German Right Underestimates Alternative Challenge

As long as Angela Merkel’s party sticks to the center, there will be space for a party on the right.

Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats seem to underestimate the political challenge the Euroskeptic Alternative für Deutschland party poses to them. This is not a fringe movement, as many in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party would like to believe. Rather, the Alternative threatens their monopoly on the political right.

Merkel’s hawkish finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble — whose hardline positions on the euro are really closer to the Alternative‘s than those of ardent European federalists — said the Euroskeptic party was a “disgrace for Germany” on Thursday. Merkel herself has altogether ignored the new party while other conservatives have been as dismissive as Schäuble.

Not all, however. Christian Bäumler of the Christian Democratic Employees’ Association recognizes that vilifying the party does little to persuade right-wing voters. “We have to counter the AfD politically,” he told the Handelsblatt newspaper, “when, as in the regional elections in Brandenburg, they represent xenophobic or nationalist positions.”

The Alternative took 12.2 percent of the vote in the Brandenburg state election last month. Earlier, it won 9.8 and 10.6 percent support in Saxony and Thuringia, respectively. And in May’s European Parliament elections, the party won seven seats and joined the European Conservatives and Reformists, now the third largest bloc.

The liberal Free Democrats, meanwhile — traditionally the Christian Democrats’ preferred coalition partners — failed to win any seats in the three most recent state elections. It was kicked out of the federal parliament last year after failing to cross the 5 percent election threshold.

The Alternative hasn’t simply taken the liberals’ place. It draws voters from across the political spectrum but mainly attract dissatisfied Christian Democrats.

The party also positions itself as a conservative alternative to Merkel’s. Since she became leader in 2000, the Christian Democrats have become rather less conservative. Rightwingers complain that on issues from energy to family policy, the chancellor has moved them to the center in order to compete with the Social Democrats — with whom they are now in coalition. When asked, polls show the average voter can’t quite tell the difference anymore between the two major parties.

This goes to a crisis in European Christian democracy Jan-Werner Müller identified in Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year. The Princeton University professor argued that the humanist ideals these parties championed while Western European countries secularized after World War II have simply triumphed. When communism in Eastern Europe collapsed, “much of the ideological glue that had held often fractious political coalitions together” vanished altogether.

Now the Christian Democrats’ goals are only marginally different from those of the Social Democrats. In Germany especially, the Soziale Marktwirtschaft — characterized by limited government involvement in the economy, flexible social protection schemes and wage compromises between employers and trade unions — is supported by all but those parties on the far ends of the political spectrum. The Christian Democrats don’t propose dismantling welfare; the Social Democrats hardly favor central planning anymore.

The traditional right could differentiate itself from the left on social issues but in a liberal and secular society, “Kulturkampf is risky,” according to Müller.

So is becoming too mainstream on social issues. This “creates political space for groups that present themselves as genuinely conservative,” such as the Alternative für Deutschland.

On the Alternative‘s signature issue — its opposition to the euro currency and European federalism — the Christian Democrats, too, are hard pressed to defend themselves. “Their politics of accommodation does not work as a response to the populists who thrive on polarization and identity politics.”

Hence smears such as Schäuble’s. His party has no alternative but to disparage the opposition. Some Christian Democrats might share the Alternative‘s Euroskepticism and its conservative instincts on social policy but if they accept its positions, they would surely surrender the political middle ground to the Social Democrats. But as long as they are stuck there, there will be space on the right for a truly conservative party.