Is ostracizing the Alternative for Germany really the best strategy? It is time for the country's establishment parties to reflect on why the right-wing populists have risen so rapidly, writes DW's Kay-Alexander Scholz.
During the last session of parliamentary debate in Germany's current legislative period, one question that occupied the press was where space could be found for the two extra parties that would presumably soon be entering the Bundestag. Things are already rather tight in the assembly hall, and space must be found for two new aisles to separate the incoming groups. Will the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) be seated in the middle? And the Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the far right? The joke was that only one large aisle would be needed because the other parties would squeeze together trying to get as far away from the AfD as possible.
The joke fits with the way establishment parties have been reacting to the rise of the AfD. They warn Germany's political culture could erode as a result of the far-right populists entering the country's lower house of parliament. Some are already demanding that AfD representatives be denied seats in parliamentary committees. And moves to that effect have already been made: Rules dictating the order of business have been changed to keep AfD parliamentarians from becoming committee chairs based on seniority. That decision provided far-right politicians with a healthy amount of campaign ammunition as they railed against the establishment and portrayed themselves as political victims.
'A vote is a vote!'
It is high time to remember that every party and every parliamentarian is a representative of the people who voted for them. Parliament belongs to no one party and nobody has the right to put themselves ahead of anyone else. Parties can be voted into parliament just as easily they can be voted out. None of them have lifetime appointments. Anything other than that would be a dictatorship, or at the least, political oligarchy.
Anyone looking beyond Germany's borders to Europe as a whole can easily see just how dynamic politics has become. The Socialists in France and Greece, once grand parties, are now floundering in the single digits. And Germany's democracy is breathing heavy, too: In the 1980s, when major parties refused to acknowledge the conflict between economics and the environment, the Green party came into existence. When the Social Democratic Party (SPD) abandoned its base with the Agenda 2010 program, the fledgling Left party gained traction nationwide. And when the FDP devolved into an unrecognizable neoliberal version of its former self, it was voted out of the Bundestag in 2013.
AfD is the product of political failure
Most of the establishment parties have bought into the concept that the best defense is a good offense, in order to make up for their own lack of substantive arguments against AfD. But in truth, they should be asking themselves what they did wrong over the last several years to set the stage for this rising new competitor. What political failures have made the AfD poised to become the third largest party in the Bundestag? The establishment parties refuse to accept any responsibility, preferring instead to simply go on the attack. But AfD voters are not crazy souls who must be brought back onto the path of political righteousness. Their voices are a testament to the failed policies pursued by the major parties. Many of the problems and concerns of Germany's citizens have simply been ignored.
Political experts continue to gloss over those failures, and the citizenry has reacted accordingly. Such experts have the audacity to describe wind turbines as romantic additions to the landscape, even though property owners are essentially expropriated. Who wants to buy a farm that is constantly subjected to the deafening whirl of a massive rotating turbine? Many also ignored the fact that globalization produces not only winners but also a lot of losers – even though this has been a topic of discussion in the United States for years, long before Donald Trump came along. And it is also worth remembering the democratic damage done by discussions about whether some citizens even had the right to voice their opinion.
Pride, dignity and calm are in order
The AfD will almost certainly win seats in the Bundestag, and it must be guaranteed the rights that other political parties in the body enjoy. Yet it must be made clear that it also has the same responsibilities. The AfD will have to learn just how tedious politics is, how much equanimity and compromise it demands. Should it fail in that regard, its base will no doubt take note. Several state parliaments have had experience dealing with old-fashioned, right-wing extremist parties or even populists before, as was the case in Hamburg in the early 2000s with the short-lived Party for a Rule of Law Offensive. Yet all of them are now gone.
This time, however, things could also turn out differently – the AfD could become an establishment party. Just as the "long-haired anarchists" of the Greens or the "communists" of the Left party did. But should the AfD further radicalize, then law enforcement and the courts will be called for.
It is time to learn from the mistakes of the past. Creeping polarization – the core competence of populists – must be stopped. But embarrassing overreactions and helpless flailing will do little to help. Instead, parliamentarians should be proud, dignified and coolheaded in working together with citizens to make a beautiful, internationally beloved and economically strong Germany fit for the future! For despite all of the difficulties and challenges, Germany today is already the best it has ever been.