Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist and Arthur Burns fellow.
BERLIN — Americans can be forgiven for thinking Germany has already successfully thwarted Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Deutsch version of the right-wing populist movements pounding on the gates of Europe. When the overtly racist AfD’s numbers sank in the polls in March, observers across the West felt relieved to know that the European Union’s backbone and strongest advocate would not fall to the far right.
Germans, however, feel little such relief. In fact, many are worried sick about the virtual certainty of a far-right party’s entrance to Parliament. That’s because even a small AfD presence in the Bundestag could have the power to disrupt German politics and even derail its economy.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of things Americans just don’t understand about Germany. The first is that in parliamentary democracy, minor parties matter. The second is that given the true nature of populist disruption, populists can still ruin everybody’s day even without capturing a single branch of government.
Germany has five parties represented in its Bundestag. Two are the major parties, Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and the center-left Social Democratic Party. But there are several smaller parties, as well, each carrying ten percent of the vote, more or less. These minor parties have access to government funding and resources, fill committee chairs, and have the opportunity to form coalitions with the major parties if the electoral dice land right; they could even serve as leader of the opposition.
With the AfD set to join the Bundestag after the Sept. 24 elections — it’s polling well above the 5 percent threshold required to make it in — it will become party number six. In fact, the latest poll shows the AfD tied for third place behind the CDU and SPD, indicating there’s a strong chance it could become the third-largest party in the German Parliament.
And if the CDU and SPD continue their grand coalition, what does that mean?
That an openly racist, anti-euro, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic party that has embraced nationalism and flirted with Holocaust deniers will serve as the leader of the opposition in the German Parliament.
The party will be the first to speak after Merkel gives speeches; members might head up the powerful budget committee. That’s a terrifying prospect to anyone even remotely concerned with Germany’s “war burden,” as they call it here. But the reality is that it doesn’t matter how many seats the AfD gets in the Bundestag. What matters most is that they will get any.
The AfD could garner up to 70 or so seats. But even if they perform far worse than expected, they will still have access to a vast amount of government resources, explained Timo Lochocki, an expert on right-wing populism at the German Marshall Fund. Each Bundestag member is given money to hire several staffers, so even just 30 or so seats would mean AfD members will have about 100 people working for them in the Bundestag. “That means their organizational capacity will increase massively overnight,” said Lochocki. “This is of utmost importance to bear in mind.”
Up until now, the AfD has primarily had to rely on media coverage or reactions from other parties to spread the party message for members, he explained. But once it’s in the Parliament, “the party itself will have the chance to build up their momentum on their own.”
Still, it matters that Germany’s far right has no chance of winning a majority or taking the chancellorship, right? I hate to be the bearer of bad news.
A primary way right-wing populist parties wield influence in politics is by changing how other parties behave rather than by making policy themselves. Larger, more established parties might co-opt the populist message to attract voters, making sweeping promises they will later have to follow through on. Brexit was a perfect example of that. Theresa May isn’t technically a member of the U.K. Independence Party, but she might as well be — she’s carrying out their anti-E.U. agenda for them. The result of all of this, said Lochocki, is that identity politics hijacks the national conversation and people stop paying attention to core economic issues.
“There’s a reason why the British economy is facing some problems,” he said. “This is not a problem in the short term, because the German economy is doing fine. But the European economy and the world economy are highly dependent on the German economy.”
If the AfD is able to amplify its message with its powerful new parliamentary megaphone, dynamics similar to what led to Brexit could unfold in Germany.
But certainly not all is lost. One Bundestag staffer affiliated with the SPD said it is too early to know whether the AfD will be able to wield long-term influence.
“I think the AfD will become a significant concern if they manage to establish themselves in the German political spectrum and become a permanent force on the extreme right,” said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is not yet the case.”
The solution, the staffer and Lochocki agree, is for Germany’s conservative parties to articulate a strong conservative message that brings AfD supporters back into the fold. The AfD purveys both a conservative and an anti-democratic message. Even if the CDU swings right, it will never adopt an anti-democratic platform.
Merkel, we’re looking at you.