Views from the capitals: How to constrain populism in Germany

What can Germany learn about dealing with populist parties from other European countries’ experience?


by Josef Janning

Last month 5.9 million Germans cast their vote in favor of the nationalist “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) party, giving them 93 seats. This makes them the third largest of the six parties represented in parliament – an unprecedented feat for a new party’s first entry to the Bundestag.  

The other parties have ruled out working with the far-right group, meaning they will not be part of the next German government. But they will nonetheless exert a strong influence on German political culture.

They will bring a new tone to parliamentary debates, using the Bundestag as a platform to woo disaffected voters with their anti-EU, anti-Western, and anti-immigration rhetoric. In policy terms they will demand a far tougher stance on migration and on Germany’s troublesome partnership with Turkey. And they will oppose anything that sounds like ‘more Europe’ (likely including Macron’s proposals to reform Eurozone governance) or that requires greater international commitments from Germany, at a time when many in Europe and beyond hope for greater German leadership.

Constraining the AfD’s ability to disrupt policy and political debate will be a key challenge for Merkel’s new government, which looks likely to be a ‘Jamaica’ coalition of the liberal FDP, the environmentalist Greens and her own centre-right CDU/CSU alliance. EU and foreign policy, for example, will need to be discussed more openly and with stronger arguments; the prevailing mix of ritual integrationism and reluctant pragmatism will no longer suffice.

But they must also be careful about excessive confrontation with the AfD, which could strengthen the party’s following if it is perceived as being victimized by the mainstream parties. And they must listen and respond to the concerns of the AfD’s voters, one third of whom migrated from traditional parties. This will include addressing regional disparities in inequality and/or identity: the electoral map revealed a sharp east-west divide in Germany, with the AfD roughly twice as strong in the former communist east than in the more affluent and cosmopolitan west.

None of this will be easy. But Germany is not alone in dealing with populism: much of Europe is going through a similar process. So here ECFR’s national offices present their advice for the new German government, drawing on the distinct but related experiences of their own countries in recent years. 

View from London

by Susi Dennison

Seen from the UK, with UKIP’s stunning success in British politics in mind, the key question for Germany is how effectively the AFD will be able to use the bullying pulpit that their new-found ‘legitimacy’ offers, to influence politics from outside government.

UKIP is the most influential party in British politics that has never held power: at their electoral highpoint in 2015, they won 12.6% of the UK vote – the same figure as the AfD won last month. But under the UK’s first past the post system, this only resulted in them retaining one of two seats which they had obtained when sitting Conservative MPs defected to the insurgent party.

It is clear, therefore, that UKIP’s power lies not in their elected representation, but in their ability to influence the debate from the outside, through the media, and by focussing relentlessly on their core issue. Although they are currently in meltdown, UKIP have already achieved their key objective. After Nigel Farage took over the leadership in 1997, he focussed the far-right party almost exclusively on taking the UK out of the EU. This single-mindedness resulted eventually in the 2016 Brexit referendum, in which the party played a major role in the Leave campaign’s triumph.

Though the AFD is also divided and has been undergoing messy leadership battles in recent months, the drumbeat of their promise to reduce immigration into Germany – arguably their one convergence issue – is certain to influence the coalition negotiations.

Angela Merkel has already accepted the need to listen to the concerns of AFD voters, which are primarily about immigration. Now she needs to extract a similar commitment from her coalition partners if she wants to avoid this becoming a serious point of vulnerability for her fourth administration. She will need to combine the optimism of the values-driven Germany that rallied behind her promise of ‘Wir schaffen das’ in 2015, with policies at the local level that address fears about the economic impact of heightened immigration.

This will be no easy task, but the promise to respond to the message that AFD voters sent suggests that she has learned one important lesson from the UK. Unlike Theresa May’s delusional post-election insistence that ‘nothing has changed’, Merkel seems to realise that she cannot pretend that things can carry on as they were.

If the new German coalition does not come to an early agreement on immigration, the AFD has the power to paralyse their government by challenging them on this issue at every turn, just as successive Conservative governments have been paralysed by the issue of Europe. Theresa May’s post-election experience suggests that you cannot build a plane while flying it, so Merkel and her new team had better agree quickly what sort of aircraft is needed for Germany’s journey if they want to rise above the AfD’s nativist challenge.

