Germany’s future will be populist

The AfD’s success in the EU elections is a stunning rebuke to the establishment.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics Politics World

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In Germany, there is a saying that ‘Wahltag ist Zahltag’ – election day is payday, or the parties will reap what they have sown. This is precisely what happened to the three ruling parties in last week’s European Parliament elections. Germans have cast a massive vote of no confidence in their government.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD), came third with a meagre 13.9 per cent of the vote. The Greens, the second party of the government coalition, were the biggest losers. Their vote share – 11.9 per cent – was a remarkable 8.6 percentage points lower than in the 2019 election.

Perhaps the most brutal humiliation for the government, though, has been the massive gains of the right-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD came in second place, with almost 16 per cent (a gain of nearly five points since 2019). That makes the AfD stronger than any of the governing parties.

It is unlikely that the coalition, already weak and unpopular, will be able to recover from this shock. Scholz himself appeared to be in a kind of stupor on election night. He showed up at SPD headquarters, took some selfies with his few remaining supporters and then rejected all requests for comment from the media.

In the past, the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) would have been the biggest beneficiary from the massive losses of the ruling parties. But although the centre-right CDU came first, with 30 per cent, last week’s result was only slightly better (by 1.1 percentage points) than at the last EU elections five years ago.

What we are seeing here is more than just a normal expression of discontent with an unpopular incumbent government. Millions chose to vote for the AfD, despite all the urgent warnings from the establishment – and despite the party being dogged by a series of genuinely shocking scandals. Clearly, the AfD is seen as the lesser evil by an increasing number of Germans. Voters are thoroughly fed up with the woke and green agendas that have been imposed on them by both the current coalition and former CDU government alike.

What has rattled the mainstream parties most is the fact that the younger generation is turning against them, too. More and more young voters are becoming part of the anti-establishment revolt.

For years, the Greens and the SPD have campaigned to lower the voting age to 16. This year, 16- and 17-year-olds in Germany were able to vote in EU elections for the first time. The idea was, of course, that the left-leaning, ‘progressive’ parties would benefit most from this. The long-running Fridays for Future climate strikes were taken as proof that green ideology and identity politics would uniformly appeal to younger generations. The AfD, on the other hand, was presented as a party for embittered, irrational older people. As it turns out, it was the establishment that was out of touch with the youth.

The CDU was the first choice among voters aged between 16 and 24. But the AfD followed closely in second place, with a vote share of 16 per cent. Meanwhile, the Greens suffered a shocking loss of 23 percentage points among young voters, compared with 2019.

The CDU has, at least, read the writing on the wall and is eager to ditch the green, woke legacy left by former CDU chancellor Angela Merkel. The party is now pro-nuclear again, it demands more restrictions on illegal immigration and has promised to overturn the decision to phase out petrol-fuelled cars. It has also voiced some cautious criticism of the EU’s Green Deal. This is a wise move, given that only 14 per cent of voters see climate change as a top priority.

The EU election has, however, shown that these half-measures are not enough for the CDU to regain mass appeal. In 2018, before he became party leader, Friedrich Merz vowed to cut the AfD’s vote share in half – a promise he has long since dropped. As it stands, only 39 per cent believe a CDU government could solve Germany’s problems better than the current, deeply unpopular red-green coalition.

With state elections in the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg coming up soon, the establishment is getting nervous. Nevertheless, it is clear that the losing parties are incapable of learning anything from the beating they just received. In a televised debate on Sunday evening, SPD chief Lars Klingbeil denounced the AfD as Nazis. The Greens reiterated their call to have the AfD banned. Green MP Till Steffen said in an interview on Sunday that the government’s failure to crack down on the far right could prove fatal for it. It never once seemed to occur to him how absurd it would be for the losers of an election to try to ban a more popular party.

Once again, the German establishment is refusing to take voters seriously. This is precisely why so many people are turning towards the AfD in the first place. If the EU elections are any guide, then Germany’s future will be populist.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is spiked’s Germany correspondent.

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Topics Politics World


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