Given the success of the rightwing populist party AfD, the outcome of the regional elections in Berlin last Sunday can hardly be considered a victory for the SPD, which remained the strongest force. If the political parties in Germany do not come up with true alternatives to revive the political debate, the influence of the AfD will continue growing.
What has happened to Berlin? What has happened to the European capital of ‘multi-kulti’, world-openness and progressive lifestyle? The rightwing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has achieved 14,2% of vote at the regional elections and will have 25 seats in the regional parliament. The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) has 38 seats with 24,8% of vote.
At the party after the first results, the re-elected mayor Michael Müller celebrated that the SPD remained the strongest force and won a governmental mandate. He was warm-heartedly congratulated by the head of the party Sigmar Gabriel. The resulting government is likely to be a coalition of left wing parties – SPD with Die Linke and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen – which will replace the grand coalition with the Christdemokratische Partei (CDU). But the people with whom I spoke to at the election celebration showed mixed feelings. Annika Klose, head of the Jusos Berlin (the youth party of the SPD), for instance, told me that she felt bitter because of the big losses for her party and the strong results of the AfD.
Since the beginning of the year, this party has achieved two-digit results at five regional elections in a row, ranging up to 24% in Sachsen-Anhalt. If the trend continues, it is very likely that it will enter the Bundestag at the next federal elections in 2017. The AfD, which experienced its first successes in the context of the euro-crisis around 2014, now mainly solicits its electorate with anti-immigration politics. It demands to stop taking refugees immediately in order to stop the “asylum chaos”. Besides its nationalist focus, the AfD has a market-liberal and conservative orientation. Among other things, it demands the abolition of the minimum wage, the preservation of the traditional family model or the privatisation of rented flats.
How can a party gather so much support with anti-social and xenophobic politics – even in Berlin? A lot of it certainly has to do with the refugee crisis. We should not underestimate that, even here, there are xenophobic and even outright racist people. But the wave of protest which goes through Germany cannot simply be reduced to nationalist feelings and fear of foreigners. More generally, people are concerned with the incautious way the inflow of refugees was dealt with. Several hundreds of thousands of people were let in without a clear plan on how to integrate them and how to deal with more to come. Add to this the series of attacks by Islamist terrorists. No wonder many people in Germany reacted with fears, concerns about lacking capacities as well as fear of social decline in the face of potentially growing competition with the immigrants on the labour market.
The frustration of people was inflated by the apparent lack of alternatives in politics. In my eyes, Merkel’s gesture of suspending the Dublin agreement to let in hundreds of thousands of refugees who were waiting at the borders of Europe was clearly a praiseworthy sign of humanitarian politics. The SPD was right to support this move. Yet, the coalition partner of Merkel’s ruling party also consented to the asylum packages, allowing for a fast-track treatment of asylum request and adding some Balkan countries to the list of countries of safe origin. It is questionable whether these measures are compatible with social-democratic values. Why could the SPD not have gone against the current and admit that the refugee crisis is costly and risky in the short term? Aren’t we obliged to help the refugees and our neighbouring countries who struggle with the inflow of refugees because it is an imperative of morality and solidarity? And we should not change our mind if a cost-benefit analysis tells us that we might make unexpected losses. This is just one example of the grand coalition politics with which citizens in Germany have been confronted at federal level and in Berlin until the end of last week for several years now.
This broadly consensus-oriented politics can become harmful to democracy. It can lead to what Chantal Mouffe has described as the ‘end of politics’ – a situation where confrontation in politics is suppressed and adversaries are moralised when they question the hegemony of the political elite. This has led to the rise of extreme movements since the financial crisis – on both sides of the political party spectrum, right and left. I hope that with the AfD now in the picture, the other political parties will draw more clear lines between their respective orientations and revive the right-left divide. The SPD should become more affirmative of a socialist agenda with measures ensuring social justice and security. There are enough people in Germany who are threatened by poverty, social decline or work under precarious conditions. I am not even speaking about the EU level. Most of all, this re-orientation would create a true alternative for citizens who would no longer have to engage with populist parties whose ideas should be more than overcome in the twenty-first century.