In last Sunday’s German elections, many observers were deeply disturbed that the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) emerged as the third-strongest party in Germany’s national Parliament, the Bundestag. The fact that Germany would see its first far-right party enter Parliament in over half a century, commentators wrote, was a “paradigm shift” summoning demons from the past. They pointed to AfD party rhetoric against immigration and European integration, some of which resembled Nazi Brownshirts’ fight slogans.
International media channeled the alarm. The AfD would become “the most substantial presence of rightwing extremists since the Nazi era,” wrote a reporter for the Guardian; Ha’aretz prominently quoted Angela Merkel’s foreign minister as saying AfD’s election would put “Nazis in the Reichstag.”
But these alarms miss a crucial point. The German political system will be far better able to contain the AfD than other countries have managed with their far-right parties. That’s because of the peculiarities of Germany’s political culture, the state of its major parties, and the non-national character of the belief system of AFD supporters, as we will explain.
1. As leaders of the opposition, the Social Democrats will cut off the AfD.
The center-left Social Democrats have announced that they will leave the center-right Christian Democrats’ governing coalition, after having spent eight years of the past 12 as the junior partner in a “grand coalition.”
Moving into the opposition will allow the Social Democrats to deny the AfD the stage as opposition leader. The German Parliament allocates speaking time based on vote share. If the Social Democrats had remained in the government, the AfD would be able to use more time than any other party in opposition to the governing coalition. But with the Social Democrats (SPD) in the opposition, the SPD will command almost twice as much parliamentary speaking time as the AfD — and will be able to position itself and its policies as the clear alternative to the government.
That will make it difficult for the AfD to reposition itself as the antidote to a stale government, pivoting away from its identity as a group of extremists — the strategy the AfD has used in some regional parliaments.
Without a prominent position as the opposition leader, the AfD may stumble because of its confusing and at times contradictory political platform and its serious infighting. Already, the AfD party leader quit her role only hours after the elections. exposing rifts between the party’s hard-liners and moderates that may grow.
But there’s a caveat. Merkel’s CDU may find it difficult to forge a coalition government without the SPD. Its other potential partners include the Green Party, a notoriously Euro-skeptical neo-libertarian party, and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), which will court the right-wing fringe. Friction could doom the coalition talks, which would result in new elections and a possibly even stronger AfD.
2. The major parties could update their campaign strategies
The two major parties — Christian Democrats and Social Democrats — have been notoriously slow to update their approach to campaigning, and have been criticized for running uninspiring campaigns. Party leaders as well as campaign staffers in the Social Democrats’ party headquarters are widely criticized as complacent, self-absorbed, condescending, and resistant to innovation such as using social media or big data analytics. For example, the party’s campaign strategy in the most recent elections was more aligned in spirit with the old-fashioned approach of setting up broad-target campaign posters than with Big Data analytics.
In contrast, the AfD employed U.S. firm Harris Media, which worked with the Trump and Cruz campaigns on digital microtargeting. And it worked.
But more than one-third of AfD voters have previously identified with center parties. They still care about mainstream issues such as the social safety net, retirement and security, where the major parties have deep policy knowledge and experience. Those major parties could reclaim many AfD voters with smart segmenting and direct message targeting, which no other party employed in any depth in this election.
3. Learning from other nations’ experiences with the far right
The AfD is less a resurgence of national-socialist sentiment than the local incarnation of a new global populism. Its rise is part of the trend we’ve seen in United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Marine Le Pen’s National Front’s strong showing in the 2017 French presidential election.
Consider the similarities between Trump voters and AfD voters: Both groups were slightly less educated, more male and more likely to be rural than the median voter. Despite some journalistic narratives, Trump and AfD supporters are both solidly middle class. And race and immigration are among these voters’ major concerns, with immigrants seen as threatening their national identity and cultural heritage.
In other words, Germany is dealing with a foe well-known in other developed nations. Its mainstream parties’ campaign staffers can extract lessons for future electoral campaigns. The fact that few voters know the facts about the issues that animate them leaves some openings for persuasion. For instance, only a small minority of Republicans know that an ACA repeal would decrease the number of people insured. One apparent reason congressional Republicans have been unable to pass such a repeal is that a majority of Trump voters actually support many elements of the ACA that have helped insure Americans — from the Medicaid expansion to the ban on discriminating against people with preexisting conditions.
Similar discrepancies between party platform and voters’ preferences exist in Germany. A recent YouGov study finds that AfD voters’ top five issues include retirement, social safety nets and health care. And yet AfD’s platform is either silent on or in opposition to its voters’ preferences on these subjects. Future campaigns might find these easy targets for driving a wedge between the party and its supporters.
In sum, the fate of German politics and its commitment to a humane immigration policy and a strong Europe might be less dark than currently painted. The major parties — especially the Social Democrats, newly liberated from governing — need only renew and innovate. The next campaign’s debates might very well be driven by two Euro-friendly people’s parties again, with little room for national-populists of all stripes.
Tobias Konitzer is a PhD candidate in communication at Stanford University; he worked for the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Social Democratic Party, in 2011. Find him on Twitter @tobiask.