Germany, famous for its cautious political culture, has long resisted the rise of populism. But with two regional elections approaching and far-right numbers at an all-time high, more parties, including mainstream parties, are exploiting populist rhetoric.
West Germany was one of the few countries in the world where the United States and its Western allies succeeded in imposing democracy. When communism collapsed 33 years ago, the East happily became a federal republic.
Since the Nazi regime, Germans have been painfully aware of the power of political discourse aimed at stoking fears and division. After all, Adolf Hitler did not rise to power through brutal force alone, but was carried by bourgeois and bourgeois citizens inflamed by his roaring speeches.
It is therefore not surprising that populist rhetoric and the presence of strong leaders have not been the mainstay of modern German politics. German political parties tend to be known for their Merkelian euphemisms rather than their inflammatory speeches.
But with the rise of the far-right AfD and under pressure from rising inflation, mass migration and looming climate protection impositions, this era of convenience – it seems – has ended.
The AfD, currently in second positionis the undisputed leader in poisoning the political landscape, raging against the “climate cult” and “sneaky” political opponents, and calling sea rescue NGOs “smuggling support squads” to every possible opportunity.
But Germany’s major parties have also recently lowered the standards of political debate. As the two regional elections on Sunday October 8 in Hesse and Bavaria approach, which will mark mini-mid-term elections, this figure has reached a new level.
Last week, the government party SPD (S&D) released a campaign video for the regional elections in Hesse, in which it presents itself as the only “vote for democracy” and insinuates that outgoing Prime Minister Boris Rhein (CDU/ PPE) had connections to the Hells Angels criminal motorcycle club. After a public outcry, the party withdrew it.
CDU leader Friedrich Merz, meanwhile, capitalized on prejudice against migrants, angry at the fact that new arrivals “sit at the doctor and have their teeth done while citizens Germans next door can’t get an appointment.
This is not the first time Merz has taken this route – he referred to migrant children as “little pashas” in January, implying that they would behave less well than their German peers.
Merz’s rival for the chancellorship, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU/PPE), has been campaigning for months against the Greens’ imaginary demands, such as an alleged obligation to use non-sexist language or a supposed ban on meat. (based on a single ministry offering less meat when organizing events).
Söder’s deputy, Hubert Aiwanger (FW/Renew Europe), facing serious accusations that he had circulated a pamphlet mocking the Holocaust when he was 17, was unwilling to provide full clarity or apologize.
Instead, he resorted to a Trump-style defense, deploring a “smear campaign” by the media and retracting answers he gave to interview questions before they could be published.
None of these events constitutes a huge scandal in itself, and to readers in other parts of Europe they might even seem like harmless everyday political fights. But for German political culture, the frequency of such affairs in such a short time marks a new low.
It has to do with leadership.
While the real problems have accumulated in the country, Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to have disappeared.
Many municipalities are overloaded with newly arrived migrants and many citizens cannot afford a heat pump in case their current heating fails. Companies face increasing paperwork and are unable to fill vacant positions. What is the Chancellor’s response?
In his last major press conference of the summer, he called for “more calm” and “more respect”, using almost the same words he used during his 2021 election campaign.
But the world has changed dramatically since 2021, and for someone not running for Chancellor but East For the chancellor, such rhetoric is not enough if it is not followed by concrete action by the government.
Scholz’s tripartite government, however, appears unable to act decisively, being divided on every policy issue, with coalition partners more concerned with their own image than getting things done – and thus giving ever more talking points to the populists.
It is very unlikely that an entire country can “calm down” on its own, especially if politicians do the opposite.
It’s high time for Scholz to see the writing on the wall, settle the differences within his coalition (or at least keep them behind closed doors) and focus on solving the problems. Germany needs it, and so does Europe.
Until now, German hearts are still won through hard work rather than cheap words. But keeping it that way will take a lot of work.
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Be careful with…
- Plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg from Monday to Thursday.
- Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski is visiting Greek regions affected by recent forest fires and floods on Thursday.
- Meeting of the European Political Community in Granada on Thursday.
- Informal meeting of heads of state or government in Grenada on Friday.
Opinions are those of the author
(Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald)