Compared with Donald Trump’s victory, the Brexit vote or even Marine Le Pen’s presidential bid in France, the results of Germany’s Sept. 24 election will be reassuringly boring. Chancellor Angela Merkel looks poised to continue her 12-year tenure. In the latest polls, her center-right Christian Democratic Union party leads with some 36 percent of the vote — far ahead of its closest challenger, the Social Democrats.
The biggest shock is likely to be when Alternative for Germany becomes the first ultranationalist party to enter Germany’s Parliament since the 1950s.
This is troubling enough. Alternative for Germany is a party of racists, climate-change deniers and demagogues who believe that Germany should stop atoning for its Nazi past. Its politicians have used slogans like “Germany for the Germans”; one of the party’s posters says: “Burqas? We like bikinis!”
With the party getting 8 percent to 12 percent support in polls, the German far right appears far more contained than its counterparts in neighboring Austria, Poland and France. However, to see the full threat of the far right in this election one must look beyond the poll numbers. Germany’s entire political landscape has shifted rightward.
Since its founding in 2013, Alternative for Germany has managed to enter 13 of 16 state parliaments. Every major party has lost votes to it. In the state election of Baden-Württemberg in 2016, for example, Alternative for Germany took 190,000 votes from the Christian Democrats, while in Saxony-Anhalt 10 percent of its support came from the left-wing party Die Linke (the Left). Even as Germany has seen a sizable drop in voter turnout in recent decades, the far-right party has managed to mobilize a huge number of previous nonvoters.
In an attempt to contain the party, the government and leading opposition parties have appealed to anti-immigrant sentiment, allowing Alternative for Germany’s ideology to insidiously shape German politics and media. This swing was on full display in a televised debate earlier this month when Ms. Merkel faced Martin Schultz, who leads the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, in a televised debate. More than a third of the discussion was dedicated to immigration — more specifically to the problems with it.
The moderators — all seasoned journalists — helped set an Islamophobic tone with leading questions like, “Do you see migration as a threat to German society?” and “Are immigrants from Muslim countries harder to integrate?” At one point, a moderator even asked, “When will these people be gone?” Both candidates attempted to reconcile humanitarianism with plans for a law-and-order crackdown. Both agreed that deportations should be accelerated.
Alternative for Germany was present that night despite its absence from the stage.
This may seem surprising for those who have come to see Germany as a haven for refugees and Ms. Merkel as the benevolent overseer of a “Willkommenskultur,” taking selfies with Syrian refugees and depicted as Mother Teresa on the cover of Der Spiegel.
But it wasn’t long until Ms. Merkel’s Willkommenskultur was replaced by a culture of deportation, thanks in part to the threat of the far right. In 2015, Alternative for Germany turned from a predominantly anti-European Union stance to an anti-immigration one. That September it reached a high of 16 percent support in a survey.
In December 2015, the chancellor announced that the government would “drastically decrease the number of people coming to us.” Ever the champion of realpolitik navigation, Ms. Merkel kept her promise. In 2016, only 280,000 people sought asylum, a decline directly related to policies introduced by Ms. Merkel’s coalition government, including a temporary ban on family reunification, cuts in cash benefits and the repatriation of asylum seekers, even to Afghanistan.
In March 2016, Germany facilitated a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees arriving in Europe that was widely condemned by human rights groups. In the coming parliamentary term, Ms. Merkel’s party hopes to designate Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as “safe countries of origin” to which refugees can be legally returned. The center-left Social Democratic Party has supported these policies, which are also prominently backed by Alternative for Germany.
Major German parties have leaned so far to the right ahead of this election that Alternative for Germany politicians have even criticized their opponents for copying them. When the Social Democrats presented their new platform in May, it included better protection of the European Union’s external borders, faster deportations of criminal foreigners and more police. Alexander Gauland, an Alternative for Germany candidate, complained that the Social Democrats were “stealing” his party’s positions “to distract from their own failure and to win over voters.”
It was not an Alternative for Germany politician but Christian Lindner, the leader of the pro-corporate, neoliberal Free Democratic Party, who this month gave an interview to the tabloid Bild that ran under the headline “All Refugees Must Go Back!” Syrian asylum seekers should have to leave Germany as soon as their home country is safe, Mr. Lindner said, and “there is no human right to choose your location on the globe.”
Even the left-wing parties have been infected.
The Green Party, long famous for its aversion to the police, is now calling for an increase in the number of officers. Winfried Kretschmann, the Green’s first premier of a federal state, advocates “faster deportations.” In May, another Green hard-liner, Boris Palmer, the mayor of Tübingen, posted on Facebook a picture of people identified as refugees who had been caught fare-dodging with the caption “Train rides have changed in the last few years.” Mr. Palmer recently published a book titled “We Can’t Help Everyone.” Both Mr. Palmer’s and Mr. Kretschmann’s positions are controversial within the Green Party, and yet they remain important figures.
Among the six main parties, Die Linke has upheld the most tolerant refugee policies. The party says it wants deportations to decline and seeks a “right to stay for everyone.” But its rhetoric hasn’t always been so tolerant. In 2016, Sahra Wagenknecht, Die Linke’s leader, declared that “not all the impoverished and poor of the world can come to us.” She also blamed Ms. Merkel for the terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Berlin last year, citing “uncontrolled border opening.”
This is no accident. Die Linke has been hemorrhaging voters to Alternative for Germany, especially in eastern Germany, where both unemployment and resentment of the political elite is much higher.
In January, in the eastern city of Dresden, Björn Höcke, the leader of the Alternative for Germany’s chapter in the state of Thuringia, gave an inflammatory speech calling for Germany to do a “180-degree turn in our policy of memory.” Mr. Höcke said that “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital,” referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
As the party’s leader Alice Weidel put it, Alternative for Germany wants to throw political correctness “in the ash heap of history.” The discourse ahead of this months’ election suggests that the fire is already well stoked.
Before each election, the Federal Center for Civic Education releases the “Vote-o-Mat,” a questionnaire meant to help voters identify the parties most closely aligned with their views. This year’s added a new question: Should the Holocaust be an essential part of Germany’s commemorative culture? The addition, for decades unthinkable, speaks volumes about the influence of the far right, veiled by the calm of a predictable election.
Lukas Hemsmeier is a journalist.