The Liberal Hope in Germany

Some fear that the rise of the far right could make Germany like the rest of Europe. But there is hope for classical liberals.

Hardly two weeks after the voting, it’s too early for a definite appraisal of Germany’s general elections. In a democracy, determining the composition of the government is the most important function of the electoral exercise. It seems clear that Germany will have a new government. The so-called Grand Coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), her Bavaria-only partners of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is history. However, the old chancellor is bound to be the new chancellor: In spite of her party’s worst result since 1949, Angela Merkel’s CDU remains the strongest party. To form a government, Merkel needs a majority in parliament. Under the given conditions, to put together such a majority is easier said than done.

The most debated scenario is that of a four-party coalition comprising Merkel’s CDU, the CSU, the liberal Free Democrats and the Green Party. It may take weeks, if not months, for these diverse political forces to agree on a program for the coming four years. An optimist as always, Merkel said that everything would be settled no later than Christmas.

Observers describe the outcome of the elections as historic. They mention the unparalleled losses of the two big parties CDU and SPD: Germany’s ‘Volksparteien’ – or people’s parties – have dominated the scene since the inception of the Federal Republic in 1949. While the SPD could be termed left of center and the CDU is right of center, both have morphed into catch-all parties hoping to attract voters from as many sectors of society as possible. Ideological arbitrariness has been counterproductive, as it has weakened voters’ allegiance, as we can now see.

The second consequential – and historic – outcome of the elections is the triumph of the ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AFD) party. After a series of successes in regional elections, the AFD has now come third with 12. 6 percent of the popular vote. The shrinking of the traditional center-left and center-right parties has been a trend in European elections over the past years. So has the surge of anti-migrant, nationalist parties. One could argue that Germany is following suit, becoming a ‘normal’ country like her neighbors.

History, however, stands in the way of this normalizsation. With the terror and the singular evil committed by the Nazi regime in mind, Germans are alarmed by the rise of the nationalist, in parts openly racist political party. The depth of this sentiment is well reflected in the lead commentary of the liberal Die Zeit written after the elections: “Germany is the only country in the world, whose central history about herself deals neither of heroism or martyrdom, but of guilt, repentance and catharsis, and of seventy years in which we have searched for a better self.”

The ‘Alternative for Germany’ openly questions the need for repentance and cleansing, and rejects the related political consensus of all major political parties. With their nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the AFD has done particularly well in the Eastern part of Germany, where it is now the second strongest political force with close to 23 percent of the votes.

Discussions about the reasons for the right-wing upheaval dominate Germany’s political debates today. Related to this is the question of how the established political parties should best deal with the disruptive newcomers. All agree that the AFD is not fit for a role in government. Therefore, the party plays no role at all in the various scenarios of future coalitions.

The success of the right-wing party would not be possible without the refugee crisis – or, seen from an AFD perspective, without the failure of the Merkel government to contain the mass influx of foreigners. The crisis reached a climax in 2015, when one million refugees, mostly Muslim and hailing from war-ravaged Syria, crossed the German borders in an all-but-orderly manner. With the closing of the Balkan routes and an agreement with Turkey, the annual inflow of refugees to Germany has gone done to under 200,000. Still, the AFD has managed to keep the topic alive and politically toxic.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric finds support with Germans who feel left behind and socially disadvantaged. The party accuses the government of paying more attention to foreigners than to their own people. This populist position has found considerable support among people who perceive themselves as ‘losers’, lost in an increasingly competitive economic environment. As a reaction to confusion and frustration, these voters have turned away from the established forces and given support to a party that – as German scholar Hajo Funke writes in the Financial Times – “translates feelings of socio-economic insecurity into ethnocentric nationalist aggression against scapegoats – whether immigrants or other outside groups.”

A failure of democracy?

Some argue that the electoral triumph of the AFD is a failure of democracy. I disagree. It would be more accurate to term the rise of the right a failure of the political establishment in Berlin. The two major political parties who have governed the country in the ‘Grand Coalition’ for the past four years have portrayed a political image of harmony far away from the socio-political realities on the ground.

For the SPD, it has been practically impossible to overcome the strategic challenge to campaign against Angela Merkel, the very person the party has governed with more or less successfully the past four years. The party’s chairman – and top candidate – Martin Schulz, accused Merkel of systematically avoiding all controversies, thereby creating the political space the right wing intruders could fill. Political scientists coined the term ‘asymmetric demobilization’ for what they called Merkel’s deliberate effort to depoliticize the contest with the aim of weakening her main opponent.

The high voter turnout on September 24 refutes the allegation. This time, more than 76 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots, which is five percent more than in the past two elections.

High turnout is good news. From a liberal perspective, the impressive renaissance of the liberal party is without doubt the best news of this election. Having failed to pass the five percent threshold in the 2013 elections, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) returned to the political limelight with 10.7 percent of the vote, and a more or less secured powerful role in Germany’s next coalition government.

In the last four years, the party has reinvented itself with a new, youthful leader and a new, modern program. Germany is in need of a liberal party is a sentence heard far beyond the core electorate of the FDP. This party stands for economic freedom, the rule of law and the modernization of Germany. ‘Best education’ and digitization take up much space in the party’s program. To compete economically in a globalized world, Germany is in need of innovation, one of the mantras that recurs in the speeches of party leader Christian Lindner.

In the past, Germany’s liberals achieved international recognition and respect because of their leadership in the nation’s foreign affairs. Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Guido Westerwelle are names of foreign ministers many people also outside Europe can associate with. In the new government, the FDP intends to focus on the domestic reform agenda. Don’t be surprised to see a liberal head the ministry of finance. The departure of Wolfgang Schäuble, arguably Merkel’s most powerful supporter in the old cabinet, to the largely ceremonial post of speaker of the Bundestag, frees the way for a free marketer to assume power in a crucial position for German and European financial policy making.

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About the author

Ronald Meinardus

Ronald Meinardus has been the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF) South Asia since 2014. Before this, he served the Foundation in that position at the Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo, Egypt for seven years. Earlier, he represented the Foundation in Greece, South Korea and the Philippines. A journalist by profession, Dr Meinardus is also a political commentator and blogger and enjoys writing about developments in the region and beyond.