Germany’s untested far-right party joins an apprehensive parliament

Germany’s untested far-right party joins an apprehensive parliament
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Berlin is quietly storming following the September 24th German parliamentary elections that brought about significant changes in the ideological composition of the Bundestag. Underneath the grey November skies an unusual ruling coalition with Merkel at the helm is taking shape, but the real source of intrigue in the incoming parliament will be in the opposition.

While Angela Merkel came away with a predictable 4th (and most likely final) term as chancellor, the parliament as a whole experienced major shake-ups. The center-right CDU and the center-left SPD both had their worst showings in years as voters moved to fringe parties like the left-wing Die Linke and, disturbingly, to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party which received 9.7 and 13.3 percent of seats respectively. This siphoning of centrist votes has created an unusual ruling coalition comprised of Merkel’s CDU, the libertarian-esque FDP, and the environmentally-conscious Greens.

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While coalition negotiators will attempt to reconcile this colorful mix, the SPD finds itself with an unlikely bedfellow in the AfD, and parliamentarians and staffers alike are unsure what their working relationship will look like with representatives from the party. Moderates can take some comfort in the AfD’s own internal weaknesses — as a very new party its members will be responsible for bringing together a wide array of viewpoints. Given conflicting opinions inside the party, it’s possible that its representatives will spend so much time dealing with infighting that they won’t be very influential on the national level. The party could even splinter into competing factions as the True Finns did in Finland earlier this year.

Like many far-right parties, the AfD’s electoral success is likely tied more to its attacks against opponents than to proactive policy suggestions — the party even spent hundred of thousands of euros promoting an anti-Merkel website as the top search result for the chancellor’s name prior to the election.

The German tradition of providing taxpayer funding for political parties — the result of strict campaign finance laws — also means that the AfD will receive up to 80 million euro of taxpayer money to start its own political foundation. Political foundations in Germany function as policy think tanks and public outlets for the various parties, meaning that once the AfD’s foundation is up and running they will have a much more official channel to communicate with voters. This could be cause for a moral crisis for a country that has established a strict regulatory and societal framework to prevent activities that incite hatred — including Holocaust denial and displaying swastikas — while maintaining the freedom of speech critical to a healthy democratic system.

What does all this mean for transatlantic relations? A primary question will be how Merkel balances a more complex domestic political environment with involuntary increased engagement on the global stage as a reaction to the Trump presidency. Merkel will be looking to staunch the bleeding of voters from the CDU to other parties, particularly the FDP and AfD, and may need to soften her pro-European and pro-immigration platforms. This, in combination with Trump’s indifference towards Europe, could be problematic on the executive level as each side turns (willingly or unwillingly) inward.

The AfD wants to increase Germany’s self-sufficiency when it comes to defense but also wants to relax sanctions against Russia, which could endanger any hope of progress on the Minsk agreement. Transatlantic relations are unlikely to deteriorate as long as each side remains focused on pragmatic cooperation through turbulent times as detailed in the recent manifesto by German foreign policy experts on the importance of German-American relations at the most fundamental levels for both actors.

Despite a broad ideological spectrum, the parties negotiating the coalition are aware of the high stakes involved and hope to avoid new elections. Substantial concessions will be required from all players to form a government. Meanwhile, the AfD’s inner factions will continue to debate its tenets, some of which come dangerously close to violating the anti-Nazi social contract inherent to the existence of modern Germany.

What remains to be seen is how effective the AfD will be in the opposition camp as it is faced with real-world policy making and its inherent complexities.

Heidi Obermeyer is a German Chancellor Fellow from the United States at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP e.V.) in Berlin, Germany.