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The resurgence of far-right and other populist forces is worrisome for liberal democracies across Europe — but nowhere more so than in Germany, for obvious historical reasons. Sunday’s breakthrough by the anti-immigration, Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany in regional elections in two western states confirmed that its appeal is no longer confined to disgruntled voters in the former communist east.
The AfD’s 18.4 per cent of the vote in Hesse and 14.6 per cent in Bavaria was not a landslide, but still a German political earthquake. Its national polling average is close to 22 per cent, making it the second most popular party behind the Christian Democrats. The notion that the AfD vote would hit a ceiling of one-fifth of the electorate because of its limited appeal in the country’s liberal, more affluent west has been shattered.
The AfD was founded a decade ago as a conservative protest movement against eurozone bailouts for Greece and the centrism of Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor for 16 years until 2021. The party lost seats in the 2021 federal election. But the cost of living crisis, concerns over immigration, controversy over a new gas boiler ban and opposition to arming Ukraine have all fuelled its rebound. The chaotic nature of the coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens and liberals has only sharpened its appeal.
The AfD is likely to trounce the opposition in regional elections in three eastern German states — Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg — next autumn. The other parties may be forced into awkward alliances to keep it out. That prospect has inevitably raised the question of whether it is time to start working with the AfD at least at local level: what better way to defuse the threat than expose its empty promises in power or force it to moderate? This might be especially tempting at municipal or regional level where the party can do less harm.
There are two arguments against this option. First, it is not guaranteed to work. Austria’s far-right Freedom party imploded in a corruption scandal when in coalition with the centre right, but has bounced back to the top of the polls. More importantly, the AfD is no ordinary European far-right party. It has become more radical as its popularity has grown. Hardliners are in charge. Elements including its youth wing are deemed extremist by German intelligence. It is slavishly pro-Kremlin. It routinely uses antisemitic, xenophobic tropes and its contempt for Germany’s representative democracy is plain.
Maintaining the firewall around the AfD is, though, not enough: mainstream parties must also change the way they conduct themselves. Friedrich Merz, the Christian Democrat leader, has tried to deflate the AfD by aping some of its rhetoric. It is a failing strategy, as it has usually proved elsewhere in Europe.
Still, AfD voters’ concerns need to be addressed, above all immigration. Germany needs more workers. But even Chancellor Olaf Scholz concedes the number of people seeking asylum in the country — some 450,000 since the beginning of last year, on top of 1mn Ukrainian refugees — is too high.
New EU-wide asylum rules could help share the burden a bit, but Germany must speed up processing asylum seekers. Access to cash benefits may need to be limited. A cross-party pact to tighten asylum rules helped to defuse a far-right threat in 1993; it is worth repeating.
Lastly, the coalition government needs to become less dysfunctional. Disputes over policy too often spill into the open. A lack of collective discipline, and of leadership from Scholz, means decisions arrive late and are often badly communicated. Sunday’s results served as a public repudiation of the governing parties, and a warning of danger ahead.