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The 'firewall' to Germany's far right is crumbling

Helen Whittle
July 23, 2023

As support for Germany's populist AfD is rising, some of its political opponents seem to be adopting far-right rhetoric in a bid to win over voters. But there are warnings that this can have the opposite effect.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz pictured in March 2023.
CDU leader Friedrich Merz has been accused of copying the far-right's populist rhetoricImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

During his candidacy for the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) leadership in November 2021, Friedrich Merz declared a firewall between the CDU and the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and threatened anyone who wanted to work with them with expulsion from the party.

But the 'firewall' against the far-right appears to be crumbling, on Sunday Merz said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF that it is okay to work with the far right at the local level.

If an AfD mayor is elected in a town or municipality, then  "it's natural that we have to look for ways to ensure that we can continue to work together in the city," Merz said, triggering heavy pushback also in his own party, which led him to again backpedal a day later. 

Last week, at a meeting of the two conservative parties — the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its regional Bavarian ally the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) —  CDU chairman Friedrich Merz described his center-right bloc as the "Alternative for Germany — with substance."

The remark also didn't go unnoticed by Alice Weidel, co-chair of the far-right populist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), who tweeted: "No matter how Mr. Merz bends, we remain the original."

When Friedrich Merz took over the chairmanship of the CDU in November 2021, he vowed to reposition his party successfully and slash the far-right populist AfD by half.

Eighteen months later, the AfD has doubled its support and is polling at 20% nationwide — second only to the conservative bloc, which hovers just under 30%, seemingly unable to benefit from disenchantment with the center-left government in Berlin.

In what is seen as blatant attempts to steal the far-right's thunder, Merz and other CDU/CSU politicians have been echoing far-right and anti-refugee rhetoric as they refocus on strengthening the economy and on law and order.

Markus Soeder (L) and Friedrich Merz holding hands and smiling at the CSU congress in Augsburg on October 29, 2022.
Markus Söder (l) and Friedrich Merz have been demonstrating unityImage: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Far-right rhetoric

Far-right populists capitalize on anti-refugee sentiment, as Germany has again seen a rise in refugee numbers with the arrival of over one million Ukrainians since the outbreak of the war.

In his Sunday interview, Merz also supported proposals from within his own party to reconsider the country's asylum laws. There was no question that Germany was a country that wanted to help in the world but "this aid must not be abused," said Merz, adding that it is currently being abused "hundreds of thousands of times over."

He said a "solution to the migration issue" would also have a side effect: "Then the AfD will also become smaller again," he said in a show of confidence.

Meanwhile, the Bavarian CSU's head, Markus Söder, who is seeking reelection in October, has been ramping up a full-on attack on the Green Party and their "wokeness."

Ahead of state elections in Bavaria in October, the CDU/CSU are courting conservative voters by increasingly adopting far-right talking points. 

'Copycat' rhetoric doesn't work

But this "copycat" tactic doesn't work, according to Werner Krause, a political scientist at the University of Potsdam and one of the authors of a study examining the strategies of mainstream parties and the success of the far right.

"There is this common wisdom saying that had mainstream parties been less progressive on migration there would be no radical right success," Krause told DW, pointing to the inner-party backlash against former CDU chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming approach towards hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa in 2015.

Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and expert on German national history, explains that under Angela Merkel's 16-year tenure, the CDU/CSU shifted from a socially conservative party firmly on the center-right of the political spectrum to a party resembling the Social Democratic party with left leanings, which created a political vacuum on the right.

"If you had any concerns about immigration, there wasn't really anywhere to vote," Hoyer told DW. "Right of [the CDU] there was nothing all the way to the AfD effectively."

 Supporters of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal (unseen) wave Spain's national flags and flares as they gather during an anti-government protest in Madrid, on November 27, 2022.
In Spain, a move towards hardline anti-immigration policies by the mainstream right parties has done nothing to stop the rise of the far-right Vox partyImage: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP

A European context

Across Europe, far-right anti-immigration parties have seen their fortunes rise. And mainstream parties have sought to adopt far-right rhetoric and hardline policies on immigration as a way to win back support. But the data from 12 European countries, some of it dating back to the 1970s, shows this is a losing strategy.

"Of course, if you go tough on immigration to some extent you legitimize the view and the policy agenda of the far right and, to put it in very simple terms, voters will observe this shift in mainstream party policy proposals but will still prefer the original to the copy," Krause said.

The latest example is Spain, where the move toward hardline anti-immigration policies by the mainstream right parties, the People's Party (PP) and Citizens (Ciudadanos), has done nothing to stop the rise of the far-right Vox party. 

Numerous studies show that once a far-right party becomes an established player in the electoral arena, it is very difficult to reduce their electoral support, according to political scientist Werner Krause. And he points out that when mainstream parties adopt more restrictive immigration policies, this tends to have an adverse effect as voters tend to defect to far-right parties.

"If we look at the far-right Golden Dawn in Greece, it suffered substantial electoral defeats after state authorities drew a direct link between the party leadership and right-wing extremist violence," Krause said. But that success was short-lived, "now there are three far-right parties in the Greek parliament."

The same is true in France, where Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), is now the most significant electoral force on the right, continuing to be the sole beneficiary of debates on identity and migration. 

An AfD demostration for energy security and protection from inflation.
'Ignored, labelled and ridiculed': The majority of the AfD's support comes from voters in former East GermanyImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Paying lip service is not enough

But anti-immigrant sentiment is just one element of a broader pattern, according to Katja Hoyer. Amid the cost-of-living crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic recovery and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rapid social and technological change and the ensuing culture wars, voters are angry about being ignored, labeled and ridiculed, she said, adding that this is particularly true in the eastern regions where there's comparatively high support for the AfD.

"Many say that they came onto the streets in 1989 to bring one dictatorship down, so they are not in the mood now to allow a state to tell them how to live their lives and what to do," Hoyer said, adding that mainstream parties should make more of an effort talk to people in these communities directly and combat the far-right with good policies, not inflammatory rhetoric.

In post-war West Germany, mainstream parties have either tried to be broad enough to accommodate far-right voters.

"I don't think parroting what the AfD does is the way forward," Hoyer said. "You can't carry on with politics as usual and then use the odd bit of language that you've picked up from the AfD and hope that that's going to make those problems disappear."

If mainstream politicians don't make a real effort to try and win people back, Hoyer believes voters will turn to the far right in even greater numbers and that could present a "genuine danger" to liberal democracy.

This article has been edited to add Friedrich Merz's comments made in a ZDF interview on July 23.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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