Leaders of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) Bundestag group Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland and members of AfD vote during the first plenary session of German lower house of Parliament after a general election in Berlin, October
Leaders of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) Bundestag group Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland and members of AfD vote during the first plenary session of German lower house of Parliament after a general election in Berlin, October 2017. 
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

One of the big stories to come out of the German general election this September was the success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party that won nearly 13 percent of the vote and will now for the first time sit in the German Parliament. (It won 94 seats in the Bundestag.) Although the AfD performed only slightly better than the polls predicted, the results nevertheless came as a shock to many. Observers inside and outside the country had believed that Germany’s Nazi past had made the country immune from the rise of extremist parties seen elsewhere in the West in the last few years.

Since the AfD was created in 2013, the German political establishment has treated it as an essentially antidemocratic party. Mainstream parties, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats—who feared that the AfD could split the right in the way Die Linke has split the left since its formation in 2005—simply refused to engage with the AfD and spoke of it from the outset as if it were a neo-Nazi party like the National Democratic Party (NPD). Mainstream German politicians and media outlets describe it as demokratiefeindlich, or “hostile to democracy,” and refer to the other parties as “democratic forces” by contrast.

The AfD was formed in opposition to Merkel’s response to the euro crisis. After she reluctantly agreed to bail out Greece in the spring of 2010—though only if it implemented extreme austerity and structural reforms—many Germans feared the emergence of a “transfer union” in which fiscally responsible countries would endlessly subsidize the fiscally irresponsible. The AfD stood for an extreme version of the Christian Democrats’ own idea that countries should be responsible for their own debt—even in a currency union such as the eurozone. In short, it opposed a redistributive EU.

In the years following its creation, the AfD shifted its focus from the euro to immigration and Islam. Since the refugee crisis began in the summer of 2015, the party’s links to the anti-Muslim movement PEGIDA and to neo-Nazi groups have become stronger. Some of its leading figures have views that many Germans find abhorrent. During the election campaign, for example, then Deputy Leader Alexander Gauland said that Germans “had the right” to be proud of the “achievements” of the Wehrmacht in World War II. The party’s founder, an economics professor named Bernd Lucke, criticized the party’s increasing xenophobia and left it in 2015.

Even now, however, it is too simple to label the party antidemocratic. To do so ignores the important debate about the concept of “illiberal democracy” that has been taking place over the last few years. The more difficult and interesting question is whether it makes sense to apply this more precise concept, which was coined by Fareed Zakaria 20 years ago, to the AfD. To call the AfD “illiberal democrats” implies that, given the chance, it would try to abandon the rule of law, remove constitutional limits on the government’s power and turn Germany into something like Hungary under Viktor Orban or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is possible that it would. In particular, there is a real fear that it could limit freedom of religion. But it is still a long way off from being able to form a government in Germany. In any case, as the examples of Orbán and Erdoğan illustrate, center-right figures, movements, and parties can also turn authoritarian once in power.

The AfD is certainly a nationalist party, and it has Islamophobic and racist tendencies, as well as some members who are neo-fascists. In that sense, it can be seen as standing for a majoritarian or illiberal form of democracy rather than an inclusive, liberal one. But however nasty its views on immigration or Islam, the party remains basically committed to the existing structures of liberal democracy in Germany, and there is little evidence that it wants to dismantle democratic institutions. If there were, the Verfassungsschutz (the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence service), which closely monitors it, would have taken action. Indeed, the party has couched its attacks on the political status quo in democratic language. It has even co-opted the Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt’s slogan: “Dare more democracy!” One of the AfD’s main criticisms of Merkel is that she abandoned the rule of law in her responses to the euro and refugee crises by violating EU rules that prohibited “bailouts” of other EU member states and by giving up control of Germany’s borders. This is not to say that the AfD is harmless, just that it is important to be precise about what exactly the threat is and how to respond to it.

The description of the AfD as antidemocratic is particularly unhelpful because it obscures important, real problems with German democracy that predate the AfD—and to which the AfD arose as a response. The AfD’s name itself was a response to Merkel’s frequent statement that “there is no alternative” to her approach to the euro crisis. In other words, whether or not the AfD is itself antidemocratic, its emergence is a consequence of the narrowing of democratic choice that has taken place in Germany in the last decade. Over the last decade, Germany has become increasingly “post-democratic”—which is perhaps why the concept, originally coined by the British academic Colin Crouch in 2004, has resonated so much in Germany.

