The decision of Germany’s two centrist parties to formally discuss a renewed coalition offers a bright spotlight to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to lead the opposition in parliament.
The prospect of this nationalistic, anti-immigrant, and euro-skeptic party gaining such a prominent platform is becoming another issue for Social Democrats who are wary of joining with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a new government. But it is also a challenge for Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance as it seeks to protect its right flank, as well as for the three other parties in parliament who may be overshadowed by the extremist party.
Germany doesn’t have an official opposition leader like the one in Britain, with its two-party system. But as the biggest party in parliament that is not in the government, the AfD would have a number of perks – including more speaking time on the floor and chairmanship of the key budget committee. In general, it would enjoy greater prominence, inviting more news coverage and a chance to score points against the government.
AfD leaders mocked the would-be coalition’s desire to form a “stable and effective” government since it comes from precisely the two parties most penalized by voters.
The AfD has surged in popularity since its founding less than five years ago to enter parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent of the vote in last September’s national election and 94 seats in the lower house, the Bundestag. Leading the opposition would be a platform to reach out for even more support from voters turned off by yet another government stuck between the center-right and the center-left.
A new grand coalition stands for “more of the same,” says Matthias Quent, director of the Institute for Democracy and Society in Jena. “Moreover, there is no concrete indication how these parties want to address the large number of independent nonvoters who aren’t yet flirting with far-right politics,” Mr. Quent adds. The worry is that the AfD as the biggest opposition party will have the most success luring these potential voters, he says.
This concern was one of the reasons that Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz declared immediately after the September 24 election that the SPD would go into opposition. The party registered its lowest vote in the postwar period with just over 20 percent and needed to raise its profile in opposition, he felt. Only after Ms. Merkel failed to form a government with two smaller parties was Mr. Schulz persuaded to reconsider and enter talks for a new grand coalition.
But many in the SPD base, especially among younger party members, remain skeptical. They would prefer to push the party’s agenda by being free to challenge the government and debate in parliament – and to keep the AfD from having that privileged opposition spot. A special SPD convention on Sunday to vote on the blueprint for a new grand coalition will have to take that into consideration, but members are likely to bow to party leaders and go along with their plan.
In the meantime, AfD leaders gave a foretaste of how they would use the opposition role in their commentary on that blueprint. “The product of the grand coalition exploratory talks begins with a grotesque joke right in the preamble,” Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland said. They mocked the would-be coalition’s desire to form a “stable and effective” government since it comes from precisely the two parties most penalized by voters. Christian Democrats lost nearly 9 percentage points from their 2013 result, and the Social Democrats more than 5 points.
The two AfD leaders continued: “The losers simply keep going on the same path and want – no joke – to strengthen social cohesion and overcome divisions that have arisen.” The very divisions, Ms. Weidel and Mr. Gauland believe, that government policies have created. In particular, Ms. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to massive immigration and the government’s push in favor of European integration are two factors that led to a backlash in support of the AfD.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, himself a longtime leader of the SPD, urged Mr. Schulz to live up to his civic duty to take on the responsibility of government once earlier coalition talks collapsed. But SPD opponents of a new grand coalition see other ways of being responsible. “That can also be the role of leading the opposition,” says Frank Schwabe, a spokesman for a group of young, left-wing SPD deputies.
Even if Ms. Merkel gets her new coalition in the end, the resistance and debate has already cost her considerable support and led to speculation that she will not finish a full fourth term. The outgoing coalition with the center-left SPD exposed the right flank of the chancellor’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and even more so that of the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and led to their losses in the September vote.
Bavarian state elections, which are due sometime this fall, will show just how sensitive this is. The CSU, which has dominated state politics in the postwar period, risks falling well below a majority. The party polled only 44 percent in the September national election, down 10 points from its 2013 showing. Current opinion polls show the party at just 40 percent, while the AfD, which won 10.5 percent of the state vote in the September election, is holding steady at that level.
But the very success of the AfD may work against it. “It will be harder in coming elections,” says Mr. Quent, “to play the underdog and representative of the average citizen.” With its entry into the national parliament, and its almost certain entry into the Bavarian state parliament – German parties must get at least 5 percent of the vote to gain parliamentary representation – the AfD becomes part of the political establishment. It provides a vent for the latent authoritarian, nationalistic element in the electorate and will be less able to capitalize on their frustration, this analyst believes.
Even the role of leading opposition party may not help significantly, suggests Johannes Krause, a political scientist at the University of Kiel. If a new coalition just sits on its hands and creates the impression it hasn’t learned anything, then the AfD stands to benefit. But under the outgoing grand coalition, it was the Left party – the rump of the old East German Communist Party together with some SPD dissidents – that was the largest opposition party, and that helped them only marginally in the most recent election, Mr. Krause noted.
Like the AfD, the Left is considered too extreme by the other parties – the business-friendly Free Democrats and the environmentalist Greens as well as the CDU/CSU and SPD – to come into consideration as possible coalition partners.
Unlike the Left, however, which is a well-known quantity and lives from its legacy role in eastern Germany, the AfD has tapped into a potent backlash of nationalist feeling that has swept across Europe. As leading opposition party it will have a megaphone in terms of parliamentary debate, press coverage, television appearances and public awareness that may enable it to further extend its support.
Dietmar Neuerer covers politics for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected].