Some Comments on the 2017 German General Election

As you may know, Germany had a general election today. Angela Merkel’s CDU is still the strongest party, though they suffered significant losses. Her coalition partner SPD under Martin Schulz, former president of the European parliament, fell to only 20% of the vote. The Greens and the Left Party largely maintained their 2013 results, the pro-business liberal party FDP is back in parliament and – this is the really, really bad news – the rightwing extremist, nationalistic and xenophobic party AfD (short for “Alternative for Germany”) won 13% of the vote and is not just in parliament, but are also the third strongest party. There is an English language overview with liveblog here at Deutsche Welle.

Here are the election results for my district, Dieholz – Nienburg I, and also for my town. As you can see, the CDU won with a pretty significant majority (which is not a surprise – the CDU always wins our district). Axel Knoerig of the CDU won the direct vote for the third time. Again, this is not surprising, because the CDU always wins here and because Axel Knoerig does a good job for the region and its people. Coincidentally, Knoerig was also the only direct candidate in my district who sent out flyers explaining not just what the goals of his party are, but also what his political goals are and what he is planning to do for our region. And coincidentally, it’s notable that Knoerig’s personal results are much better than those for his party (we have two votes, one for a candidate and one for a party), because he does a good job and had a good campaign. However, and this is the sad thing, we also have between 8% and 9% AfD voters. The two Bremen voting districts bth went to SPD candidates, but then Bremen traditionally votes SPD, so any other result would have been a huge surprise. But the SPD lost only won narrowly in Bremen.

So what does this result mean for Germany? Angela Merkel will remain chancellor for another four years, though very likely in a different coalition government, since her former coalition partner SPD folded and more or less ran off. Currently, the most likeliest government seems to be a so-called Jamaica coalition. No, we’re not going to be ruled by Rastafarians (though that would be cool), but by a coalition of CDU, FDP and the Green Party. Deutsche Welle also offers an overview of German coalition shorthand, which can be confusing for people from countries with pure first past the post voting systems and the resulting two-parties and maybe a few scattered others parliaments these tend to result in.

I’d never have thought that I’d ever say this about any CDU chancellor, but Angela Merkel does a good job and I’m glad that she will remain Germany’s chancellor for the next four years. The German economy is doing well and the unemployment rate is the lowest since 1990 (pre-1990 values are not really comparable). Tax revenue is high and the budget is balanced. The last nuclear power stations will be shut down for good in the next few years and we are in the process of successfully switching to renewables. We have full marriage equality. Education is free from the primary to the university level. The German government has a good reputation abroad, especially since several other countries of global significance have fallen to rightwing populists and straight forward incompetents. And Angela Merkel is probably the first leading CDU politician who takes both the “Christian” bit in her party’s name as well as our constitution seriously and opened the country to those fleeing war and terrorism, against opposition from her own party. And coincidentally, the vast majority of refugees are eager to integrate, find jobs and restart their lives here. I should know, cause I taught German to some of them. And yes, Angela Merkel is skilled at changing her personal views in tune with wider social trends (nuclear power, of which she first was in favour and then voted to abolish) or at least getting out of the way (e.g. the marriage equality vote). But today’s Germany is a good place to live and a lot more open than it was twenty-five, twenty or even ten years ago. And coincidentally, I’ve heard quite a few people say, “Well, I don’t normally vote for the CDU, but I really like Angela Merkel.”

Are there problems in Germany? Of course, there are problems. We still have way too much poverty, though our poor are comparatively better of than the poor in the US (at least they have health insurance, unemployment and welfare benefits). Our police and intelligence services are not very good at identifying terrorists (both Neo-Nazis and Islamists and they don’t do a great job on violent leftwing extremists either) before they do harm and sometimes even after (NSU, anybody?), plus we have a few rightwing extremists in the police forces. Parts of the infrastructure (schools mainly, but also some roads and bridges) are crumbling and our school system is in need of an overhaul (though I don’t trust any party to do a good job with the school system). Too many people, particularly young people, have unstable temp and contract jobs. Gentrification is running rampant in certain big cities, pricing poorer people out of the housing market. We don’t have enough affordable social housing, because too little has been built in the past thirty years. The non-existing interest rate in the Eurozone makes it difficult to save money for retirement. The pension system requires an overhaul (and has required it for thirty years at least, though I have even less faith in the political parties here than with education). Internet connections, particularly in rural areas, are not nearly fast enough. Not all of these problems are Angela Merkel’s fault – indeed she inherited many of them from her predecessors, while others are the result of global forces beyond her control.