Since 2005, when Merkel became chancellor, there has been an extraordinary consensus in the German political center. For eight of the last twelve years, Germany has been governed by a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. With a supermajority in the Bundestag, the grand coalitions were effectively able to ignore the opposition. Things got so cozy between the two parties that, in an interview in 2015, one leading Social Democrat, Torsten Albig, even wondered whether the SDP needed a candidate of its own since Merkel was doing such an “excellent” job.

What might be called the Merkel consensus was based not strictly on a leftward shift by the Christian Democrats, as many Germans seem to believe, but on a compromise between a right-wing economic policy and left-wing social and environmental policies. The consensus has been disastrous for the European Union in general and the eurozone in particular, because it meant that the Social Democrats failed to offer a real center-left alternative to Merkel’s approach to the euro crisis. That is why, in an essay published in 2013, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas wished the AfD success.

Germans disenchanted with Merkel’s agenda hoped that the Social Democrat Martin Schulz would put some distance between himself and the chancellor and offer a real alternative to her governing program—hence his initial popularity when he first became his party’s candidate in the spring. In the end, however, he failed to flesh out his rhetoric on social justice in policy terms and backed off criticizing Merkel—apparently because he was told that doing so polled badly. As Der Spiegel put it in a recent article about Schulz’s campaign, one needed “a microscope to find the differences between the platforms of the SPD and the CDU.” In effect, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats conspired to avoid debating the most important issues facing Germany—from the future of the eurozone to the integration of refugees. ARD television commentator Rainald Becker even dismissed the one televised debate between the two candidates, which had been advertised as a “duel,” as a “duet.”

Worse, under Merkel, the Christian Democrats seem to have tried to lower turnout among non-CDU voters. They have avoided controversy and where necessary co-opted popular Social Democrat policies in the hope of discouraging Social Democrat supporters from coming out to vote. During the 2009 election campaign, Matthias Jung of the polling organization Forschungsgruppe Wahlen (which advises the Christian Democrats) famously called the strategy “asymmetric demobilization.” During this year’s election campaign, Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said publicly that it would be better not to vote at all than to vote for the AfD. Thus there is a sense in which Merkel’s government itself can be accused of being antidemocratic. At one point during the campaign, Schulz did exactly this, saying that the Christian Democrats were attempting to “systematically drive down electoral participation,” which amounted to “an attack on democracy.” He subsequently dropped the accusation, however, even when he was invited to elaborate on it during the television debate with Merkel.

The consequences of the ideological convergence between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were predictable. Many voters, especially at the bottom end of the socioeconomic scale and in states that used to be part of East Germany, no longer felt represented by any of the parties in the Bundestag because their policies, whether on economic issues or questions of culture and identity, did not speak to them. This lack of representation by the mainstream parties created space for the emergence of extremist ones. In a sense, therefore, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats created the conditions under which the AfD could thrive. Data from the election show that the AfD brought 1.2 million of these non-voters back to the polls, which helped raise turnout from to from 72 percent in 2013 to 77 percent in September. This in itself is a good thing for German democracy.

The consequences of the ideological convergence between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were predictable.

German politics is about to get rougher. In particular, there are likely to be much livelier debates in the Bundestag than during the past decade. The night of the election, Gauland, a former Christian Democrat, even said the AfD would “hunt” Merkel—language that is shocking in the context of Germany’s consensual political culture. But, to use the terms coined by the political scientist Peter Mair, even if we should worry that German politics will now be less “responsible,” the AfD may force it to become more “responsive.” The presence of the AfD in the Bundestag for the first time could change the German political landscape for the better—not least because it will now be able to use parliamentary committees to hold the government to account on the issues that Germany’s center has too long ignored.

Ultimately, however, whether or not this turns out to be good for German democracy depends not only on the AfD but on the other parties—above all, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. As the political scientist Sheri Berman has argued, populism is best understood as a symptom of democracy’s problems rather than a cause of them. If existing democratic elites and institutions respond appropriately—that is, by developing policies that respond to the concerns of voters that have turned away from them—the AfD’s presence will turn out to have been helpful. If, however, they are unable or unwilling to do these things, populism will have turned out to be a harbinger of democratic decline.

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