In what is perhaps the worst crisis of Angela Merkel’s political career, Germany has been witnessing its most protracted political stalemate—federal elections held in September 2017 presented inconclusive results, and the country’s future has since been mired in uncertainty. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union, secured 33 percent of the votes—their worst electoral result since 1949. The CSU-CDU alliance lost 65 seats compared to its 2013 election victory, though they remain the largest force in the German parliament, Bundestag.
In order to secure a majority, Merkel’s alliance must form a coalition government, but negotiations among the country’s political parties have resulted in a four-month long deadlock, which is still ongoing. The Social Democrats Party, or SPD, which obtained 21 percent votes and 153 seats to become the second-largest party in last year’s elections, also saw its worst electoral performance. Though Martin Schulz, the head of the SPD, had initially ruled out the possibility of a repeat of the incumbent “grand coalition” with the CDU, the parties started fresh negotiations after tripartite talks between the CDU-CSU alliance, the Free Democrats Party and the left-leaning Green Party collapsed in mid November.
Schulz and Merkel recently concluded negotiations to form government, in which Merkel had to make significant concessions, including awarding the finance ministry to the SPD. But the coalition has yet to be approved by a membership vote of the SPD, in which around 464,000 members of the party will vote on the alliance with Merkel. According to a Reuters report, Schulz stated that he was optimistic about the vote, the results of which will be announced on 4 March. He also stated that, for the SPD, the coalition deal marked a “fundamental change in the direction of Europe.” But the September elections reflected a fundamental shift in German politics for another reason as well—the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 13 percent of the votes and 92 seats, and became the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since the Second World War.
The AfD is not only dominating the national discourse but also forcing mainstream parties to re-strategise their politics. One of the central issues that had caused the tripartite coalition talks to fail, among others such as tax policies and environmental concerns, was the CSU’s stance on immigration. While the CSU had always been more conservative than the CDU, the party doubled down on its hard line position after the results, and demanded cuts to welfare benefits for asylum seekers. This campaign season also witnessed a resurgence of rhetoric and vocabulary that was popular during the Nazi era. The election indicated the dangers of the far-right politics and the challenges it is posing for the mainstream parties.
“A lot of people are just angry and feel they are not well taken care of,” Sylvia Schwarz, a Berlin-based actor, told me. “Most of them are actually not right-wing in their spirit.” Schwarz’s expression is a common sentiment among a section of Germans, who still believe in an inclusive and multicultural Germany. According to Fabian von der Mark, a political correspondent with Germany’s public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, several analysts had misdiagnosed the populist surge as one arising from an economic insecurity, rather than a “difference in values.” Fabian added that it was the responsibility of the progressive forces to engage with people and address this values gap.
In the last few decades, as centre-left parties clinched the middle-class liberal consensus, a coalition of working-class voters and social conservatives felt marginalised and automatically defected to the populist right. According to a September 2017 article published on the web portal of Zeit, a weekly German newspaper, over one million voters who traditionally voted for the CDU-CSU alliance had supported the right-wing populists in last year’s elections.
“I think it is a failure on the part of CDU and SPD that they have not been able to convince people that the migration is in Germany’s interest,” Antje Stiebitzh, a senior German journalist, told me. “The right-wing parties have smartly capitalised on this misunderstanding.” The AfD also reportedly gained the support of 1.4 million former non-voters who came out to vote for the first time in these elections—perhaps a reflection of Stiebitzh’s assessment.
While Merkel’s election to a fourth term may appear to suggest that the German electorate chose freedom over fear, inclusion over exclusion and larger humanism over narrow racism, that may not be entirely accurate. Upon scratching the surface a little, it becomes evident that in addition to the right-wing arguments against immigration, traditional Nazi jargon is also making inroads into the psyche of the German people. The terminology is being used to define what constitutes a real German and Germany, and to vilify and demonise the rest.
For instance, Björn Höcke, an AfD party leader, has used the term Volk, or “The Nation,” to define an authentic German national. “Our dear Volk is deeply divided,” Höcke said. “The decline in our birth-rate and mass immigration into Germany has for the first time fundamentally threatened our existence.”The phrase was commonly used in Nazi Germany to segregate those who could live in Germany and the others who were not entitled to be a part of the Volk.
Another AfD politician, Dirk Driesang, used the term ueberfremdund, which roughly translates to“over-foreignisation” or an excess of foreigners or immigrants on German land, while arguring against the influx of migrants. The word is a direct import from the Nazi vocabulary—Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Adolf Hitler’s regime, used the term to define Jews and their “harmful” influence on German national culture. By popularising the term, Goebbels and Hitler created a public perception that the Jewish community did not deserve a place in the German society.
Volksverraeterin, which translates to “traitor” and was often used to describe someone who is supposed to have betrayed the nation, is another word that has seen resurgence in modern-day Germany. During the election campaign, supporters of right-wing parties, such as the AfD, had used the term to describe Merkel and her party. The implication was that Merkel had compromised on German values through her open-door immigration policies, by allowing people who did not belong to the German state into the country.
It is not only the far-right that is invoking this rhetoric. In the run up to the federal elections, Thomas de Maizière, the interior minister and member of the CDU, charted a 10-point plan on what constitutes leitkultur, referring to the idea of establishing a leading or guiding German culture that should prevail over everything else. Maizière claimed that it would be inclusive because people who were secure about the German guiding culture would be more tolerant towards others. But his definition of leitkultur also stood in contrast to the values of diversity and multiculturalism of the German society.
“We are an open society,” Maizière noted in his plan. “We show our face and shake our hands. We do not believe in burka.” The anti-Muslim sentiment in Maizière’s definition of what should constitute Germany’s guiding culture is transparent. This has been the impact of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narrative created by the right wing—rather than provide an alternative and inclusive narrative, the official policy of Merkel’s CDU seemed to echo that of the far-right.
This discourse about a German culture and identity was primarily aimed at two demographics. The approximately four million second- and third-generation Muslim Germans, mostly of Turkish ethnic origin, who came to Germany between 1950-60 and subsequently acquired German citizenship. The second category of people it was directed towards was the approximately one million immigrants who entered the country during the refugee crisis—the influx of immigrants during 2015–17, many of them Muslim, who entered Europe from west Asia and Africa.
The German constitution confers the right of political asylum as a basic human right. In accordance with the same, Angela Merkel adopted an open-door policy for refugees in 2015—that year, Germany accepted around 890,000 asylum applications. But Merkel soon recognised the social undercurrent in certain sections of German society of an opposition to her pro-immigrant policies. As a result, in 2016, Merkel steered talks between Turkey and the European Union, which led to an agreement in March that year, to limit the number of refugees entering EU countries through Turkey. In return, the EU member states would increase their efforts towards the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Turkey, visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals, and provide additional financial support for the country’s refugee population.
During the humanitarian crisis between 2015–17, Merkel appeared to be a global peace-maker, but it was after compromising her ideological position of a diverse and all-inclusive Germany that did not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Irrespective of who won the elections, the debate over Germany’s plurality has already been won by right-wing politics.
Arfa Khanum Sherwani is a 2017 recipient of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassador Fellowship for Germany.