On September 24, German voters will choose a new parliament. The present government is a coalition between the country's two largest political bodies, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) alliance and Martin Schulz's Social Democrats (SPD). It seems all but certain that these parties will maintain their comfortable lead over their far smaller competitors in the Bundestag, the Left (Linke) and Green (Grüne), and that Merkel, who has been in office for twelve years, will be returned to office yet again.
The one real wild card is the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In the last parliamentary election, which took place shortly after the AfD was founded in 2013, it received only 4.7% of the vote. It now enjoys about twice that much public support, with the latest polls putting it at 10% and 11% – a big enough share of the electorate to win seventy out of 630 seats in the Bundestag, and maybe even jump past the Left and the Greens.
This development is interesting for several reasons. One of them is that the AfD is the first party in six decades to present a serious challenge from the right to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, both of which are solidly establishment-oriented – pro-welfare state, pro-immigration, and pro-EU. (From 2012 until earlier this year, Schulz was President of the European Parliament.) Founded during the Greek bailout crisis by opponents of the Euro, the AfD responded to the so-called Syrian refugee crisis by taking a strong stand against Merkel's decision to let a million unvetted Muslims into the country. This position strengthened its hand considerably.
Is the rise of the AfD a positive development? Here's some evidence for the “no” argument. At a campaign event earlier this month, party co-leader Alexander Gauland was cheered for saying, apparently with approval, “that Germans don’t want to live next to a black football player.” One local party official, Björn Höcke, called Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a “monument to shame”; another, Jens Maier, called for an end to Germany's “cult of guilt” over wartime genocide and warned that Merkel's immigration policies would result in “racial impurity.”
Ugly stuff. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned that if AfD enters Parliament, “we will have real Nazis in the German Reichstag for the first time since the end of World War Two.”
Of course, there's a “pro” argument for the AfD, too. It begins with the fact that every political party of any size has members with disturbing, extreme views – and that every counter-jihadist party in the Western world has been labeled racist and neo-Nazi. As it happens, the AfD wasn't founded by brownshirts and street thugs but by economics professors. (Indeed, it's been called the “party of professors.”) Its supporters tend to be more highly educated and financially better off than the supporters of other parties. In a book about the AfP, Melanie Amann depicted it as a mirror of Germany, writing that its voters are “men and women, from east and west, the ‘establishment’ and the ‘mob.'...They are retired teachers and young students, well-off lawyers and single-parent-hairdressers, ethnic Russians and even the children of Turkish parents.” Its election posters, far from featuring incendiary slogans or scary imagery reminiscent of the not-so-good old days, show “young women on the beach with the slogan 'Burkas? We’re into bikinis' and a young pregnant white woman with the phrase 'New Germans? Let’s make them ourselves.'”
There's more. As Foreign Policy has noted, AfD's “top candidate in the upcoming election, Alice Weidel, is lesbian.” She's also a China expert, former Goldman Sachs employee, and self-described “ur-liberal” who says she's out to preserve German democracy. (She's tried, without success, to get Höcke kicked out of the party.) The AfP has even won an endorsement from Brexit advocate Nigel Farage, who is a smart chap and a friend of freedom – and certainly no Nazi. “For the first time in modern history,” Farage recently told an AfD audience in Berlin, “there will be a voice of opposition in German parliament.” For Farage, what's alarming isn't AfD – it's Merkel, whose open-doors policy on refugees he has described as the “worst decision by any leader in modern political history.” Farage is no fan of Schulz, either, whom he used to tangle with in Brussels and about whom he once tweeted: “I don’t know which Martin Schulz hates most, Britain or nation state democracy.”
In any event, it doesn't much matter whatever you or I think about the AfD. At this writing, it looks as if it's going to end up with at least a few seats in the Bundestag. What may be the good news here is that whether or not we consider the party itself a good thing, its entry into the Bundestag may itself be a good thing. AfD politician Hans-Thomas Tillschneider told the Financial Times the other day that the AfD has already “made democracy possible again” by providing an alternative to the elite consensus on a range of issues. And if AfD members end up in the Bundestag, notes Der Spiegel, it “won't just change the face of the German parliament, but likely also its culture of political debate.” Given the establishment parties' reluctance to address their nation's deepening immigration crisis with anything remotely resembling constructiveness and candor, a few AfP seats in Parliament – but far from a majority – could be the best possible outcome.