Some thoughts on the radicalization of politics in Germany (and around the globe)

One major headline today that you might have seen concerns politics in the German State of Thuringia. And that’s because German Chancellor Angela has publicly rebuked the leaders of her own party in that state for accepting support from the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party. I have seen negative opinion pieces in the US, British and German media about the turn of events, all supporting Merkel’s stance. But the sense I get from watching German politics is that this is a watershed moment. And we are witnessing a development that will increasingly take shape across Germany and in all western democracies. Some thoughts below

Setting the stage

Here’s what happened. State elections in the state of Thuringia, part of the former East Germany, took place on 27 October 2019. The ruling coalition at that time was comprised of the three largest parties on the left end of the political spectrum – from center to left, the SPD, the Greens and the Linke, or Left Party.

The Left Party led the coalition under Bodo Ramelow, a West German, who had moved to Thuringia after reunification. And they received the highest number of votes, giving them 29 seats in the parliament, the first time the party had ever been the largest party in a German parliament. They came close in the previous election with 28 seats. But the CDU had outpolled them with 34 votes. The collapse of the CDU to 21 this time gave them pole position.

The problem was that the ruling coalition needed 46 seats for an absolute majority. And it had only gained 43 seats in the election as the SPD lost 4 seats to go down to 8 and the Greens had lost a seat to go down to 5. That meant a hung parliament. And political parties have been struggling ever since to form a government. It then emerged last night that a minority government of the CDU and the FDP would form with the explicit support of the AfD, a party considered so far to the right of the political spectrum that the CDU has consistently said they would never work with them. But, since the AfD were not going to be a part of the governing coalition, I reckon the Thuringia CDU consented to a coalition with the FDP, in which the much smaller FDP’s leader Thomas Kemmerich would become premier. With the AfD’s support, the FDP and CDU coalition had 48 votes, enough to form a minority government, but one now beholden to the AfD to achieve majorities.

The political backdrop

What you’re not hearing in the papers today is the political backdrop to all this wrangling. First of all, the CDU categorically ruled out forming any government with the Left Party because it is the successor party to the ruling party of East Germany. The Left formed in 2007 through a merger of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG). And it’s through the PDS, that the party is a direct successor of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which ruled East Germany with an iron fist during the Cold War.

I think it’s important to note that a taboo had already been broken when the Left formed the coalition government with the Greens and the SPD because it meant the successor party to the ruling party of communist East Germany was in government for the first time. And a further taboo was broken when they received the greatest number of votes in the election in October. It makes sense the CDU would shun them since the CDU is a center-right party. But the Greens and the SPD decided that they would form a government with them. After all, the Left is now the largest party on the left political spectrum in Thuringia. So, in a very real sense, they represent the future of left of center politics in eastern German states.

Also note that after the election in October, while the CDU had shunned the Left, the AfD were shunned by everyone including the CDU. The problem was that the AfD had 22 seats in parliament. So only two majority governing coalitions were possible without the AfD, a Left-CDU coalition or a Left-Greens-SPD-FDP coalition. Neither of those would work because they are all over the map politically. I say that cognizant that the center-left Austrian People’s Party has just formed a coalition government with the Greens despite having formed the previous government with the right-wing Freedom Party. So, anything is possible. But, those kinds of coalitions aren’t natural or stable.

The bottom line is that the Thuringia CDU had a choice to make. And they chose to “act against the wishes” of their Chancellor Angela Merkel and their national party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to receive support from the AfD because they wanted to form the most ideologically congruous government with the FDP. And so, now the fallout begins

Watershed moment

This is just the beginning for the AfD in my view. Just as the Left Party has been mainstreamed in eastern Germany in its coalition with the Greens and the SPD, the AfD will go mainstream too. Let’s remember that the two largest parties in the Thuringia parliament are now the Left and the AfD. They are larger than any of the mainstream parties, the CDU, the SPD, the FDP, and the relatively latecomer mainstream party, the Greens. In fact, collectively the Left and the AfD received a majority of the seats in the Thuringia Parliament.

So, all of the opposition to what’s happening is whistling in the wind because this is a radicalization of the electorate that is going to gain momentum. That’s my view.

Now, if you want to read some of the thoughtful opinion pieces against mainstreaming the AfD, here are three:

None of this will matter. These voices have lost credibility with the kinds of people who are going to end up voting for the AfD (and parties or candidates like around the globe) – as well as with the kinds of people who are going to end up voting for the Left (and parties or candidates like them around the globe). In today’s social media and Internet-connected world, people are increasingly turning to media venues that more mirror and reinforce their own political predilections. And that not only reduces the power of mainstream voices to influence people, it delegitimizes them, as less mainstream ideas are reinforced over and over again in non-mainstream media outlets. This is true on the left as much as it is on the right.

My view

It’s not just about media atomization though. You have to ask yourself why the Left Party was leading the last government and why the AfD and the Left are two biggest parties in Thuringia at all. I thought Germany was living in a sort of ‘best of times’ economic state. Why would these parties rise to prominence during ‘good times’ if all was well? Again, it cannot be just about media manipulation.

My sense is that many people in Germany – as elsewhere in the developed world – feel a deep sense of insecurity. Whether its a wave of immigrants, the European sovereign debt crisis, ECB negative rate policy, or Hartz reforms, the socioeconomic landscape today is filled with top-down forces that leave ordinary citizens feeling like their world is changing too fast. And the impulse in those times is often to alternatively clamp down and prevent that change or overthrow the whole system and start anew with something that promises to offer more security. Mainstream political actors aren’t offering those kinds of solutions. More extreme political voices are. And people are going to continue to flock to those parties until their policy positions go mainstream.

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