Why the AfD’s threat to the open society should not be overstated

By Mag­a­li Mohr & Luuk Molthof.

When the coali­tion talks between the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens col­lapsed two weeks ago, there was at least one par­ty that rejoiced at the fail­ure of ‘Jamaica’. The right-wing pop­ulist Alter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD), excit­ed about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new vote, was hop­ing to improve last September’s results in a new elec­tion. Even if a new vote stays out, the AfD may still ben­e­fit from the recent devel­op­ments. If con­ver­sa­tions between the CDU/CSU and the SPD lead to anoth­er Grand Coali­tion, for instance, the AfD would become the main oppo­si­tion par­ty in the Bun­destag, increas­ing its sig­nif­i­cance in Ger­man pol­i­tics. Both sce­nar­ios – the AfD mak­ing elec­toral gains in a new vote and the AfD becom­ing the main oppo­si­tion par­ty in case of anoth­er Grand Coali­tion – are mak­ing Ger­man politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors very ner­vous indeed, lead­ing some to argue for the estab­lish­ment of a minor­i­ty gov­ern­ment.[1] A sim­i­lar unease was present last Sep­tem­ber, when the AfD secured 12,6% of the vote and suc­cess­ful­ly entered the Bun­destag, rais­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns among com­men­ta­tors about the poten­tial impli­ca­tions for the open soci­ety. How­ev­er, in this arti­cle, we argue that the AfD’s threat to the open soci­ety should not be exag­ger­at­ed. Although the recent rise of the AfD and its entry into the Ger­man Bun­destag pose new chal­lenges to Germany’s democ­ra­cy, we argue that, as long as there is an open pub­lic dis­cus­sion and engage­ment with the AfD and its elec­torate, Germany’s open soci­ety need not be undermined.

Six rea­sons why the AfD may not pose a threat to Germany’s open society

Chris­t­ian Social Union (CSU) patri­arch Franz Josef Strauß once famous­ly not­ed that “there must nev­er be a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly legit­i­mate par­ty right of the CSU”. It seems that, for a long time, the Ger­man elec­torate agreed with him. While in oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries, pop­ulist par­ties – such as the Dan­sk Folkepar­ti (DF) in Den­mark, the Par­tij voor de Vri­jheid (PVV) in the Nether­lands, and the Front Nation­al (FN) in France – grad­u­al­ly gained ground over the 2000s and 2010s, Ger­many long appeared resis­tant to the ‘pop­ulist surge’. How­ev­er, the Pegi­da-move­ment, the suc­cess­es of the AfD in sev­er­al state elec­tions, and the AfD’s elec­tion to the Bun­destag have shown that Ger­many is not immune to right-wing populism.

With its nation­al­is­tic and xeno­pho­bic rhetoric and stand­points, the AfD rails against cer­tain core prin­ci­ples of the open soci­ety, includ­ing free­dom of reli­gion and cul­tur­al plu­ral­ism. Its rise in pop­u­lar­i­ty has there­fore raised con­cerns among com­men­ta­tors about the future of the open soci­ety in Ger­many.[2] How­ev­er, the AfD’s threat to the open soci­ety should not be exag­ger­at­ed. Here are six rea­sons why.

1) The AfD clos­es a gap in Ger­man polit­i­cal representation

From a Euro­pean point of view, Ger­many is rather late to the par­ty. While right-wing pop­ulism — in this mag­ni­tude — is a rel­a­tive­ly new phe­nom­e­non in post-war Ger­many, many of Germany’s neigh­bours have faced its chal­lenges for more than a decade. The entry of a right-wing pop­ulist par­ty into the Bun­destag is arguably just the lat­est step in the grad­ual ‘nor­mal­i­sa­tion’ process Ger­many has been under­go­ing after reuni­fi­ca­tion. Right-wing pop­ulism, it appears, is now an inher­ent — though not nec­es­sar­i­ly dom­i­nant — fea­ture of mod­ern Euro­pean democracy.

