and then turned around and didn’t shut the borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees is the most famous case in point. In doing so, the opposition parties face a difficult time in attacking her in a sustained fashion. Despite her rejecting the label of feminism, she has used her position as a woman to mobilise resources in unique ways, attack political opponents and build alliances on the world stage. One just has to recall all the images of her cheering on Germany’s national football team or her selfies with Syrian refugees. For the German electorate, she is the perfect antidote to someone as foul-mouthed as Trump or elitist as Macron.

Thirdly, German politics is overdetermined by the country’s economic performance and Germany’s competitiveness in the world market. As Germany has been able to secure its position as the world’s largest exporter and not been subject to the same austerity measures as other countries in Europe, she can now confidently proclaim that all in all Germans are very well-off. The truth of course is another one: low-wage work dominates for a substantial section of employees. However, the message of stability and business as usual makes sense in the current political and economic climate.

There was a bounce for the SPD just after Martin Schulz became leader, but after that his poll ratings languished. Why are the SPD not doing better after so many years of Merkel as chancellor?

The SPD has served in three out of the last four coalition governments. It should come as no surprise that their neoliberal policies and support for foreign intervention has come at a cost. They do not represent a credible option for voters.

Martin Schulz’s candidature initially highlighted the possibility of an interesting and contested federal election. In a matter of a week, more than 5000 people joined the SPD. However as soon as Schulz opened his mouth, it became obvious that the SPD was offering much of the same rather than breaking with neoliberalism as Corbyn and the British Labour Party have been promising to do.

However, the long-term decline of German Social-Democracy predates Martin Schulz’s candidature. It can be traced back to the Schroeder years which have become synonymous with draconian welfare and labour market reforms known as Hartz IV. Thus, Schulz’s move to get former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder involved in the election campaign backfired spectacularly. It revealed how out of touch the SPD leadership has become. A few weeks later, Schroder then announced that he would be joining the executive board of the Russian energy company Rosneft.

As Schulz’s ratings plummeted he went into attack mode. Initially he attacked Merkel which backfired. Then he went over to attacking Turkish president Erdogan. One can criticize Erdogan for many reasons but Schulz is being disingenuous here. Under his leadership, the EU poured millions into the Erdogan regime, and he supported the EU-Turkey deal which would close the border and keep refugees out. Meanwhile, the SPD has remained awfully silent when it comes to the Kurdish question. One of the big questions for this election is what party Germans of Turkish origin will vote for given Schulz’s attacks against Erdogan and the SPD’s Turkey policies.

Many blame the rise of the AfD on the 'mishandling' of the refugee crisis. Is there anything to this claim?

The refugee crisis and Merkel’s response were the trigger but are not the cause for the rise of the AfD. It is important to distinguish between the two in order to understand how the AfD has been able to build on the Islamophobic ferment already existent in society. Those elevating the refugee crisis to the prime cause of the AfD’s rise forget that the German far-right and fascists had been without a political home for years and that it created the political opportunity for them to unite.

The AfD was founded by a group of neoliberal economists in 2013. They primarily were interested in the Euro question and no longer financing Greece. It was only when the ‘refugee crisis’ and the so-called Cologne sex attacks occurred that they gained substantial traction in the opinion polls. Racism and xenophobia had always been part of their programme but now they took centre stage.

How significant is the rise of the AfD in Germany‘s recent history?

The rise of the AfD is one of the most important political developments in post-war Germany. The AfD now sits in 13 out of 16 federal state parliaments, something which the Left Party die Linke has not achieved to date.

It already has shifted the political discussion to the right. The CDU has started to attack ‚left-wing extremism‘ and squarely places the migration debate in security terms. Meanwhile a Green local politician Boris Palmer has published a book bemoaning integration and multiculturalism. The liberal FDP has changed its policy on Russia to winback the Russophiles who left for the AfD. Even The Left Party’s Sahra Wagenknecht has demanded upper limits on refugees in the past, thus giving credibility to the AfD’s positions. At times, it can appear that the whole political spectrum is turning around the AfD.

The AfD is currently at 12 per cent points in the opinion polls. For the moment, the CDU promises not to enter into a coalition with the AfD. However the question is how long they will be able to maintain that position. My guess is that if the AfD survives the next legislative period without splitting, the CDU will have a difficulty with their position.

This election will be the first time that a party with an active fascist wing is going to enter national parliament since the early 1960s. It reveals that Germany is not immune to the kind of dynamics which have taken hold across Eastern Europe throughout the last decade. Moreover, the East-West divide also is being shaken up through the AfD’s rise. In the state elections of Baden-Wuertemberg, the AfD won 16 per cent of the vote. No right-wing formation has ever achieved this in post-war Germany.

Where does Die Linke stand? And what about the wider trade union and grassroots movements?

In the wake of the G20 protests in July we have seen a concerted attack on the German left. The government has banned the radical news platform Indymedia and a woman who threw a beer bottle has been sentenced to two years and seven months. Some international activists still find themselves in prison without having been tried. The suspension of civil rights shows to what lengths the German government will go to undermine the left while we’re still waiting on a final verdict on the racist and fascist murders committed by the National Socialist Underground.

During this election campaign, the German Left Party die Linke has witnessed a membership increase. Two-thirds of its new members are now under 35 years old. This is a significant development for a party which was born out of the fusion of the former East German Communist Party and a split from the SPD in West. However, it has never been able to develop the deep roots in the trade union movement that many had hoped for.

While the party has stabilised, it has been unable to ignite/spark social struggles. Instead it often plays a marginal supporting role or simply remains the parliamentary voice of the social movements. Meanwhile many social movement activists have become institutionalised in the party ranks. Whenever it has entered regional governments, it has contributed to the privatisation of public services and come into conflict with social movements. After ten years of its existence, it appears that die Linke is simply a social-democratic formation yet one which remains open to the radical left.

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