After the far-right party's success in the German election, we must look at the root causes of their rise, if we are to know how to fight back
The big news of this election is undoubtedly the rise of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland: AFD), a far-right party who articulate openly fascist and pro-fascist positions from within a new electoral formation that is rapidly professionalizing. This election also represented losses – despite their overall positions as first and second largest parties – for the traditional major parties, the Christian Democratic Union (Christliche Demokratische Union: CDU) and the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands: SPD), both of whom recorded historically poor vote-shares for the post-war period (CDU: 33%, SPD: 20.5%). These losses, together with a rise in voter turnout (especially in the Federal States of the former East), contributed hugely to the AFD’s success. This is a trend that is occurring all over Europe, whereby traditional parties lose vote-share, or downright collapse (as with the French PS is PASOK in Greece). Despite being present in German politics, it is less pronounced than in a number of other countries.
The other big winner of the night was the Free Democratic Party (Freiheitliche Demokratsiche Partei: FDP), a liberal party committed to neoliberal economics and citizen’s rights. After having failed to get past the 5% hurdle to enter parliament in 2013, the FDP surged to 10.7% of the vote this time around, proving that there is still is still life in self-proclaimed ‘centrist’ parties, a trend mirrored in minor comebacks in a number of other European countries.
The Left Party and the Greens (die Linke; Grüne) remained relatively stable, with 0.6% and 0.5% vote-share increases respectively. The Grüne have established themselves as the party of the left-liberal middle classes, but are very likely to harm themselves long-term due to their strategy of being open to a so-called ‘Jamaica-coalition’ (named for the combination of CDU, Grüne and FDP), as their membership stretches from the small-c conservative environmentally concerned to ex-Maoist veterans of the ‘68 generation.
Die Linke’s results are interesting in that it sees a shift from the East, it’s traditional heartlands, where the tendency was a loss in vote-share, to the West, in which it is traditionally smaller. The party did particularly well in urban centres, and managed to get over the 5% hurdle in every Federal State for the first time, including Bavaria which is notorious for its right-wing politics (the CDU does not run there, rather having an alliance with a sister party the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (Christliche soziale Union in Bayern: CSU) whose positions are consistently to the right of its partner).
As already noted, the ‘Jamaica coalition’ appears the most likely outcome of negotiations between the parties, as SPD’s main-candidate Martin Schulz has already appeared to rule out a further ‘grand coalition’. There were mooted discussions of the possibility of a ‘red-red-green’ coalition (SPD, Linke, Grüne), but the three parties were unable to reach the requisite number of seats for this to become a reality; it also being highly unlikely on account of the SPD and die Linke being unable to reach agreement. The other option would be a minority government (the FDP is seen as the ‘natural’ coalition partner for the CDU) or new elections, which seems unlikely. A Jamaica coalition will involve huge comprises with the Grüne, yet time is markedly not of the essence in the negotiation process, the last SPD/CDU period to form a government having lasted 86 days.
Returning to opposition is undoubtedly a good move for the SPD, as parallel to the Austrian political situation, it is clear that participation in the grand coalition has harmed their claims of being a party of social justice, and begun to make their politics relatively indistinguishable from the CDU. With Jeremy Corbyn’s recent success, the question of the revitalization of other historic labour and social-democratic parties via a shift to the left has emerged. Unfortunately, this seems highly unlikely for the SPD. The party’s program contained little meaningful intervention in the fields of the low-wage sector and public spending, and Schulz himself was a figure from the party’s right-wing, hyped mainly because of his tenure as president of the EU parliament, and thus relative lack of association with recent SPD policy. Due to Germany’s PR system, many of those on the left of the party left to joined die Linke in 2003 under the infamous labour market deregulation of the SPD/Grüne coalition, meaning that the left fraction’s influence is negligible.
The SPD could however well have filled a gap here, as despite having an economically left-wing election program, die Linke remain a party encountered with much scepticism because of their historical connection to the GDR’s (German Democratic Republic: East Germany) ‘Socialist Unity-Party of Germany’ (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands; SED). Further, the choice of Sahra Wagenknecht as one of the two lead-candidates for the election undoubtedly had a negative effect on the popularity of the party amongst certain left-leaning voters due to a number of comments she made about refugees that appeared to slot into a national-populist discourse (despite this, however, such logic remained absent from the party program). As a result of this history, die Linke continue to find it hard to frame themselves as an exciting new left party in a similar vein to Syriza or Podemos. Leftover Cold War anti-communism and the need for unification to be premised on an absolute rejection of East Germany’s political system continue to make the party an unviable option for many. If the SPD stand by their position of returning to opposition, they will ensure that the AFD are unable to frame themselves as the major opposition.