Going a step fur­ther, one could claim that far-right polit­i­cal par­ties are a prod­uct of our open soci­eties. A cru­cial fea­ture of the open soci­ety is tol­er­ance for dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing. This means that even those who oppose core demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples should have a right to express and organ­ise them­selves. While far-right polit­i­cal par­ties pose new chal­lenges to our open soci­eties, as long as their griev­ances are expressed through demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly legit­i­mate means, their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the pub­lic debate does not nec­es­sar­i­ly under­mine the open soci­ety. In this con­text, the AfD’s entry into the Bun­destag could be seen as clos­ing a gap in Ger­man polit­i­cal representation.

2) AfD’s suc­cess not as impres­sive as it first seems

Con­sid­er­ing that Ger­many wel­comed more than one mil­lion refugees since 2015 and expe­ri­enced sev­er­al ter­ror­ist inci­dents since then, the AfD’s elec­toral feat last Sep­tem­ber may not be as impres­sive as it first seems. The AfD’s share of the vote (12,6%) still lies below that of many oth­er Euro­pean pop­ulist par­ties.[3] More­over, over the last year, the AfD’s sup­port dropped from 16% in Sep­tem­ber 2016 to 12,6% in September’s elec­tions. This means that the ter­ror­ist attack on Bre­itschei­d­platz in Berlin of Decem­ber 2016 did lit­tle to expand the AfD’s base. In oth­er words, while the Ger­man elec­tions were dom­i­nat­ed by the top­ic of immi­gra­tion, the AfD was only par­tial­ly able to cap­i­talise on this, sug­gest­ing that even in an envi­ron­ment prone to anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ments, a large major­i­ty of the Ger­man elec­torate remains com­mit­ted to cul­tur­al and reli­gious pluralism.

3) Sep­tem­ber elec­tion results not a vote against open soci­ety principles

Last Sep­tem­ber, in the con­text of increased con­cerns about immi­gra­tion and secu­ri­ty, the large major­i­ty of the Ger­man pub­lic, rather than turn­ing to closed bor­ders, more nation­al­ism, and less Europe, con­tin­ued to sup­port a tol­er­ant and open soci­ety. Of par­tic­u­lar note in this regard is Angela Merkel’s win. Although it is increas­ing­ly uncer­tain whether she will be able to serve a fourth term, the fact that she won September’s elec­tions is cer­tain­ly sig­nif­i­cant. Merkel’s deci­sion to open Germany’s bor­ders in the sum­mer of 2015 con­tributed to a wide­spread per­cep­tion of Ger­many as defend­er of human rights and demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and ulti­mate­ly lent Merkel her rep­u­ta­tion as the “lib­er­al West’s last defend­er”. Although Merkel’s CDU/CSU Fac­tion booked an 8,6% loss, the fact that Merkel won the elec­tions — and with a sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin -, despite her con­tro­ver­sial deci­sion to invite thou­sands of refugees, should leave us optimistic.

4) The AfD stim­u­lates the open soci­ety debate like no other

The open soci­ety and the val­ues per­tain­ing to it devel­oped into a key top­ic of the elec­tion campaign(s) last Sep­tem­ber – and not least because of the AfD. For all par­ties, the uphold­ing of the open soci­ety became a means to demar­cate them­selves from the AfD. As a result, the impor­tance of the open soci­ety in Ger­many is — direct­ly or indi­rect­ly — repeat­ed­ly men­tioned in all elec­toral pro­grammes [4], apart from that of the AfD. Sim­i­lar­ly, the open soci­ety, what it means, and where it should be head­ed became top­ics wide­ly dis­cussed by the pub­lic and media. Thus, by rail­ing against cer­tain core prin­ci­ples of the open soci­ety, the AfD actu­al­ly set in motion a pub­lic debate about its mean­ing and value.

