German politicians must unite against neo-Nazis

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Germany is not in a good place. Europe’s strongest economy teeters on the edge of recession. Its once all-powerful chancellor, Angela Merkel has announced her departure by 2021 but there are serious doubts that she will complete what would be sixteen years in power. Not only are there questions over her health - she has had three bouts of violent shaking in public - but also her political power base is in danger.

This year a poll suggested that Merkel, known affectionately as “Mutti” (“Mummy”) still enjoyed a remarkable 67 percent popularity rating. This, however, is probably a reflection of the rising tide of anxiety among voters and illustrates the words of the English writer Hilaire Belloc who warned children “Be sure and always cling to nurse, for fear of finding something worse”. And Merkel’s potential successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded her as chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) last year, has so far turned in a distinctly lackluster performance. CDU leaders are beginning to doubt she could lead the party to victory in the next Bundestag elections in 2021.

The challenge is more than one of personality and political savvy. The center ground in German politics is crumbling. The once-dominant CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are losing support to the political periphery. On one side are the Greens with their strong environmentalist agenda. On the other the Alternative for Germany (AfD) with their openly racist and Islamophobic bile, which disturbingly echoes that of the Nazi party as it sought to clamber to power less than a century ago.

The marginally good news is that in two state elections last weekend in Saxony and Brandenburg in the former East Germany, the AfD failed to make the expected breakthrough. Some predictions had it that the neo-Nazis would win in Saxony. In the event, although their vote surged in both states, the CDU held them in second place even though its support dropped sharply. In Saxony, the AfD did only slightly less well in Brandenburg, the state which surrounds the capital Berlin. Even though state elections are not necessarily a reliable bellwether for the federal vote, had the AfD won either state it would have represented an alarming upset for Germany’s already wobbling political applecart.

The real problem is that at the weekend, the SPD saw its vote drop sharply in both states. They are the CDU’s partners in the governing coalition but are seeing their electoral support ebbing away. Some Socialist leaders believe that in order to save their party, they need to quit the government and try and put clear blue water between it and the CDU. Nevertheless, it is very likely that such a move would quickly precipitate a general election and the SDP would rightly worry they could not restore their fortunes in such a short time.

The one certainty in current German politics is that none of the other parties is prepared to entertain the idea of working with the AfD. Given that the electoral system virtually guarantees the need for coalition governments, the AfD seems blocked from power. But this cannot be taken for granted. In the face of hard economic times in which the neo-Nazis might thrive, decent German politicians need to put national before mere party interest.


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