The political center is shrinking in the Federal Republic of Germany. Former communists already have insinuated their way into state government. Members of the right‐wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) are attempting to follow suit. The latter’s efforts have set off much caterwauling on the left, but such hypocritical attempts to denounce and isolate the AfD — to enforce a political cordon sanitaire — will only make the party more extreme.
Germany is supposed to be the stable foundation of the European Union. But the country’s two traditional governing parties have seen their support drain away. In the 2017 Bundestag elections, the Christian Democrats (joined by the Christian Social Union in Bavaria) claimed a total of just 33 percent of the popular vote—down 8.6 percent from the previous election in 2013. The Social Democrats (SPD) took in 20.5 percent of the vote—a drop of 5.2 percent from 2013. Current polls show the two, which currently rule in a “grand coalition,” no longer commanding a popular majority.
In contrast, the extremes are growing. Die Linke (“The Left”) won 9.2 percent of the vote, up from 8.6 in 2013. Through Die Linke, East Germany’s communist party, the Socialist Unity Party, lives on, joined by more radical former members of the SPD. Though founded by an economic libertarian opposed to the European Union and the Euro currency, the AfD took off after new leaders emphasized immigration and cultural issues; it came in third nationally with 12.6 percent—up from 4.7 percent in 2013.
These trends continued in the former East German state of Thuringia last October. Die Linke and the AfD led with 31 percent and 23.4 percent of the vote, respectively. Trailing were the Christian Democrats (CDU), who had finished first in 2014, at 21.7 percent; the SPD, at an enfeebled 8.2 percent; the Greens, at 5.2 percent; and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), generally pro‐business, at 5 percent.
Shutting out the AfD, as the mainstream parties are trying to do, will only make it more extreme.
After reunification, the mainstream parties agreed to avoid coalitions with Die Linke. This commitment prevented a national left‐wing coalition government in 2013. Instead, the CDU and the SPD joined in a grand coalition, which was repeated after the 2017 poll, though both parties had lost support.
However, the SPD dropped this self‐restraint at the state level. In Hesse in 2008, the party reached an agreement for informal cooperation with Die Linke, though the pact quickly collapsed. A year later, Die Linke entered government in Brandenburg. Thuringia was run by a local grand coalition before the 2014 poll. Then the SPD held a party vote and 70 percent of the members chose to shift left and join Die Linke and the Greens in coalition. Similar deals were reached in Berlin in 2016 and Bremen last year.
Yet a repeat of Thuringia was impossible after October’s election, when the AfD doubled its support and the FDP gained the minimum 5 percent, entering state parliament. Nevertheless, the presumption was that Thuringia’s prime minister, Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow, would remain—either leading a minority government or a new coalition joined by the CDU. Instead, the CDU and the AfD voted for the FDP leader, Thomas Kemmerich, as premier.
The three parties, which delivered a one‐vote majority, said there was no coordination, a claim met with widespread skepticism. The reaction across the political spectrum, even among Christian Democrats, was hysterical. An impotent Chancellor Angela Merkel called the action “unforgivable.” Her heir apparent, CDU leader Annegret Kramp‐Karrenbauer, then announced her resignation. Kemmerich also offered to resign and called for new elections to eliminate the “stain” of AfD’s support. However, there’s no reason to expect a significantly different result, which would leave the governing conundrum unsolved.
Germany has a unique and understandable concern about the far right, but the AfD, while vocalizing ugly rhetoric and positions, is not fascist, let alone Nazi. Nor is Die Linke’s communist heritage more palatable. East Germans suffered grievously under Die Linke’s forebears, a record that the party has never confronted. Both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China engaged in mass slaughter in the name of communism. In 2014, German president Joachim Gauck, a dissident minister in East Germany, observed that it would be “quite hard to accept” Die Linke taking a leading role. Why trust one extreme party over the other?
More important, though, isolation keeps democratically elected parties at the fringes, encouraging radical voices and promoting a victimhood mindset. Bringing such parties into government tends to moderate their aspirations and behaviors. Thuringia’s Ramelow, from Germany’s west, ruled like a social democrat.