5) Poten­tial for politi­ci­sa­tion and revived participation

This (unin­tend­ed) pos­i­tive effect of the AfD on the stim­u­la­tion of pub­lic debate may like­wise hold true for its entry into the Bun­destag. A study on the impact of the AfD’s entry into three of Germany’s Land­tage found that, while the cre­ation of con­flicts and provo­ca­tion by the AfD can ham­per par­lia­men­tary process­es, their pres­ence may also lead to a politi­ci­sa­tion and revi­tal­iza­tion of par­lia­ments. Sim­i­lar­ly, look­ing at the AfD’s elec­torate, the AfD may have a pos­i­tive impact on vot­er turnout. Through tar­get­ed cam­paign­ing and intense use of social media plat­forms, the AfD was able to mobilise 1.2 mil­lion non-vot­ers in their favour. Although this suc­cess is also indica­tive of the fail­ings of main­stream par­ties to reach out to vot­ers beyond their tra­di­tion­al elec­torate base, in terms of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion — a core pil­lar of the open soci­ety — pos­i­tive devel­op­ment is apparent.

6) Inte­gra­tive poten­tial of parliamentarism

Just as the AfD’s entry into the Bun­destag is like­ly to affect the par­lia­men­tary process, so too is it like­ly to affect the AfD itself. Through bureau­crat­ic process­es and an increased under­stand­ing of the work­ings of pol­i­tics, even rad­i­cal par­ties typ­i­cal­ly slow­ly become part of the “estab­lish­ment”. Here the evo­lu­tion of the Ger­man Green par­ty over the past 30 years is telling. Hav­ing emerged in the 1980s as left-wing, anti-cap­i­tal­ist and anti-bour­geois move­ment, strong­ly opposed to arma­ments and crit­i­cal of the sys­tem, the Greens now call for strong police forces. This social­i­sa­tion effect of par­lia­men­tar­i­an expe­ri­ence may well, if only grad­u­al­ly, like­wise have an impact on the AfD’s ori­en­ta­tion and its out­look on the demo­c­ra­t­ic process.

Safe­guard­ing the open soci­ety requires engagement

It is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict, at this point, whether the AfD will be able to cap­i­talise on the cur­rent coali­tion chaos. How­ev­er, inde­pen­dent of the devel­op­ments over the next weeks and months, the AfD looks like it is here to stay. In this blog we argued that while this new real­i­ty pos­es chal­lenges to Germany’s democ­ra­cy, the AfD’s threat to the open soci­ety in Ger­many should not be over­stat­ed. As long as there is an open pub­lic dis­cus­sion and engage­ment with the AfD and its elec­torate, the open soci­ety need not be under­mined. Since 13% of the Ger­man elec­torate vot­ed for the AfD it is impor­tant that its griev­ances are pub­licly dis­cussed rather than mere­ly dis­card­ed. It will be up to the oth­er par­ties, the media, and the pub­lic to safe­guard the open soci­ety and ensure the AfD does not “poi­son the con­tent of Germany’s polit­i­cal dis­course” by con­sis­tent­ly chal­leng­ing the AfD’s dis­course and that of those who repli­cate it.

This arti­cle is the first in a series of arti­cles about the meaning(s) of the open soci­ety in Europe, pub­lished as part of d|part and OSEPI’s joint action-research project “Voic­es on Values”.

The authors, Mag­a­li Mohr and Dr. Luuk Molthof, are Senior Research Fel­lows at d|part and con­duct research for the Voic­es on Val­ues project.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the authors.

[1] See for instance Mark Beise and Hans-Jochen Vogel.
[2] See for instance the com­ments by Daniel Erk, Elmar Theveßen, and Matthias Matthi­js & Erik Jones.

[3] For instance, the PVV received 13,1% in the last Dutch par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, the DF 21,1% in the last Dan­ish par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, and the FPÖ 26% in the last Aus­tri­an par­lia­men­tary elections.

[4] See SPD — ‘Zeit für mehr Gerechtigkeit’; CDU — ‘Für ein Deutsch­land in dem wir gut und gerne leben’; FDP — ‘Denken wir neu’; Die Linke — ‘Sozial. Gerecht. Frieden. Für alle — Die Zukun­ft, für die wir kämpfen!’; Bünd­nis 90 / Die Grü­nen — ‘Zukun­ft wird aus Mut gemacht’.

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