Germany can afford the populists

Germany is enough of a mature democracy to accommodate a party like AfD

First published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza on 19-20 March 2016.


Last Sunday’s political earthquake that propelled the German right-wing populists into the role of a serious national political power is not an unprecedented event. In 2005, this kind of breakthrough was achieved by the populists of the left. The Left Party, the heir of the East German communists, which had up till then only been popular in the former DDR, entered the Bundestag with a good result of 8,7% having gained a significant share of the vote in the western Lands. Then, as now, there was talk of the end of the traditional German party system that had for decades been dominated by the great CDU and SPD parties with a contribution from the FDP liberals and, since the 80s, also the Greens. In 2005, the post-communist party wrested the left-wing monopoly from the SPD, taking advantage of the social reaction to Chancellor Schröder’s reform of the welfare state and labour market known as Agenda 2010.

Today it is the turn of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to live that election nightmare. For decades, this party has been doing everything to make sure no rival emerged on its right flank. But the refugee crisis turned out to be for the CDU what Agenta 2010 was for SPD. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party of the extreme right polling well below the electoral minimum a year ago, entered the parliament of the traditionally conservative Baden-Wurttemberg with a result of 15%, in Rhineland-Palatinate with 12.5% and in Saxony-Anhalt not much less than the ruling CDU (24% to 30%).  This is a nightmare scenario not only for the Christian Democrats but for the whole liberal mainstream as the far-right is not just another party complicating the coalition jigsaw-puzzle (two-party governments are becoming ever-less viable in Germany) and destabilizing politics. It is also represents the spectre of a dark past the Germans had long ago banished and counted on never reappearing again.  

Podcast: State elections in Germany

To load the audio player provided by Soundcloud, click the button below. This means Soundcloud will receive technical data about your device or browser, as well as information about your visit on this page. Soundcloud may use cookies and may transfer your data to servers outside the EU, where the level of data protection may not be equivalent to that in the EU. For more information visit our privacy policy.

Load player


But the successes of the Left in 2005 and the Alternative for Germany in 2016 have more to do with each other than simply the division of the electoral cake between the left and right. The results stem from a single source, which is the confrontation of modern politics with globalisation and the redefinition of the parameters of that politics as a result. Schroder’s reforms were a result of the necessity of trimming back the overgrown welfare state and restoring flexibility to the labour market as the German economy had ceased keep pace with the international competition. The open, export-orientated economic model demanded this correction and its current unprecedented success is attributed to a great extent to the changes introduced by Agenda 2010. However, these neoliberal reforms enhanced the feeling of uncertainty among many social groups as well as the polarisation between the beneficiaries and the losers of globalisation. They became the fuel for the left-wing protest party that still occupies this position and was also a factor in the clearly deepening crisis of the social democrats, who had already been losing members and a cohesive electoral base. If today the crisis of the Volkspartei model (the traditional great party representing a wide and differentiated social group) has so deeply hurt the Christian Democrats, this is linked to the second key challenge of our times apart from globalisation – migration and the freedom of movement across open borders. The openness of economies to global competition arouses existential fears and the openness of borders to migrants and refugees adds to this cultural uncertainty and fear of security. Ali this means that the nature of politics, especially in the western world, is changing. While the the traditional division between left and right still exists, as the well-regarded German analyst Ulrich Speck recently wrote in The Guardian, in many dimensions the conflict between “globalisation” and “territorialism” is coming to the fore. The “globalists” (or cosmopolitans) believe that the open society and borders, partnership and international institutions are generally something good, and the task of politics is to develop them and limit their negative side effects, while the “territorialists” see above all the risks in these aspects of modernity  – risks that must be minimalized at all costs.  

If last week’s elections in three German Lands were considered a verdict on Angela Merkel and her refugee policy, then the conflict between the approaches described above has defined the terms of this confrontation. Speck is correct to consider Merkal to be one of the main champions of “globalism” and one of today’s most decisive defenders of the open society model and open borders in Europe. Her policy of consequential resistance to the ideas raised by populists, a section of public opinion and inside her party to close the borders on the refugees or admit only a certain predefined limited number stems from the conviction that it is these ideas that more threaten this model of Europe, a model that guarantees our freedom and identity more than any kind of other solution might promise.  

The closure of German borders would have incomparably more far-reaching (and dreadful) consequences for Schengen and Europe as a whole than a wall on the Hungarian border or pickets in Slovenia. The introduction of an annual refugee quota is illegal, threatens the collapse of policy (if the number is exceeded) as well as implying the necessity of brutal measures like on the Greece-Macedonian border. Merkel’s policy since autumn last year has been to buy time while Germany has absorbed hundreds of thousands of migrants like a sponge (who if turned away from Germany did not return to Syria or Iraq but remained in other European countries) trying to find a solution allowing the rescue of open borders and basic European values themselves. The EU’s agreement with Turkey is a result of this activity, though time will tell with what effect.

The success of the Alternative for Germany is a high price to pay for Merkel’s uncompromising policy, and also for the broad consensus among the German political class supportive of her course. Merkel was not defeated in these elections and politicians from her own party who had distanced themselves from her policy on migrants lost out to the Greens and to SPD, who had keenly supported the Chancellor. One can give credit to the fringe populists in one respect: they were the only party (apart from the Bavarian CSU) in Germany consequentially questioning Merkel’s policies using xenophobic language and radical slogans. Amidst the influx of a million migrants in the course of a few months and justified concerns that it could not quickly be stemmed, the appearance of a strong party with a profile of this kind cannot be a surprise. But would succumbing to the illusion of quick and simple solutions in the name of stifling the hydra of populism be the correct option? This was the strategy that led premier Roberto Fico to suffer a marked loss of support for his party and a rise of the far right in recent elections. In Germany, its potential was always estimated at around 15%, which today manifests itself in support for AfD.

But for Germany and Europe it is better if AfD changed, even forever, the German political scene than for the spectre of its rise to cause the whole political class to succumb to populism. John Micklethwait, the former editor of „The Economist” wrote that, to an ever greater extent, we in the west live in a “world of 20%”, e.g. in societies where a comparatively small minority sets the terms of political discourse whether it is in power or not. Marine Le Pen in France, Donald Tump in the USA and Nigel Farage in Great Britain are examples of this, and Germany is just as prone to the risk of populism as any country. Today they are in the best economic shape they have ever been in history, but what will happen if the conditions worsen and the influx of migrants does not lessen? And the last elections do not at all mean that Germany has yet taken a violent turn to the right.

Germany is enough of a mature democracy to accommodate a party like AfD. The media histrionics that have greeted its success in Germany and a part of Europe only serve that party. Meanwhile, it would be illusory to expect that today, in an ever more fragmented society, parties like CDU or SpD shall, as ever, be able to gain the vote of 80% of the population. Voters’ preferences have become more changeable and capricious and the far right is a permanent feature of the modern political landscape. Germany has just discovered what this “new order” is like.  

The establishment of the populist Left Party was the price for the necessary modernisation of the German economic model. The appearance of the Alternative for Germany is the price for Germany taking on, more out of necessity than design, the role of leader in Europe and the taking on of responsibility for limiting the refugee crisis without undermining the foundations of the EU and the abandonment of European values. In the longer run, it is not clear who in Europe accepts this leadership, and whether Merkel’s efforts bring the desired results. But it is sure that all would fail in that fiasco, with the exception of AFD and its kind.


Translated by Emil Tchorek

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.