Populist right's rise in Germany not (yet) a reason for panic

Populist right's rise in Germany not (yet) a reason for panic
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Five years ago, the right-wing populist AfD party — Alternative für Deutschland — did not exist. Today, it is represented in 14 of Germany's 16 state parliaments. After securing 12.6 percent of the vote last fall, Die Alternative also holds 92 seats (out of 709) in the national legislature, the Bundestag.

There's palpable alarm in establishment circles that AfD is gaining a foothold in what until now had been a no-go zone for conservatives of any stripe — the country's thoroughly liberal-left, social democrat-dominated trade unions.

There are two things you need to know in order not to panic about Germany's new far right; not yet anyway. 

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First, that "far fight" is a misnomer: the AfD is a "Sammelbecken," or collecting bowl as Germans say; a hodgepodge of voter grievances.

 

I have spent considerable time in Germany the last six months, roaming mostly the Saxon countryside — the eastern German state bordering Poland and the Czech Republic — where AfD support is particularly strong.

I've spent time with pastors and police, bookstore owners and bakers, local business people and mayors; breaking bread with a dentist, a high-school teacher, a vintner and veterinarian. Some support AfD; many sympathize with AfD concerns. Virtually all bristle at the idea that AfD is neo-Nazi, or anything of the kind for that matter. 

The roughly one million refugees admitted by Germany in 2015 from Syria and other Muslim majority countries was, for some in the AfD ranks, simply too much to absorb.

I was recently in the small town of Bischofswerda (population roughly 11,000), 20 miles east of Dresden, at a meeting of AfD voters. For this group it's the economy, pensions and what they view as out of touch Berlin elites that boil local blood.

AfD is a protest party. It was founded in spring 2013 initially as a party critical of the euro and opposed to German bailouts for EU countries like Greece. I've had German friends, right and left, complain to me for years about what they see as throwing good money after bad in the name of "Europe," without proper consideration of German interests. For or against, this is hardly the stuff of right-wing radicalism.

Which brings us to issue two: labor unions. If elites have fallen out of touch, trade union leadership is no exception.

"The Social Democrats have completely lost touch with the working class, and while many people may not be sophisticated conversationalists, they are not stupid." That's how ex-Green Party parliamentarian Antje Hermenau explains the inroads AfD is making with German labor.

Some 15 percent of labor union members cast their ballots for Die Alternative in national elections last October.

Did we not see this coming? SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had been known for epitomizing the Social Democrats' "Tuscany faction": social justice rhetoric combined with a taste for fine wines, expensive Cuban cigars and custom-tailored Brioni suits.

Hermenau speaks of the "Kaviar-Linke," the "caviar left," that still runs the SPD and whose ethos dominates German labor in the view of critics. Schröder makes his money since leaving office as a high-priced lobbyist for the Russian energy giant Gazprom. And German unions have become far too chummy with German industry and corporate fat cats, goes the broader narrative.

Nature abhors vacuums, and aristocracy invites insurgency.

By the end of last year, metal workers' union IG Metall — Germany's largest union and Europe’s largest industrial union — was warning of threats from the populist right. Frank Neufert, a BMW worker in Leipzig had announced he would run for a spot in a local Betriebsrat, or works council.

Neufert was also an AfD state legislator in Zwickau. In the meantime, such examples abound. Between now and the end of next month, 180,000 work council members will be elected nationwide.

So, voter motivation is complicated. And AfD is a "right-left" party of sorts, having emerged as voter ties to establishment parties have been loosening, and trust in mainstream media — and yes, now in trade unions — has been eroding. Are such shifts not the backdrop to the Bernie-Trump phenomenon in the U.S., too?

Of course in Germany, anything "national-socialist" sounds alarm bells. Hitler's NSDAP, Nazi for short, was after all the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party. And while no, this is not Weimar, nevertheless:

In 2009, Oliver Hilburger — long time guitarist with the right-wing extremist band, Noie Werte (New Values)whose music became the soundtrack for a video for the terror group "National Socialist Underground" — was founding Zentrum Automobila right-wing nationalist labor alternative.

Since 2010, Hilburger has been a member of the works council of Daimler Chrysler. Today, some AfD sympathizers call in YouTube videos for "right-thinking" candidates to run for work councils this spring because only "patriots will protect patriots." This sounds ominous indeed. 

There is a fluidity and volatility to all this. Structural and cultural change is afoot. To oversimplify would be unwise; while complacency would be irresponsible — and perhaps outright dangerous. 

Jeffrey Gedmin is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Georgetown University, and a senior advisor with Blue Star Strategies.