View from Paris

by Mathilde Ciulla

In Paris, the last German elections were seen with a sense of déjà-vu: a reminder, after the French presidential election in which Marine Le Pen gathered over 10 million votes in the second round, that the populist wave in Europe is definitely not over. The AfD’s accession to the Bundestag and its impact on the redefinition of the German political landscape will also present additional challenges for President Macron’s plans to reform the European Union in partnership with Berlin.  

But what resonates even more in Paris than the 93 seats won by the AfD are the massive losses that the two mainstream parties suffered. The CDU/CSU and the SPD, shorn of more than 100 seats in the Bundestag, face a similar crisis to that of their French counterparts, Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste. All four are now weakened and internally divided, especially on how to respond to the rise of populist parties.

During the French presidential campaign, Macron deliberately distanced himself from these ailing parties, whom he characterised as unable to address popular discontent. But he also defeated populism from a staunchly centrist position. Here there are perhaps two lessons for Merkel’s new government. She does not have the advantage of representing a new party, but the prospective Jamaica coalition would be a first in German history. She could choose to emphasise this novelty, along with its best-of-both-worlds credentials, a la Macron’s ‘et de droite, et de gauche’ slogan.

But Macron’s response to populism went beyond ideological positioning. His victory was built on the promise of action – to reform Europe and create a Union that protects its citizens from the forces of globalisation. He has been clear that failure to deliver on this agenda will strengthen Le Pen’s hand at the next election.

Here, too, there is a lesson for Berlin: forming a coalition from such awkward bedfellows as the FDP and the Greens will not be easy, but it is only the beginning. If they cannot deliver tangible benefits to the German people, the AfD will surely continue their meteoric rise.  

In this context, Paris’ reaction to the German elections was to call Merkel to secure a joint action on reforming the EU. Macron has said that his main message was to assert his confidence that “Her response won’t be introversion or shyness. Like each time her country faced historical challenges, she will have the same reaction: boldness and a sense of history”. 

View from Warsaw

by Piotr Buras

Unfortunately, the Polish adventure with populism has left us in no position to give lessons on how to tame the beast. After two years of Law and Justice (PiS) government, the country looks less and less like a liberal democracy. Yet despite fierce debate and criticism in some quarters, the ruling party still enjoys the support of more than 40 per cent of the population, with the oppositon lagging far behind. An analysis of the Polish case can, however, provide some warnings that the German mainstream would to well consider if they want to prevent populism from flourishing.

First, identity politics matter as much if not more than economic performance. Economic deprivation explains the success of PiS to some extent, but the cultural profile, religiosity, and fear of change among the party’s voters is at least equally significant.

Second, think big. Kaczynski offered a coherent (if simplistic) narrative about the country’s future, filling the void left by the liberals, who offered little in the way of a grand vision. Yes, the German economy is thriving and the record of Merkel’s era looks good. But the same was true for Poland’s liberal government of Donald Tusk and, more generally, for the transformation of the last quarter of a century. Pointing to the success of the past is no winning strategy. And the failure, as then-popular President Komorowski learned in Spring 2015, can be sudden and painful: within two months he lost most of his support and a seemingly safe election.

Third, individual leaders are key. The weakness of the Polish opposition can to a large extent be attributed to the unconvincing profile and style of its leadership. Here the Kanzlerpartei CDU might well face a kind of ‚Polish scenario‘ in the post-Merkel era, resembling the hopeless struggle of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform after its leader took up the premiership of the European Council in Brussels.  The AfD might not benefit from CDU’s internal disarray to the same extent as PiS exploited the crisis of the Polish liberals. But a further weakening of the grand Volkspartei and a failure to find a suitable successor to Merkel would give them a significant boost.

Fourth, do not panic and do not do the populists‘ PR for them by exagerating their success. Thirteen per cent for the AfD is not the end of the world, and Germany will remain a liberal, open and friendly country for the foreseeable future.  

View from Rome

by Teresa Coratella

Italy was not heavily affected by the “first wave” of populism to hit Europe in recent years: in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the mainstream Democratic Party (DP) won with almost 41% of the votes. However, the refugee crisis – which has hit Italy and Greece hardest of all – has clearly changed that.

Today the anti-immigration Northern League is supported by 13,5% of voters and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement polls at around 29% (though it should be noted that the latter rejects the ‘populist’ label).  The two parties campaigned (independently) to successfully oppose Matteo Renzi’s 2016 constitutional reform proposals, in what can be seen as the first major post-war victory for populism in Italy.

It is not surprising, then, that the current Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is alert to the populist challenge.  Minister of Interior Marco Minniti’s plan to stop the influx of migrants shows how the government has chosen to accommodate, rather than challenge, rising nativist sentiments. According to recent polls, Minniti’s plan was widely welcomed by the Italian public, who consider national social stability a priority. Merkel could learn from this that she, too, will need to toughen immigration policy if she wants to keep the AfD at bay.

The Italian government is also trying to isolate populist parties and encourage centrist coalitions by changing the electoral law. True, this system failed in Germany, but could yet succeed in Italy. The centre-right Forza Italia, still led by Silvio Berlusconi, is undergoing a makeover, eschewing its own populist tendencies in favour of a moderate, pro-European image. In order to marginalize the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, they could well partner with the Democratic Party and approve the electoral reform proposals. Some speculate that the next government (elections are foreseen for spring next year) could even see an unusual grand coalition between the Democratic Party and Forza Italia in order to isolate the populist challengers.

The Italian experience suggests, therefore, that the lesson for Merkel is that left-right ideologies are less important than the new moderate-populist divide. If she wants to neutralize the threat of extremists, she will need to find a way to work constructively with her new coalition partners, the Greens, and her former partners the SPD. The latter may be more difficult given that the social democrats have deliberately chosen to go leave government in order to reassert their opposition to her party.

However, the most important thing – as well as the most difficult challenge for both Italy and Germany – is to do so while understanding the deep causes of citizens' discontent, and addressing them through concrete answers, especially on the inequality front. 

View from Sofia

by Daniel Stefanov

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov often emphasises his personal ties with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He even likes to play the role of being mentored by her. But apparently, when it comes to dealing with extreme populists, the mentor and the “protégé” do not have much in common.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance, along with all other parties in the Bundestag, have ruled out working with the AfD in any prospective coalition. Whereas, in 2009 when Borissov faced the extremist test for the first time in politics, he made a very different choice. Instead of seeking to isolate them, he decided to use their support for his minority government. Since then, the stability of every Bulgarian government has depended on the votes of the populist nationalist groups in parliament. Currently, a new alliance, incorporating all three nationalist parties, is an official government partner in the third cabinet of Borissov.

Over the years, parties on both extremes of the political spectrum have become a well-established part of the parliamentary landscape in Bulgaria. If there is anyone who can teach some lessons learnt to the German politicians, there is no better man than the Bulgarian Prime minister. As a former bodyguard to rose to power on a largely populist manifesto, Borissov knows well that populism that might just as easily remove him from power. But apparently he also knows how to domesticate those forces.

The domestication plan of Borissov would include several main points. First, europeanize the nationalists. The so-called patriots were given a clear choice – participate in a pro-European government, or stay in opposition. They went for the cabinet seats.

Secondly, they were given real jobs. The leader of VMRO, Karakachanov who in the past often questioned Bulgaria’s membership of NATO, received the post of a Defence minister. After he received first-hand impressions from both the Bulgarian army and NATO, he never questioned the Alliance again.

Thirdly, keep foreign policy out of their hands. The patriots are able to create some noise domestically. But it is Borissov who decides when to flirt with Brussels and Berlin, and when to side with the Visegrad. 

It very improbable that Borissov’s mentor – Angela Merkel would go the same steps. But Bulgaria is a sign that the mainstream of politics is shifting in different directions in the different parts of Europe. That makes domestication one of the possible strategies to deal with extreme populists.

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
ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, ECFR Paris
Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, ECFR Sofia

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.