So what about the SPD, the big losers tonight? Now I like Martin Schulz. He did a good job as the president of the European parliament. Quitting that job in favour of national politics was not a very good idea, because now his legacy will be “The guy who gave the SPD its worst election result since 1945” rather than respected European politician and co-winner (sort of) of the Nobel Peace Prize. And indeed Martin Schulz should have stayed in Brussels and let Sigmar Gabriel captain the sinking ship SPD this year and held back until 2021. To be fair, Martin Schulz tried. However, he and the SPD failed and I for one can understand why. After all, the very social policies which Schulz attacked were implemented by his own party during the Schröder government. And let’s not forget that the SPD supported a change in the right to asylum in the 1990s (which was my personal red line) and that one SPD-led government voted in favour of a VAT hike also in the 1990s. If you want to be the party of social justice, that sort of track record doesn’t look good. Besides, if you look at the three SPD-led governments in (West) Germany, all three of some collapsed prematurely because the SPD chancellors threw the towel: Willy Brandt because one of his aides turned out to be an East German spy, Helmut Schmidt because of protests against the stationing of NATO nuclear weapons in West Germany and Gerhard Schröder because of protests against the cuts to welfare programs and social services his party initiated. Add to that that Martin Schulz also threw the towel earlier this evening and basically declared that he and his party want no part of a new German government and an image emerges of the SPD as a party that folds in the face of controversy and runs away like a little kid. Besides – and I suspect this is a factor for many women voters – the SPD steadily ignores the capable women in its ranks in favour of men. Whenever the SPD is looking for a new leader or a chancellor candidate, no woman even makes the shortlist, in spite of female SPD politicians doing good work as state prime ministers. Hell, the SPD even brought in Martin Schulz from Brussels rather than consider a woman. Voters – well, 87% of them – aren’t stupid. They notice such patterns. In general, I like the idea of the SPD much more than the reality and it has been that way at least since 1990.

The Green Party and the Left Party are what they are. They have a certain voter base and they have largely managed to mobilise that base, which is why their results are largely unchanged. The Greens are running out of topics, since other parties, including the CDU, adopted many of their positions. The Left Party seems to be moving towards xenophobic rhetoric of late, which I personally find deeply troubling. But then, it seems that they are determined to make the same mistakes that the SPD made 25 years ago by pandering to the prejudices (imagined or real) of working class voters rather than embracing the young urban left-leaning voters who’d love to vote for a leftwing alternative. And indeed in Bremen, the Left Party did best in some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the city, where many academics, students and self-employed people live. These are not voters you can retain with racist and xenophobic rhetoric.

The FDP is back in parliament after four years, largely due to their young head Christian Lindner and also because of votes by people who dislike Angela Merkel, but will not vote either for a left party nor for rightwing extremists (yes, there are protest voters who are not a disgrace). Now the FDP is frequently the butt of jokes and a lot of people really don’t like them, which I’ve never quite gotten. I also have to admit that I’m not quite objective with regards to the FDP, since my cousin is an FDP politician and member of the Bremen state parliament (visible in the background here). And I think that a certain FDP presence in parliament is good for German politics, just as the Greens and the Left Party (provided they drop the xenophobic rhetoric) are good in moderate doses, because they address issues the other parties ignore. And besides, I’d much rather have the FDP in parliament than the AfD.

Which brings us to the 13% of German voters – more in certain parts of East Germany – who voted for the AfD. Sorry to be so blunt, but those 13% are a disgrace. Yes, a lot of them claim they voted against Angela Merkel rather than for the AfD. And can even sympathise – after all, I was once very desperate to be rid of the neverending Kohl government and the leaden era it imposed on Germany myself. I also have no issue with protest voting – I’ve done it myself on one or two occasions, where I genuinely disliked both alternatives. However, you don’t protest vote for racists, xenophobes and outright Nazis. There were 42 parties running for German parliament, the overwhelming majority of whom were not rightwing xenophobes and Nazis. You want to protest? Fine: Vote for the Greens, the FDP, the Left Party, Die Partei (satirical party), the Pirate Party, the Anarchistic Pogo Party, the Party of Bible Believing Christians (okay, maybe not them), the Marxist Leninist Party (okay, maybe not them either), the Humanist Party, the Grey Party (for pensioners), the Urban Hip Hop Party, the Purple Party for spiritual politics, the Animal Welfare Party, etc… There’s plenty of choice. But if you vote for racists and outright Nazis, don’t be surprised if people call you a Nazi.

