Made it through another month

Now that Trump has outlasted William Henry Harrison as president of the United States, perhaps it’s time to publish here something I wrote elsewhere just a few days after the American election.

Germany’s next.

If there is any major leader who has Putin’s number, it is Merkel. A Clinton-Merkel tandem at the world’s top table would have made things exceptionally difficult for him. Half of that tandem is out of the picture, and Putin would clearly like to see off the other half as well. National elections here are next year (probably in mid- to late September).

We’re about to see a stress-test of Germany’s democratic institutions, and of the values that the postwar era has strengthened.

I’ve been following German politics since the mid-1980s (and rather more closely since moving here in 1998), and there has been a steady stream of far-right parties during that period: Republicans, Schill-Party, DVU, NPD, and now AfD. Typically, they arise at a local level, break through into one to three state governments and then fail to make it into the national parliament. After that, they fade a bit and their issues (and sometimes their voters) are latent until the next far-right party comes along to try again.

In this pattern, they tend to fail at the national level for three reasons. First, the center-right steals some of their positions and some of their rhetoric. I used to think this was awful; now I suspect that it is necessary. Second, incompetence and corruption take their toll. The people who lead revisionist parties are (typically) people who could not make it in the existing parties. Often times, that’s because they don’t know what they are doing. At other times, there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians; or a single leader will not delegate enough for the organization to flourish (splits in the new party also play a role). Political outsiders in the flush of their first power and fame often prove personally corrupt, and that is still a disqualifier in Germany. Third, the far-right parties fail to deliver what they promise, and their voters grow disillusioned. Sometimes what they promise is simply impossible; sometimes the status-quo parties work together to deny the far right any victories.

That’s the case for thinking that the latest iteration, AfD, will not go anywhere in next year’s national elections. There are some reasons for thinking otherwise.

1. There is a long-term loosening of affiliation with Germany’s major parties. The postwar threesome (social democrats, Christian democrats, and classical liberals) became a foursome with the breakthrough of the Greens in the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall eventually made it a fivesome, as the successors of the former ruling party in the East found a steady base of support in that region. Relatedly, voters in the East are more volatile in their support for parties. This follows the pattern of other post-communist states in Europe. Western discourse does not tend to consider Germany a post-communist country, and thus misses important aspects of how its politics work. (To be fair, western Germans, including much of its media establishment, also miss that fact.)

2. Merkel has been in office for a decade. Many parliamentary governments get a bit long in the tooth by that time. She could fall to an intra-party rival. Some voters will be ready enough for any change (especially in the East, as sketched above) that they will make their mark for the AfD.

3. Merkel’s clearest policy initiative was to accept around a million refugees in 2015. This was the right thing to do, but (1) the people most pleased by this initiative are not natural conservative voters, and (2) it is an issue tailor made for the far right to rally around.

4. The AfD is in nine of 16 state legislatures. That’s more than previous far-right parties have managed, and suggests that they may be overcoming the disorganization that outsider parties are prone to.

So. The Russian troll factories that were active during the US campaign are about to be hiring a lot of people who write reasonably well in German.

Putin has two conduits to meddle in the upcoming German election, the AfD, which will follow some of the approaches of the Trump campaign, and the Left (Die Linke), the successors to the former ruling party in East Germany, which still has a habit of deferring to the Kremlin. Both are useful. If the AfD gets into the national parliament and its share of seats is large enough, it can prevent the continuation of the grand coalition. (It’s still safe to assume that the conservatives will not go into coalition with the far right.) Three-party coalitions will not be strong governments, which is itself a win for the forces of instability, and some of the likely permutations are an outright win for Putin in terms of policy goals such as dropping the sanctions that were imposed when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

What are possible good outcomes?

Anything that returns Merkel as chancellor. Any result that brings the Free Democrats back in to parliament. I would say any result that keeps the AfD out of parliament, but they have been polling in the 10% to 12% range for more than a year, so that seems very unlikely. Any result that keeps the Left out of government. In decreasing order of desirability, those would be Grand Coalition (CDU-SPD), Brandt redux (SPD-FDP, extremely unlikely given poll strength), Jamaica (CDU-FDP-Green, named for the parties’ traditional colors), Traffic Light (SPD-FDP-Green) and Can the Center Hold (CDU-SPD-FDP-Green, i.e., all of the non-extremist parties).

Good luck to all of us. If anyone would like to explicate France, also due for a national election in 2017, I’d love to hear more.

Added in February: The entry of Martin Schulz as the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor has livened up the left side of the spectrum. This strikes me as generally a positive development. A good show (in several senses of the word) by the SPD will shore up support for the middle among some demographics that were tending to hive off to one of the extremes.

Also added in February: People I know involved in the production of German media are aware of the ways that Russian actors and Russian money are working to subvert electoral processes in Germany. They are not going to run gullibly with stories the way large US media ran with the Hillary e-mail stories.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

One thought on “Made it through another month

  1. I was actually trying to comment on your previous post, but couldn’t, so I migrated here. I was moved by the remark you made about digging up bombs in Germany from the last time people thought a Europe without institutions was a good idea, and that’s an analysis I hadn’t seen before — both in its direct link to catastrophic violence, and in its assertion that the way to prevent that kind of violence is institutional. It occurs to me that may be the most pernicious thing going on right now, on both sides of the water, this kind of visceral distrust of and disgust with institutional action. I see it in my far-left progressive friends (the new Puritans) with their revulsion for democracy’s imperfect and creaky institutions, and I see it in the populist right’s rejection of government action. I’m curious to know more from you about how you see this institutional angst playing out in Germany. Do you really see Putin playing the long game here, quietly unstringing the Euro-American institutions that constrain him? Or is this less Putin, and more cultural moment that he is taking advantage of. I am just newly disheartened at the assault on common institutions of governance from the right and the left in the country, and wanting to know more about what things are like over there. So go on, dishearten me some more.