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  1. International
18 June 2024

Germans against the mainstream

The country is divided between east and west once more.

By Wolfgang Streeck

Like in the rest of Europe, the European Parliamentary elections in Germany took place against the backdrop of a decade-long decline of confidence in governments and political parties. Growing sections of European societies experience life in the throngs of rapid and unpredictable change, driven by intersecting crises including economic stagnation, rising public debt, increasing inflation, growing inequality, precarious work and employment, a shortage of housing, environmental deterioration, and a decaying public infrastructure, such as transportation, public health, primary education, social security and care for the elderly. This has created a widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, and a declining respect for politics as usual, which is considered to be unable to protect the lives of ordinary citizens from ever more threatening individual and collective risks. Not an easy time for governments and the parties that run them.

The most significant outcomes of the elections in Germany on 9 June are the relative stability of the conservative CDU/CSU alliance; the disastrous losses of the three coalition parties, the SPD, the Greens, and FDP; the corresponding gains of the AfD; and the rise of a new party, Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), which is a breakaway from an increasingly insignificant Die Linke.

Those parties that suffered the greatest losses (the Greens and the SPD) were also the most “pro-European”, that is, more in favour than others of transferring the responsibility of national states for their societies to a remote supranational technocracy, the European Union. Voters who five years ago might have hoped that EU-style de-politicised “problem solving” would put an end to the chain of crises have concluded that the EU has failed the test. Rather than calling for “more Europe”, even among more centrist sections of national politics there seems to have been a declining willingness to wait for a not-yet-existent, democratically unaccountable supranational superstate to come to their rescue. One indication for this might be that in the election programs even of the parties of the political mainstream, references to the mysterious “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe” were conspicuously absent.

Loss of confidence in the political mainstream, with its traditional commitment to “European integration”, was most pronounced in East Germany. In all five Eastern states, or Länder, the AfD, the “Eurosceptic” among the major parties, won the most votes, like the CDU/CSU did in the Western Länder, neatly dividing the country in two halves along the former border between the Federal Republic and the GDR. In September, there will be regional elections in three of the five states, Thuringia, Sachsen and Brandenburg. While it is unlikely that the AfD will win an absolute majority in any of them, forming coalition governments without it will be exceedingly difficult for the parties of the centre, especially since SPD and Greens together are likely to account for no more than about 15 percent of the vote.

Popular ethnology, as favored by the West German ancien régime and its media, claims that East Germans are disproportionately more fascist than West Germans, due to having been disproportionately more communist; they also fail to be grateful for the good things brought to them for free by the West. More realistic explanations emphasise the fact that the crises eroding confidence in mainstream-democratic institutions are hitting East Germans more than West Germans; that the West German political institutions had more time in better times to build up loyalties in West than in East Germany; and that neoliberal admonitions to be flexible and adjust to structural and cultural change remind East Germans of the economic upheaval they experienced in the 1990s, an upheaval that West Germans had been spared. Urged by their new governments to get ready for yet another Zeitenwende, in the name and for the sake of globalisation and modernisation and not least under the auspices of “Europe”, they obviously are less inclined to assume that, since things have been going nicely in the past, they will go nicely this time as well. Given today’s polycrisis, it cannot be precluded that in the future, the outlook of the West Germans may become more East German rather than vice versa.

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After its founding in 2013, the parties of the centre, including the Greens, together declared war on the AfD, a party which since the refugee crisis in 2015-16 has been steadily growing in membership and votes. The turning point came when the Christian Democrats determined that from now on their number one public enemy was no longer the Old Left but the New Right, the AfD having become the only force that could pose a serious threat to the established party system. After the inauguration of the traffic light coalition in 2021, all available instruments were used for what was called Kampf gegen Rechts (struggle against the Right). This was joined instantly by all right-thinking citizens and organisations, from the inland security service, the Verfassungsschutz, to the media, the churches, the schools, the sports associations and, in fact, as good as everybody else – antifa as a doctrine, the doctrine, of state.

The first half of 2024 witnessed a relentless culture war between two 15-percent parties, the Greens on the one side and the AfD on the other, with everybody else struggling for a position somewhere between the two on the spectrum of “value-democratic” political correctness. The outcome of the European election, run by the 85 percent under a motto “We or chaos” (“chaos” meaning a return to 1933-like fascism), shows that the collective assault on the AfD as a government-designated “internal enemy” (as Carl Schmitt would have put it) mostly backfired. This is certainly true in the Länder of the former GDR, where citizens were reminded of the bloc parties of the Communist regime, and for young people who generally hate being morally pressured to do what others say is good for them.

