If the opinion polls can be believed, Sunday’s election will bring into the German parliament – for the first time since the 1950s – dozens of representatives from far-right parties that champion ultranationalism, xenophobia and a dangerous strain of patriotism that calls on Germans to stop feeling guilty for the crimes of the Nazis.
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German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Der Spiegel last week that if the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party actually makes it into the Bundestag, “Nazis will speak in the Reichstag for the first time in over 70 years.”
Eyes around the world will be glued to their smartphone, computer and television screens on Sunday, searching for a single number: How many of Germany’s 61.5 million registered voters cast their ballots for the far-right party.
According to Friday’s polls, AfD is set to become the third largest party in the legislature, with between 11 to 13 percent of the vote – giving it some 80 seats in the Bundestag, and the budget and public stage for promulgating its ideology that such parliamentary representation entails.
In the ’50s, far-right parties whose members included former Nazis served in the Bundestag – but they never came close to being the third largest party. Over the past 60 years, Germany pushed its extreme nationalist parties to the sidelines. The National Democratic Party of Germany, for instance, which was founded in 1964 and is commonly known as the Neo-Nazi Party, has never won enough votes to cross the 5 percent vote threshold needed to enter the federal parliament. But it and other far-right parties, most importantly AfD, have won representation in Germany’s 16 state parliaments.
Assuming that the far-right party does enter the Bundestag, it will not affect the composition of the government, which Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will continue to control in a governing coalition with Martin Shulz’s Social Democrats (the second largest party). Alternatively, the chancellor could form a new coalition with the Greens and Liberals, in what is known in Germany as a “Jamaica coalition” – a reference to the black, yellow and green colors of the parties and the Jamaican national flag.
If the Alternative for Germany party, which was established just four years ago, does win out over decades-old parties, it will become the most powerful opposition party. This will bring parliamentary privileges such as the right to head legislative committees and to make longer speeches than smaller parties, in addition to getting a chunk of the Bundestag’s budget.
If the polls are indeed correct, Germany will be forced to ask itself what just happened. The short answer focuses on the influx of large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, which peaked in 2015 with the entry of around 1 million people from North Africa and the Middle East within a brief period. The scenes of smiling Germans greeting the new immigrants with flowers were soon replaced by less sanguine sights.
The point of no return came on December 31, 2015, New Year’s Eve, when a violent group of refugees from North Africa robbed and sexually assaulted women in the center of Cologne, outside the Cologne Cathedral – a symbol of Germany and Christianity. Hundreds of rapes, robberies and assaults attributed to refugees were reported to police in the weeks that followed, and the incidence of criminal activity of all kinds involving refugees increased. In addition, refugees in Germany carried out a number of fatal terror attacks under the flag of the Islamic State group in the past two years.
It was against this backdrop that the star of the far-right party rose in the past two years, with its calls for “zero immigration,” including for the purpose of family reunification.
The AfD’s platform includes a call to deport immigrants to their countries of origin, and even sets a minimum deportation rate. Countries that refuse to accept the return of their citizens would see cuts to German aid allocations.
But there is more to the rise of the party than fears about immigrants. Merkel has slowed the influx of refugees, tightened supervision and even managed to deport individuals involved in crime. At a campaign rally in Munich on Friday, where she was greeted with boos, Merkel defended her decision to open the borders to refugees in 2015, but promised to avoid the creation of a new refugee crisis in Germany.
To crack the code of the far-right party’s success, it’s enough to look at remarks by its leader, Alice Weidel, who has said that “political correctness belongs to the dustbin of history.”
Behind that remark is a great deal of anger and despair felt by a wide swath of the German public – against the politicians, the “system,” the “establishment,” the “elites,” who include not only Merkel but also the chancellor’s Social Democrat rival, Shulz, the Green Party and also, of course, the media. They feel betrayed by globalization, they fear “digitalization” and believe they, “the Germans,” have been forgotten by Merkel in her pursuit of the borderless global village.
Not all AfD candidates or voters are anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and racists (although some definitely are). But as in other places in the past and present, anger and disgust have united different groups against a common enemy, whether real or imagined.
According to some forecasts, based not on polls but rather on a reading of “the national mood,” the far-right party will actually beat the latest predictions. Some German political experts believe many voters are embarrassed or unwilling to tell pollsters they plan to vote for AfD.
Last week, Die Welt political editor Torsten Krauel told a group of journalists and political advisers that the far-right party could win as much as 17 percent of the vote. He even dared compare the rise in the party’s power and popularity to that of the Nazi Party in 1933.
Other analysts don’t go that far, in part because they judge that German democracy is sufficiently strong, healthy and independent to counter the negative influence of the AfD, even if it does manage to gather strength.