The AfD needs similar political socialization. The party’s Thuringia leader, Bjoern Hoecke, is a member of the more radical faction, called the Wing. He is not likely to disappear anytime soon, after doubling his party’s support in the last vote. However, the AfD’s membership is not uniform. Nationally it is likely to gain support with the continued weakening of the CDU.
Integration is not a pipe dream. Europe has substantial recent experience with unsettling nationalist parties. In several countries, outlying parties have been invited into governments and most have found the experience to be chastening. Some have suffered political losses after confronting the inevitable challenges of governing.
For instance, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) began as an independent force but moved right. The establishment parties initially excluded the FPO, but the party eventually joined a coalition with the mainstream conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) in 2000. The FPO ended up losing votes in 2002 and split in 2005. Over time the party regained support; in 2016, the party’s presidential candidate was narrowly defeated by a Green candidate. In 2017, the FPO came in third and again joined with the OVP to form a governing coalition.
That pact collapsed last year amid a scandal involving the FPO leader. Austrian chancellor and OVP chairman Sebastian Kurz dissolved the coalition and called a new election. The FPO lost about a third of its seats and Kurz turned to the Greens to form a novel conservative‐Green pact. The FPO was subsequently racked by internal dissension. Still, the party remains a (reluctantly) recognized political participant, despite its harsh populist positions.
Founded in 1995, Finland’s nationalist Finns Party (FP), previously known as the True Finns, is essentially left on economics and right on culture. In the 2011 parliamentary contest, the FP became the third‐largest party. Four years later it moved up to second place and controversially joined the government. The party soon split over the concessions necessary to sustain coalition rule.
In the 2019 poll, the FP again came in second. The country’s Social Democrats formed a five‐party, center‐left coalition without the populists. Critics contend that the FP’s views have not moderated, but the party’s total, 17.5 percent last year, is too small to threaten political stability, while the FP’s voters cannot complain about being disenfranchised.
Italy provides a dramatic example of the rise and possible fall of populist forces. In 2009, the comedian Beppe Grillo established the ill‐defined anti‐establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). Vaguely left‐leaning but Euro‐skeptic, M5S became the country’s largest party in 2018 with a third of the vote, picking up 119 seats, many lost by the ruling Democratic Party. In some southern regions, M5S won almost half of the vote.
Meanwhile, the League, established in 1991 as the Northern League, a coalition of six regional parties from northern and central Italy, began as a junior partner backing media mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s premiership. The League was strongly right and regional, but shifted in a more populist and national direction, targeting immigration and the European Union. Winning 17.4 percent of the national vote in 2018, the League increased its number of seats by 109. Dropping Berlusconi, League head Matteo Salvini joined with M5S’s Luigi Di Maio to form a fractious coalition that they optimistically called a “government of change.”
With Salvini acting as its dominant voice, the partnership challenged establishment immigration and budget policies. Nevertheless, the coalition proved less than radical, let alone threatening. Both coalition partners downplayed their hostility to the EU and backed away from confrontation with Brussels. In last May’s European Parliament elections, M5S’s support was halved while the League’s doubled. Salvini then broke the coalition in an attempt to force a new national election. He failed, as M5S joined a new coalition with the Democratic Party, against which it had long campaigned.
In regional elections last month, M5S’s total collapsed to 5.2 percent. The League narrowly trailed a revived Democratic Party, 26.7 percent to 29.5 percent. Salvini’s plan to use a victory in the regional poll to trigger a national contest was stillborn. Nevertheless, he remains a favorite to eventually return to power.
Thuringia’s travails demonstrate that politics is a messy business. But attempting to cleanse it by excluding unsettling opinions, like those advanced by the AfD, is ultimately self‐defeating. Voters do not give up having unsettling opinions. Instead, they find unsettling people to advance those beliefs.
It is better to have discontented sentiments represented in the political system. That has been the lesson of countries as different as Austria, Finland, and Italy. To maintain social peace, Germany should absorb rather than suppress the AfD.