And it’s not as if people don’t know what the AfD stands for, since they’re not exactly shy about airing their noxious views. One of their leaders recently stated he wanted to dispose of a German-born SPD politician with Turkish roots in Anatolia, because she dared to say that there is no such thing as a single German culture beyond the German language and the constitution, just lots of different regional cultures (which is true BTW). The same guy said he is proud of the heroic German soldiers of WWII. He also claimed that most Germans would not want to live next door to football player and member of the German national team Jerome Boateng who happens to be black. Other AfD politicians have stated that they want no more holocaust rememberance, that the holocaust monument is a monument of shame, that they want our police forces to shoot illegal immigrants at the border, including women and children, and all sorts of other grisly things. One of their former leaders later deposed as being not radical enough wanted to institute Handmaid’s Tale like policies to raise the white and bio-German birthrate. The AfD is racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic (even though one of their leaders is a lesbian woman), anti-feminist and anti-European and it has never been any different.

The 13% of Germans who voted for the AfD are at the very least willing to overlook those views, even if they don’t personally share them (and I’m sure many of them do share them – indeed this article where AfD voters state why they voted like they did is brimming with racism, xenophobia and islamophobia). And when you look at one of the many “Wah, why won’t someone think of the poor white AfD voter!” pieces in the media, you’ll see a lot of people stating that they’re definitely not Nazis, but that they are scared of all those foreigners and Muslims and terrorists, even though they live in tiny villages where there are hardly any foreigners. They are scared of everybody who isn’t like them. They constantly claim that people are afraid to go out alone by night, when they themselves haven’t been outside after dark in decades. They hate refugees and immigrants, even though several of them were themselves refugees from East Prussia or Silesia after WWII, or East Germans who were themselves welcomed by West Germans in 1989/90 or Russians immigrants of German origin who were welcomed in Germany in the 1990s (though according to this article, the percentage of AfD voters among Russian immigrants isn’t that much higher than among the general population). In short, some of them once had welcoming hands extended to them (and also faced prejudice) and now want to pull up the ladder behind them. AfD voters believe every bit of fake news they come across, no matter how ridiculous, as long as it confirms their prejudices. These people also don’t get that not every party has to cater to their particular problems – and mind you, as a single childless self-employed woman absolutely no party caters to me either. In those “Wah, won’t someone think of the poor white AfD voter” reports, you get people screaming that refugees want to take their pensions (uhm, no, refugees are supported via taxes, while pensions are paid out of social security payments, i.e. a totally separate pot). You get people whining that the local kindergarten or the maternity ward of the local hospital in their shrinking villages are closing or that the local open air pool now closes at six, when it used to be open until eight (apparently, they have no idea that such decisions are made on the local level and not on the national level). Or – my personal favourite – the elderly woman who was interviewed at a Pegida ralley and complained that the local refugee home got a washing machine (probabyl shared between 20 to 30 people), but that she doesn’t get a free washing machine, she has to pay for it. Yeah, because you’re not poor (if she was, the state would pay for a washing machine, provided she needs a new one) and you haven’t lost everything in a war. You can buy your own fucking washing machine.

That’s the sort of person who votes for the AfD. Not those who actually are poor, but working and middle class white folks who are furious that someone somewhere might be getting something that they don’t get, even if it’s only the cheapest washing machine at Media Markt. In short, the same sort of people who supported the Sad/Rabid Puppies and Gamergate, who voted for Trump, Brexit, the Front National and other rightwing parties. Mediocre white people whose see their privilege eroding and fear they can’t make it without an artificial leg up. Here is a great interview with Holger Lengfeld, a sociologist from the Univsersity of Leipzig, who researched AfD voters and came to the conclusion that they haven’t so much fallen behind economically, but culturally. These people see that Germany is changing, that it is becoming more open, more tolerant, less straight, less white and less Christian, and that bothers them. Of course, absolutely no one is stopping them from living very conventional lives, if that’s what they want. But these people can no longer pretend that those who are different don’t exist. Even in small villages and rural towns, there are muslims and black people now who go to the same supermarkets and whose kids attend the same school. There are openly LGBT people. Sometimes, they have to tolerate people speaking different languages. And merely having to see and hear those who are different is too much for the delicate sensibilities of these folks.

