Populism and the German Election

photo by the European People's Party

2017 was supposed to be the year of the populist, but electoral outcomes for populist parties have been varied. Dahrendorf Forum Postdoctoral Fellow Julia Himmrich looks at the outcome of the German election for hints about where populism may go next.

After a politically difficult 2016, Europe braced itself for increased populism in the 2017 elections in the Netherlands, France, the UK, and Germany. But so far, the electoral outcomes have adhered more to the status quo than predicted: The election of the Dutch centre-right candidate, Mark Rutte, was met with relief, Emmanuel Macron’s win against Marine Le Pen with euphoria, and the British election result with surprise and confusion. These outcomes led to a sense that after the Brexit referendum, the momentum for populist parties in Europe had slowed. The German election was considered less disposed to populism. Nonetheless, the campaigns were not without their fair share. But in contrast to its European neighbours, the German brand of populism has been more explicitly anti-immigration and less Eurosceptic or anti-establishment.

Since the Second World War, no German xenophobic party has managed to win the 5 percent of votes needed to make it into the Bundestag. On Sunday, the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s election on an anti-immigration platform, making it the third-strongest party in the Bundestag. Still, compared to other European countries, this right-wing shift appears limited. In France, the National Front won 21 percent in the first and 30 percent in the second round of voting. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV) came second with 13 percent of the vote, up from third place and 10.1 percent in 2012. Only the UK after the Brexit referendum showed more limited support for populist movements, as UKIP’s vote share plunged to just over 1 percent.

Although populism in the German election has been weaker than in other European countries, its distinct right-wing messages may provide some insights into where populism is heading in Europe.

No left-wing rise

The German election did not see the same rise of leftist movements as in France, the Netherlands, or the UK: Jean-Luc Mélenchon gained nearly 20 percent in the first round of the French presidential election; in the Netherlands the GroenLinks party did not echo the Eurosceptic sentiments but reached over 9 percent on a progressive platform set out as an antidote to the right wing’s Geert Wilders; in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party embraced a more populist Eurosceptic and anti-establishment position and gained seats for the first time in two decades. In Germany, the left-wing party, Die Linke, has been an established opposition party in the Bundestag since reunification, usually polling around 10 percent. So are The Greens, who are more centrist but liberal and have been in government with the Social Democrats (SDP) in the past. Their policy positions have not shifted significantly, nor have their vote shares. In the 2017 election, Die Linke increased its vote share by just 0.6 percent over its 2013 result while The Greens only improved by 0.5 percent over the same period.

The fall of the anti-establishment campaign – despite dieselgate

Germany’s recent export boom was partly built on the growing low-wage sector, which has emerged since the early 2000s. The distribution of wealth in Germany’s growing economy has been controversial and was picked up in the recent campaign by some parties leaning to the left, such as the Social Democrats, The Greens, and Die Linke. However, the parties have not campaigned against the richest 1 percent of the population, which has inspired leftist movements on both sides of the Atlantic, nor has there been support for significantly higher taxation. Instead, the strongest populist political party, the AfD, wants to lower taxes. Similarly, the recent scandal of German car companies collectively undermining environmental regulations for diesel cars did not translate into successful anti-establishment or anti-business political campaigns.

Limited Euroscepticism

Euroscepticism on the left was also lower in Germany than in the British or French elections, where Jeremy Corbyn embraced Brexit and leaving the Eurozone and Jean-Luc Mélenchon suggested a ‘Frexit’. In the German context, Euroscepticism from the left was much softer and focused on transparency or accountability, calling for greater direct democracy and influencing power of citizens. Suggestions of Germany leaving the EU or at least reversing European integration only came from the right-wing AfD, and were not picked up by any of the other parties.

Anti-immigration and -minority sentiments prevail

However some Euroscepticism came out in the debate on migration and asylum, which dominated this campaign in an unprecedented way. A key populist demand is often for ‘law and order’. The argument from the AfD was that Merkel’s refugee crisis and the EU’s approach to asylum are undermining this. The party was able to control the debate by focusing on specific policies such as failed returns of rejected asylum seekers and by implying a connection between the inflow of refugees and an increased threat of terrorist attacks. Both the CDU and the SPD – the members of the ruling coalition prior to the election – responded by promising to prioritise law enforcement and further reduce inflows. Even the liberal Free Democrats called for increased involvement of security personnel and law enforcement in managing migration. The AfD has clearly been able to shift the way Germans speak about migration and asylum and tapped into xenophobic tendencies that will now be represented in the Bundestag.

For the next four years we can therefore expect populism and Euroscepticism in Germany to be defined by this xenophobic and nationalist outlook. General Euroscepticism is decreasing and Europe has avoided giving a populist party a mandate to govern Nonetheless migrants and minorities in Europe remain vulnerable to being targeted by this still very noticeable shift to the right.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.