Tuesday, 11 March 2014


SEPTEMBER’S GERMAN GENERAL election changed the political landscape as never before.  For the first time since the war, the Liberal Democrats (FDP) received less than 5% of votes and therefore lost all their Bundestag seats. And for the very first time, a new party, the liberal-conservative Alternativ für Deutschland, gained more than 3% in their first election outing. With an overall result of 4.7%, AfD have missed seats in Berlin by only 0.3%. In some Eastern German towns, AfD even showed a local success of 6%. And politicians as well as university sociologists and the media wonder what support AfD might win in next year’s European elections.

Professor Bernd Lücke

Surprisingly enough, AfD not only won over 250,000 FDP supporters; but attracted disaffected left-wingers from parties like Die Linke and motivated citizens who stayed at home in 2009 to cast a vote for them. This broadly scattered base baffled many commentators. Fitting AfD into the German political spectrum seemed difficult and dangerous, even more so as leading AfD members themselves diverge as to their party’s basic aims. While the AfD candidate in a major Berlin constituency told TV presenters on election eve that his party was very clearly the immediate successor of a broken FDP, FDP members tried to label AfD as right-wing extremists rather than true liberals. AfD president Professor Lücke hoped to deflect accusations of fascist tendency to position himself in the centre of German democracy. Professor Lücke was especially proud of leftist and Eastern German votes he had gained. In his opinion, AfD are a party concerned for families, middle-class employees and dilligent workers who were all fed up with squandering tax on international finance and foreign debt. Social Democrats (SDP), Greens and Die Linke, however, do not seem to regard AfD as a serious competitor for the left wing vote. It is rather the Christian Democratic/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) who took the surprising AfD result most seriously. On ZDF television, a Bavarian CSU representative said that he had always opposed Angela Merkel’s shifts towards liberalism and socialism as he knew a new conservative party might try to take their place sooner or later.
Another force on the right
Germany’s leading newspapers have taken up this topic with fear. A report in Die Zeit has especially
criticised AfD attempts to form international coalitions with parties which would not be considered “true to the constitution” in Germany. And the Die Zeit journalist rightly stated that some right-wing media have already began to promote AfD to their audiences. In contrast to the smaller right-wing parties like the NPD, Republikaner and local nationalist groups, AfD offers German radical theorists a platform on international matters. Though worldwide migration needs innovation and clear decisions, revived Islamophobia is not going to solve any problem.

Quite apparently, it is getting more difficult to distinguish what AfD really want–and what others wish them to be. And in the end, there might not even be a difference between internal and external views.  Die Zeit eloquently names this problem as 21st century “soft populism”.

And the AfD’s major problem–which also is the voter’s problem–is that their own manifesto remains
“under construction”. This is why future changes to the outline might bring bad surprises. Equally, the
AfD homepage www.alternativefuer.de looks like a news blog right now and lacks both taditional party
stability and boredom. This must have been attractive to more than 88,000 people who “like” it on
Facebook so far, but one wonders if they really know more about party policy than ordinary citizens.
Striking colours
This leads us to the important question what AfD did right to attract so many different strata of society
in the first place. During the election campaign itself, AfD could convince many undecided voters with a
four-page manifesto in a well written and readable PDF download. At the same time, they provided printed folders with extensive charts and scientifically presented data for more intellectual readers. And looks are just as important as content.

The colour AFD chose for themselves was a shining blue which seemed lighter and more progressive than CSU’s traditional design. On campaign posters, this blue background was wittingly combined with white print and a striking red arrow below the party’s name. This choice of colours and layout fooled all visual culture theorists of political orientation as it drew on stylistic devices of almost the entire political spectrum.

All in all, it is very short-sighted to attribute AfD’s success to Euro-scepticism after the Greek Crisis. Most commentators agree the AfD brought Germany a major shift to right-wing extremism. And socialists who had voted for AfD are said to have been drawn by post-communist-nationalism and anti-Europeanism. But abolishing the common European currency and going back to national currencies if a state bankrupts and debt rises was just one AfD policy–and not even the most prominent on campaign posters and television election spots.

More than 50% of AfD posters and leaflets tackled topics other than the financial crisis and displayed a more general unease with current proceedings in economics, education and family care. AfD appealed to a European spirit of active community life beyond financial issues and state interests closely related to 18th and 19th century classical republicanism. Aside from their call for an easier taxation system, higher education levels and sensible pension and health care reform, AfD especially promoted family life and openness to children, which appealed to all who trust personal relationships and private networks above the state.

