New right-wing parties face major obstacles in both Germany and the US | Americas | North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 21.09.2010

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New right-wing parties face major obstacles in both Germany and the US

While the Tea Party is gaining strength in the US, some conservatives in Germany question whether the ruling Christian Democrats are still conservative enough. Could new right-wing parties emerge in both countries?

Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell

A little-known Tea Party candidate has rocked the Republican establishment

The latest shock to the system came for the Republican Party in the name of Christine O'Donnell. Her stunning victory over the establishment-backed candidate in the Republican primary in the state of Delaware catapulted the Tea Party activist from obscurity into the limelight. On the same day, in the New York Republican primary, a Tea Party supporter also beat the candidate favored by the party hierarchy.

Their upsets, but also the growing public profile of a movement which has been supported by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck, signal a possible realignment within the conservative political spectrum of the United States. The Tea Party's success, according to a New York Times article, has left the White House mulling a possible ad campaign before the November midterm elections.

Meanwhile in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is also engaged in a discussion about its conservative profile after a number of high-profile conservative stalwarts have stepped down from public office recently. In addition, critics question whether the party which has liberalized its traditional stance on social policy in the past years can still serve as the political home for conservative voters.

Unlike most other advanced democracies, Germany and the US so far have only one mainstream conservative party. Could that change now with a new right-wing party emerging in both countries?

Economic loss

While Germany and the US share a segment of the electorate that is unhappy with the current situation and the political elite, the chances for a new party to the right of the center to profit from this malaise are vastly different, argue experts.

"What you have in these advanced industrial democracies is a general fear or sense of economic loss and I think this is very justified," Andrei Markovits, professor of comparative politics and German studies at the University of Michigan, told Deutsche Welle. "The response I may not agree with, but there is clearly a sense of that for the first time maybe the next generation will not be as well off as its parents."

Glenn Beck speaks at his 'Restoring Honor' rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

The Tea Party movement has been supported by Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck

However, below the surface of discontent with the conservative mainstream, the constituents of the Tea Party have a distinct background and motivation that sets them apart from the disenchanted conservatives in Germany, notes Thomas Poguntke, professor for comparative politics at Heinrich Heine University in Duesseldorf.

"I think the religious component of the Tea Party is a lot stronger than the religious component of the intra-conservative dissent in Germany. I would argue that the German debate within the Christian Democratic party has a lot to do with that the profile of the Christian parties in Germany has become a lot more unclear than it was in the past," he told Deutsche Welle.

Libertarian roots

What's more, says Stephen Silvia, a comparative politics expert at American University in Washington D.C., "the Tea Party is a party that is fundamentally a libertarian party. And when one looks at the German political landscape the party that is ideologically closest to the tea party is not the CDU, but the (free market-oriented liberal party - ed.) FDP."

While it appears at the moment that the Tea Party movement stands a much better chance than the disenfranchized German conservatives of having a concrete impact on politics and policies, the likelihood of the Tea Party becoming a unique political force in the US is next to none.

"In the Anglo-American so-called first-past-the-post system it is very difficult to create a successful third party," says Markovits. "In fact the American history is littered with the graveyard of so-called third parties."

Poguntke concurs that the US two-party system is so strongly entrenched in the way the political system works that the only viable option for dissenting voices is to work through the existing parties. He adds: "What the Tea Party movement is about is changing the Republican Party, pulling it further to the right."

"It seems to me that the Republican Party has a very serious issue on its hands, because it basically played with fire," says Markovits. "They are really the Sorceror's apprentice in that they played with it and then this suddenly became big and endangered the party itself."

Hurdles for new right-wing party in Germany

Due to Germany's electoral system of proportional representation, the structural hurdles for establishing a new party are lower as the rise of the Greens and Left Party has indicated.

But none of the experts interviewed by Deutsche Welle predicts the emergence of a national party right of the CDU in Germany.

Soldiers parade with torches

Critics argue that the CDU is devoid of conservative voices

The switch from a successful movement to a successful party is very difficult, says Markovits. "It's a totally different gig. Movements can talk, movements have phenomenal voice options, whether they have the same deed options in a very complex parliamentarian system is a completely different story. If you want to be a player, that's a very tall order."

What's more, says Poguntke, "there also is a stronger taboo to mobilize on the right in Germany as in most other European countries due to our Nazi past." In addition, he adds, until now the conservative parties in Germany have always been very clever to cover their right-wing flank.

"I think to a certain degree this debate in Germany is based on the partially false assumption that there is a huge electorate which is structurally very conservative," says Poguntke. There certainly are conservatives who don't feel at home in the CDU anymore, he contends. "But this portion of the population is not as big as it used to be."

For all those reasons, the experts view the battle over the soul of the Republican Party as the more interesting intra-conservative rumblings.

"The only chance is for the Republicans to walk this fine tight rope that they have to moderate and also try to keep these guys," says Markovits. "Whether they can do it, I actually doubt very much because at the moment I don't see a major Republican leader who could do it. Ronald Reagan could have."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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