AFD and the ‘left behinds’
Successes of parties such as the AFD are often framed as protest votes of working people. Yet most studies have shown that the AFD voters are actually predominantly white-collar, a large number of leading party figures also coming from such backgrounds. The party moved consistently to the right in the period before the election, seemingly miring itself in scandal time and time again, whether it be in relation to its refusal to condemn antisemitism or its links to fascist organizations. Yet the hopes of many that this would lead to people ‘seeing the party for what it was’ have proved unfounded. The party’s surge in the last few weeks before the election shows that, far from hiding its fascist views behind a veneer of respectability, that in fact to a certain extent because of its unashamed racist nationalism, around 13% of German voters opted for them. The widespread reporting of the AFD as the first fascist party to be represented in the German Parliament post-war glosses over the backgrounds of the majority of politicians in the immediate post-war period in the NSDAP, despite then representing ‘mainstream’ political parties, and the hugely incomplete processes of denazification which led to the constant presence of support for Nazi and Fascist positions within German society and an approach to history that sought to ignore historical continuities.
Though undoubtedly a number of AFD voters hail from the working classes, the parties disproportionate success in the Eastern Federal States points to a success that has perhaps more to do with status anxiety that it does class struggle. Having been consistently on the losing end of reunification, the Eastern Federal States are subordinate to the Western in everything from economic productivity and employment, to centres of academic ‘excellence’ and successful football teams.
Economic Equality or European Identity?
Precarization and deregulation are the watchwords for the German Labour Market. Wage suppression at home and captured export-markets via the economic inequalities created by the single-currency are the keys to German economic success, rooted in the country’s political power, as opposed to miraculous productivity.
Despite huge trade-surpluses, the German government has spent very little on public infrastructure. The acceptance of a limited number of refugees has been weaponized by Merkel’s government against other EU-states, who due to their situation on the periphery (both geographically and politically), receive far greater numbers (Hungary, Greece, Italy). Germany’s relative wealth within the EU bloc is another reason for its being a main destination for refugees, a situation, as noted above, created by its ascendant position and anti-democratic relation to other EU countries. The figure of a government leveraging humanitarianism to ensure its hegemony not merely in economic terms, but also in moral ones, has undoubtedly had the effect that many Germans are left wondering why its government is not so active in terms of infrastructure spending or the abolition of the low-wage sector. The fact that the conditions of refugees are inhumane and inadequate is neither here nor there, as, through the distorted lens of AFD ideology, they are framed as the new undeserving recipients of state welfare, despite the fact that they supposedly don’t even stand for the perpetually amorphous ‘Western values’.
This ‘clash of cultures’ narrative has clearly succeeded in determining the AFD’s success, and it is significant that the party’s success was welcomed by Marine le Pen of the Front Nationale in France, pointing to an increasingly assertive pan-European fascism, asserting a common European identity rooted in a Europe of nations, against an Islam framed as anti-modern. The AFD has a clear split amongst national conservatives more in favour of economic intervention, and those in favour of free-markets and deregulation, a tension which will perhaps come to the fore in the coming mandate period. Their party program this time around contained a number of deregulatory measures, but in broad terms, they ensured that the majority of those voting for them did so as a result of their nationalist politics as opposed to their economic program. It is a politics of fear for the future, related to changing realities in terms of social security, but successfully deferred into a politics of imagined cultural change and recent terrorist attacks that has driven the AFD’s success.
The meaning for the Left
The increased vote for the AFD and FDP sees an overall shift to the right of the political spectrum. The AFD must be seen as the most worrying of these as it is a clearly a party in the fascist tradition, and due to its status as the third largest party in parliament, it will enjoy access to unprecedented levels of German state resources, and a grounds from which to further professionalize their operation. Despite being preferable to the alternative, the mainstream parties method of obstructing the AFD through non-cooperation (already well practiced in regional parliaments) is at once instrumentalized by the AFD themselves using the classic discourse of the truth-telling martyr, forced to the periphery of a political system.
This is a period in which antifascist organising will take on an increasingly vital importance, as we have seen recently in the US, right-wing trends in national politics tend to embolden organized neo-nazis and fascist groups. This will involve a fight in the streets, and one linked to the battle of ideas.
Socialists must ask themselves where to organize, whether within die Linke as the major parliamentary party of the left, which might still rise to become a left formation able to channel a very real dissatisfaction with the status quo, or without it in smaller groups with more radical programs, or antifascist groups and social movements. The possibility of a turn to the left from the SPD remains remote, but then again, this is what most of us would have said about the British Labour Party 4 years ago, and their time in opposition may yet yield some surprises in this respect.
As the spectre of fascism rears its head again, we must remember that in fact it never went away. Just as Trump was merely the symptom of a political system in crisis, so too is the success of the AFD the latest development in worldwide crisis of legitimation linked to the inability of capitalism to regulate itself through bourgeois democracy. Under such circumstances, we are invariably beset by the false prophets of nationalism, fascism or hollow populism. Our political system remains built upon a foundation of racism and the capitalist ideology of the survival of the fittest, that has always involved the upholding of watered-down versions of fascist positions in the heart of the mainstream parties.
One AFD supporter was heard to say of left-wing counter-protesters at their victory party, “the gulag may be a good solution.” To encounter this latest fascist threat we would do well to remember Antonio Gramsci’s words: “Study because we will need all your intelligence. Agitate because we will need all your enthusiasm. Organise because we will need all your strength.”