So we ought to take a look at the other parties’ losses of voters to the new-comers again:

Firstly, a large amount of 42% for Angela Merkel included tactical votes against Peer Steinbrück, and a
personal liking for Dr Merkel does not mean a support for Christian Democrats and their ideas. Above all, Angela Merkel offered nothing but a shaky track between all lines of fire; and giving so little chance for confrontation might not save her another time.
Broken promises and self-centred
Secondly, FDP not only lost votes because they broke their 2009 promises to reduce taxes; they also failed in their public relations and ideological representation during the 2013 campaign itself. Most of their statements were self-centered and lacked actual content, simply repeating a vague liberal, pro-economical,
anti-regulatory image.

As a ZDF journalist rightly stated a day after the election, it was all about credibility, and FDP could not prove credibility. In this context, one must not forget both FDP and Greens came under pressure when 1980s comments on legalising paedophilia came to light. The two parties who had criticised the Catholic Church most for covering up child abuse since 2010, were now just as unwilling to admit past mistakes and left comment entirely to the media. The major problem for FDP and Greens, though, was lack of lasting vision.

In their best days, FDP stood for a vital tradition of enlightened thought, republicanism and federal responsibility with personal freedoms and international respect. Even non-FDP voters regarded FDP
values as essential to post-Nazi Germany. And FDP government participation was deeply respected.  Those who did not like them at least relished a good fight. The national relevance of FDP ideals, however, is now historic and can only be revived after a serious shake-up, leaving cold capitalism behind and embracing
duties for the rich.

Equally, the neo-liberal Piraten (linked to the Swedish “pirates”) did not meet their own targets though the NSA scandal suited their programme perfectly.  But protest without vision is as barren as progress without conscience.
Provocative vision
AfD, on the other hand, seemed to attract new voters with the provocative vision of those who do not need to live on parliament positions. Their leadership, made up of academics and successful business people who, at the same time, had at least two children each, provided a whole new set for identification and respect. Germany had not seen a female candidate with a toddler on her arm on a political stage.  And it was well received that the AfD election campaign had focussed on topics rather than faces. Their messages were not as cryptic and ironic as the Green Party’s. Instead of the forced contemporary slogan Mensch vor Bank (“man before bank”, a pun of German “bank” and “bench”), AfD simply stated Ja zu Europa–nein zur Schuldenunion (Yes to Europe–No to union of debts). In campaign posters, AfD used few images and relied on identical print.  Like it or not: it was effective minimalist propaganda reaching out to all audiences and avoiding emotions. This might prove policital protest is not necessarily irrational and voters do not only go for glossy advertisements and the promise of fun.

At this stage, we must examine AfD’s two mistakes.  It did them no good that some euphoric members
claimed their party would gain more than 8% in the EU elections: spectators were confused to see ambiguous iconography of raised arms on the party’s Facebook page. Professor Lücke’s statement that
German politics had seen too many Entartungen (degeneracies) in past legislatures was a dangerous allusion to right-wing terminology which was ill received in all media.

A French intellectual therefore claimed in a German debating show that he saw clear parallels between AfD and his own country’s Front National.  In fact it is true that there is a back-door for radicalism though most current AfD members and voters would not share it or even be aware of it. So it will all depend on the party’s academic elite to close this avenue soon.

A more fitting assessment came from Germany’s largest tabloid Bildzeitung: in its opinion, AfD have a lot more in common with the US Tea Party than European right-wing extemism. Bildzeitung see a reduction of state intervention in economics; stronger family ties instead of social insurances; and pre-liberal republican values of virtue, education and civic engagement at the core of party policy. AfD frequently refers to Anglo-Saxon models (including James Cameron) themselves.

If AfD continue their rise, Germany might experience a new Americanisation. And voters must watch out for new publications from AfD headquarters to understand the party’s long term setup. The 2014 European election may or may not pave the way for a better future. Hopefully, leading German politicans will rediscover passion and creativity for the sake of all.

Muinice de Bairgéad is a doctoral student in the University of Konstanz, currently on exchange to Harvard University.  This article appear in The Brandsma Review.

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