One reason why the Kampf gegen Rechts has failed was a growing aversion among voters of all ages against the Greens. The European election of 2024 may have been the first and irreversible step in their impending historical decline. Once in government, charged with fighting climate change and implementing the “energy turn” (Energiewende), they were perceived as arrogant technocrats catering to a prosperous middle-class and forgetful of the needs and troubles of ordinary people. With them, their favourite political construction, the EU, far enough removed from the people to be able to stick to the Green agenda, also lost popular support. (Young people were probably too much reminded by them of their Green school teachers to vote for them.)

As the Greens declined, it was not just the AfD that increased its membership and support but also the BSW, the Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. With the withering away of the SPD, along with the demise of Social Democracy almost everywhere in Europe, and the complete absorption of the Greens into the circles around the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Munich Security Conference (MSC), as well as the EU and Nato, BSW is now and may remain in the near future the only left party in German parliamentary politics. This is true even though Wagenknecht has avoided labeling her party “left” or “socialist”, in view of the identitarian turn of the Left and its resulting loss of appeal outside of small groups among the educated middle class.

In electoral terms, BSW appeals to voters who are both economically progressive and “socially conservative”, thereby trying to break up the deadlock of German politics in the culture war between the Greens and the AfD. With respect to the current militarisation of national and international politics, BSW is uncompromisingly on the side of international law, that is, of the duty of states to build and preserve a peaceful international order. With respect to social policy, the line is to defend the welfare state against a new wave austerity, in the form not least of cuts in social and infrastructural spending imposed to meet Nato rearmament targets and, in particular, drag out the war in Ukraine. On immigration, the emphasis is on the need to limit the number of new entrants until the national infrastructure – schools, daycare centres, health care, housing and so on – has been sufficiently upgraded and expanded. As to the EU, BSW emphasizes the responsibility of national governments for the well-being of their citizens and insists that they must be prevented from demanding “European solutions” as an excuse for not living up to their duty.

In post-election interviews, Wagenknecht confirmed that her party will be open for coalitions if the substantive results of coalition talks are right. This is in line with BSW voters being unlikely to stand for abstention from government as a matter of principle, and also with Wagenknecht’s conviction that new, urgently needed policies require the tools of democratic government. For the time being this is particularly relevant in the three East German states that are to hold elections this Autumn. A coalition with the AfD is out of the question for BSW, and the SPD and Greens being as weak as they are in the East, means a coalition, or some other kind of power-sharing, with the CDU, with BSW as a junior or senior partner depending on election results. To widespread astonishment, Friedrich Merz, CDU party chief and CDU/CSU parliamentary leader, let it be known immediately after the European election that the CDU would enforce the same “firewall” in relation to the BSW as to the AfD. It will be interesting to see how CDU leaders in the East will respond, especially where an alliance with SPD and Greens will not be enough to elect a CDU prime minister against AfD and BSW.

What does the result of the European election mean for the Bundestag election in 2025? No less than 14 percent of the vote went to mini-parties that everybody knows will never cross the five percent threshold for representation in the Bundestag. Most of these votes in 2025 will go to larger parties. All in all, absent a major self-made disaster like in 2021 (perhaps an internal battle over Merz’s fire wall?), the Christian Democrats should emerge from the 2025 federal election as the biggest party, able to choose between two coalition partners: the Greens and the SPD; indications are of a preference for the latter, also because the best years of the Greens may be over (even though, unlike the SPD, they still need time to realise this). There are major state governments of either composition: CDU with the Greens in the largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and CDU with the SPD in the adjacent, prosperous state of Hesse. If need be, the FDP would be available to complete the majority, provided it ends up above five percent.

Depending on how the Christian Democrats will settle their eternal personal rivalries, the most likely Chancellor after Olaf Scholz will be Friedrich Merz. In the opposition there would be AfD and BSW, together with either the Greens or the SPD. For a progressive future perspective in German politics, it will be imperative that BSW manages to further break into the voter potentials of the SPD, the Greens and the AfD, to surpass the Greens or the SPD or both in the Bundestag. For this it will have to build a solid base also in West Germany, extending beyond the ruins of the Linkspartei and what has remained of the old peace movement.

[See also: The French left is rallying against the far right]

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