Now I very well remember the supposed “golden” age those folks are missing. I remember what it was like to have to show your passport at every border and every airport. I remember what it was like to have to change the contents in your wallet at every border. I remember what a hassle it was and I don’t miss anything about it. I grew up in rural North West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. We had three TV stations, which mainly showed (bad) German made programming with the very occasional US TV series (and no movies younger than ten years). To watch a movie, go to theatre, listen to a concert, buy a record, buy a book or even buy anything but very basic food, you had to go to the next city. Want an English language books, a foreign newspaper, a superhero comic, decent basmati rice, curry powder, chili peppers, ramen noodles or indeed anything “foreign”? Maybe you can buy it in the city, but you’ll have to pay grossly inflated prices. And heaven help you if you couldn’t drive, because the last bus went at eight. I remember very well how stiffling and conformist and outright hostile to anything that was different the atmosphere was. Now I was different. I had seen a bit more of the world than my classmates and teachers. And I took my teachers by their word, when they told us to question everything, and did. I always got good grades, so they couldn’t get rid of me (which they tried with several other kids who didn’t fit in), but it was very clear that I didn’t belong there and wasn’t welcome. And the only reason I didn’t run screaming as soon as I could was because things gradually started getting better in the 1990s.

The AfD and the people who vote for them want to take us all back to that stiffling monocultural era with some kind of universal German culture, which never existed, just because they can’t hack the modern world. They also don’t care who they throw under the bus to get there. We are having a huge problem with rightwing extremism in Germany and not just outright terrorists like the NSU either. All over Germany, rightwing extremists are harrassing and threatening anybody who disagrees with them, whether people who work with refugees, pro-immigrant politicians, artists who dare to speak out against the right, scholars and academics (gender studies professors are targeted in particular) and even priests, which is particularly disgraceful considering these people are claiming they want to protect the Christian West. And now we have people like those sitting in our parliament, ready to spread their hate and venom there.

And yes, our media are at least partly at fault, because they kept giving a platform to rightwing and xenophobic views. The media gave a platform to people like Thilo Sarrazin, Claus Strunz, Henryk M. Broder (particularly sad, since he’s Jewish, i.e. a very likely target of rightwing extremists) and others, who may not support the AfD themselves, but promoted similar views and made them first sayable in public and then respectable. The media reported about the AfD, when they were still a tiny fringe party, and invited AfD politicians into talk shows. And no, they didn’t have to invite the AfD every time, especially since representatives of many of the smaller of the 42 parties running for German parliament never get invited either. And when the AfD and Pegida folks started calling the German media “Lügenpresse” (lying press), they didn’t double down, but changed their reporting to placate those who cannot be placated. Suddenly, reports about garden variety crime included the nationality of the suspect again, if they were not German (if the nationality is not mentioned, you can assume that they are German), something which was common well into the 1990s, but vanished in recent years. Journalists who didn’t give a damn about sexual harrassment when the perpetrators were white men suddenly felt the need to report about every incident where the perpetrator was not a white man. Meanwhile, positive reports about immigrants and refugees and those Germans who help them, which had been common throughout 2015, largely vanished from our media. Instead, we got the familiar flood of “Wah, won’t someone think of the poor widdle white AfD voter” opinion pieces that we also got after the Brexit vote and the US election. In the months before the election, there were some attempts to expose the racists inside the AfD, but it was too little too late. What is more, I don’t think it is a good idea in general to do opinion polls until one week before the elections or to have political talkshows and political comedy programs airing mere days before an election, something which wasn’t allowed in Germany until fairly recently.

So what’s the solution? Moving back towards the right clearly isn’t it, especially since the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU, which is very anti-immigrant, also suffered significant losses. And thankfully, Angela Merkel quietly removed most of the xenophobic conservatives from her party years ago, making the CDU electable for people who would never have considered voting for Helmut Kohl. The SPD running away like a little kid isn’t the solution either and indeed the party continues to disappoint. However, treating the AfD like a normal party or a transient phenomenon isn’t the solution either. Because they’re not a normal party and while I hope they will turn out to be a transient phenomenon, I fear they may not be. After all, the Greens and the Left Party were also once upon a time a transient phenomenon, the sort of party no one would ever form a government with, and now we have a Green (Winfried Kretschmann in Baden-Württemberg) and a Left (Bodo Ramelow in Thuringia) state prime minister. And while no one would form a government with the AfD on any level at the moment, there is no guarantee that this won’t happen in the future. There is also no guarantee that the AfD will vanish again like the Pirate Party (who actually filled a political niche) or other rightwing populist parties like the Schill Party in Hamburg or Arbeit für Bremen in Bremen or rightwing extremist parties like the Republikaner, the DVU or the NPD.

What needs to be done is fight the AfD by all democratically possible means both inside and outside parliament. It’s also necessary for people to speak up against noxious political views wherever they show up and not ignore the racist at the dinner table, because that’s just what Uncle Herbert is like. Let’s make it very clear that they don’t speak for the German people. Cause there’s 87% of us and 13% of them. The spontaneous anti-AfD protests that broke out in several German cities tonight are a good sign, but we need to remain wary and resist.

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