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Now The Right in Berlin: The German Elections of 2017

Bharat Wariavwalla is an Honorary Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
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  • September 26, 2017

    Most polls predicted a victory for the Christian Democrats (CDU-SCU), but few thought that their margin of victory would reduce so much. In the just held elections, the CDU got 32.8 per cent of the vote, nine percentage points lower than what it had obtained in the previous election.

    However, the most significant outcome of this election is the appearance of the anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, Right for the first time in post-war Germany. The Alternative for Germany or AfD as it is called in Germany got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third largest party. It will now have a seat in the highest legislative chamber of the Federal Republic, the Bundestag.

    The other principal party, the Social Democrats, got 20.4 per cent of the vote, which precludes it from becoming a centre of an alternate ruling coalition. It is a party that helped make post-war Germany a social democracy, Germans themselves call the country a Social Democracy, thereby meaning a democracy with strong social content. Germany is today one of the few countries with an extensive public health system, a first class public education system and environmental standards that are the envy of the world. The performance of the Social Democrats at the polls was rather poor because their leader Martin Schultz just could not tell people that the party was different from its rival, the CDU. People saw Martin Schultz as another Angela Merkel but without her staidness and substance.

    As always, the ruling government will comprise a coalition of parties. That’s how the German system works. Its vast network of checks and balances are designed to prevent an individual from seizing power and thus prevent the repetition, however inconceivable at present, of the events of 1933. The CDU’s likely coalition partners are the Green Party and the Free Democrats. Such a coalition can work because all partners share a common design on European Unity and socio-economic policies at home.

    All other parties, and this is important to keep in mind, completely reject the thinking of the AfD. They all abhor its anti-immigration stance, its concealed racism, and its hostility to European unity. The AfD is a pariah in Germany’s current political spectrum.

    With the rise of the AfD, Germany must now contend with atavistic nationalism, as many liberal democracies of Europe such as France, Netherlands and Austria do. Even the oldest of Europe’s democracies, Britain, also has a party that propagates such racism. Nigel Farage of the Independent Party advocated British Exit from the European Union in last summer’s referendum because he wanted to keep the Turks and such “other people” out of the UK.

    This is Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor. No one calls her an Iron Lady” as the English did in the case of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps she would resent such an appellation. To her people, she is just a woman of substance without any pretensions to heroism. She is liked just for being that. Germany is a mature democracy and it does not need heroes. At the end of the war, the great playwright Berthold Brecht said “unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” There are many such unhappy lands in the world today. But no sooner was the Second World War over than the British people threw out their hero Winston Churchill from power and elected as Prime Minister a very modest man – Clement Attlee. He made Britain a welfare state, which is no mean achievement. Indian democracy too got on very well with a prime minister of real substance – Narasimha Rao, the best prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru.

    Racist, aggressive, nationalism has now come to Germany, as it has in much of Europe. Across the Atlantic, America under Donald Trump represents a particularly poisonous form of such nationalism. It is possible that the European and American democracies will defeat this nationalism through strong democratic institutions and the will of the people.

    But one must understand that such nationalism flourishes because there is a feeling among the people of the liberal West that their national identity has lost its moorings. Is it the cosmopolitanism accompanying globalization that has undermined the anchor of their national identity? Why do the English, French, and Austrians hanker for the past? They conjure up images of the past that present their nations as rooted in their histories and culture. That’s what Trump, Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson do - tell the people of their idyllic past and promise to take them back there.

    No doubt Merkel will fight such nationalism, which is still in an incipient stage. In this, she has a great companion in President Emmanuel Macron of France who won the presidential election in May 2017 by convincingly defeating his formidable rival Marine Le Pen. Le Pen is the leader of the National Front, which is impeccably anti-EU and anti-immigration and would like to reduce the eight million Arabs living in France to servitude. Macron, on the other hand, wants to integrate these people into French society as equal citizens. And he does not conjure up France’s imperial past. On the contrary, he says that the French conquest of Algeria was a criminal venture.

    Both Macron and Merkel are committed to taking the European integration process forward, which means making the Euro a currency that facilitates the growth of all members of the Union. Today, the Union’s poorer members – Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain (famously called the PIGS countries) – feel that their use of the Euro ties them too closely to their rich counterparts and hurts their exports. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard, an acknowledged expert on Europe, says that the Euro is an obstacle to European integration.

    For the EU to prosper, it needs to have flexible arrangements with major trading nations of the world. It has such arrangements today with Canada and Norway. Can it make a profitable arrangement with Britain?

    The EU’s foreign policy problems are daunting, With the coming of Trump, its security ties with the United States stand deeply strained. In fact, Trump has done everything to weaken, if not destroy, the EU. He openly supported Marine Le Pen’s stand of pulling France out of the EU, and backed Nigel Farage in his campaign to pull Britain out of the EU.

    The EU’s security relations with the United States are deeply strained. Merkel talked about rethinking Europe’s security links with the US after Trump’s bellicose posture towards North Korea in August 2017. Trump’s statement about letting “fire and fury” against North Korea filled Merkel with fright. She wondered whether these were the words to be used publicly by the leader of the most powerful nation in the world and the security guarantor of Europe?

    Another country that deeply weighs in the security equation of the EU is Russia. During the Cold War, it was Europe’s principal security threat. Today, Putin’s Russia poses a serious political threat to Europe. Russia, like America, also supports all European leaders opposed to European unity.

    Merkel thus has ample problems on her hand. But she has a steady hand and is competent enough to navigate the contending currents both at home and abroad.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.