Germany's Far-Right: Untouchable No More?

Germany's Far-Right: Untouchable No More?

Alternative for Germany demonstrators in Berlin during a rally for "the future of Germany."

SourceODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Germany’s mainstream parties are being forced to rethink their position on the far-right Alternative for Deutschland. 

Martin Patzelt, a 72-year-old member of Parliament for Germany’s governing Christian Democrats (CDU), does not look like a radical. But he has broken one of the biggest taboos in German politics. Patzelt recently said the CDU should consider holding coalition talks with the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a far-right party with a fiercely anti-Islam, anti-immigration message that could emerge as the big winner in regional elections in eastern Germany this fall.

“You cannot just ignore the 12 million people who vote for or sympathize with them,” Patzelt said in an interview. “For the sake of these people I have to enter into a dialogue with the party they support.” That has set him on a collision course with the leaders of his own party, who have imposed a blanket ban on any contacts with the AfD. Even a city councilor having coffee with an AfD counterpart is not allowed, Bavaria’s prime minister, Markus Söder, warned in June.

Across Europe, mainstream politicians are being challenged by nativist, nationalist parties that have brought new volatility to once well-oiled political systems. Traditional parties of right and left face the same dilemma: Should they try to co-opt the upstarts by talking to them and even bringing them into government — a process Patzelt describes as “moderation through engagement”? Or should they erect a cordon sanitaire, excluding them as much as possible from mainstream politics?

What will we do when the AfD wins 40 percent?

Martin Patzelt, Christian Democrat MP

Germany has adopted the latter approach. But it is a consensus-driven country where politicians routinely reach across party lines to form broad coalitions that best reflect the wishes of voters. In such a situation, a ban on cooperating with the AfD could prove difficult to uphold — particularly in eastern Germany. There, the AfD has established itself as an immovable political force that can no longer be ignored or wished away by the mainstream parties.

Its prestige in the east will be shown this fall when elections are held in three eastern states — Saxony and Brandenburg on Sept. 1 and Thuringia eight weeks later. The AfD is expected to make substantial gains: Some polls have ranked it as the strongest party in all three regions. That spells trouble for the CDU, which has ruled Saxony since German reunification in 1990, and the Social Democrats (SPD), who govern in Brandenburg. Both may be forced to form cumbersome, multiparty coalitions to stay in power — or may even be squeezed out of power altogether. The CDU, for example, may have to team up with the SPD and the Greens — a nightmare scenario for some in the party. For that reason, some believe Saxony could end up being the first place where electoral arithmetic forces the CDU to form a bloc with the AfD.

Other German parties have gone to extreme lengths to keep the AfD out of power. In the Saxon town of Görlitz, parties from across the political spectrum joined forces in June to block the AfD candidate for mayor, Sebastian Wippel, throwing their weight behind the CDU candidate instead. Wippel still won 45 percent of the vote. Critics of the “anyone but the AfD” strategy say it ends up benefiting the populists, cementing their role as victim of a conspiracy by the mainstream parties to keep them out of power. “The Görlitz model …  is basically undemocratic,” says Andreas Kalbitz, head of the AfD in Brandenburg. “People do not like it. It confirms exactly what the AfD has been saying all along, that [for the bigger parties] it is not really about policies, it is just about trying to stay in power.”

Kalbitz says the formal ban on cooperation is a joke. “There has been indirect cooperation for a long time on the municipal level, where you reach certain arrangements with each other” on local issues such as public transportation, roads and energy, he says. Patzelt, who represents the Brandenburg town of Frankfurt an der Oder in the Bundestag, says no one could accuse him of being an AfD sympathizer. He long supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy during the 2015 migrant crisis and even took in a couple of young refugees from Eritrea. But he can envisage coalition talks with the AfD “when there is great need,” when all other attempts to form a viable government have failed, and when the only other option is new elections. “Voters really resent the idea of repeat elections, and the results might end up being even more extreme,” Patzelt says. “And what will we do when the AfD wins 40 percent?”

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By Guy Chazan

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