Germany has been thrown into political turmoil after the resignation of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, head of the ruling conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and designated successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The move stunned the political establishment and underlined the growing power and influence of the German far right.
On the surface, the resignation of Kramp-Karrenbauer, also known as AKK, is connected to her failure to command enough control over her party and deal with the fallout of the recent election in the German state of Thuringia, where a politician of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) was elected prime minister (and later stepped down amid massive protests) with the help of the CDU and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), in defiance of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s instructions to reject the racist and revisionist AfD.
But on a deeper level, the turmoil makes clear the fact that Germany’s postwar consensus is over. The foundation on which the country was built after 1945 was that fascists, responsible for starting a disastrous, genocidal war, would never again have influence in the country.
It was the job of conservatives such as the CDU to deliver on that promise. Their mission should have been to delegitimize the far-right platform entirely — but the events in Thuringia have put this into question, and the images of a victoriously happy Björn Höcke of the AfD, which propagates racism and xenophobia, point to a future where the AfD will hold considerable influence, at least on a state level.
The CDU had been seen as the party of stability for most of Germany’s postwar history, and in particular during Merkel’s 14-year reign.
But now Germany’s party structure is disintegrating, much like in France or other European countries, where traditional social-democratic and conservative parties are seeing their influence dwindle to illiberal political forces. But in Europe’s most powerful economy, this could have a outsize impact.
Germany’s old party structure was built around the idea that the Social Democrats (SPD), the traditional workers’ party, was supposed to reign in capitalism from the left, ameliorating its worst effects and elevating workers and workers’ rights within society. The CDU was tasked to counter capitalism’s centrifugal powers from the right; the social-market economy it promised was designed to balance individual freedom and governmental responsibility, and did so successfully for many decades.
The new landscape is more complicated: There is a distinct dearth of ideas from the traditional left and right on how to deal with pronounced inequality from the more catastrophic scenarios produced by climate change. There’s also a lack of charismatic and talented figures in both the SPD and CDU, and that, combined with major economic and demographic shifts, has contributed to the dismantling of the traditional forces of stability.
The decline of the SPD has been covered for an agonizingly long time, while the existential threat of the conservative crisis has been largely overlooked. This crisis has parallels to the opportunistic forces that have reshaped the the Republican and Tory parties in the United States and in the United Kingdom, respectively; both radicalized from within due to a lack of ideas on how a constructive conservative position might look like that does not cater to nativism and give in to market forces.
For Germany, this means the new political camps are sorted more along the lines of the surging Green party, currently polling nationally at 24 percent, making a Green chancellor more and more likely, and the AfD, polling at 9 percent, cornering the CDU and making it hard or impossible for a conservative government to be formed without a right-wing slant.
At the moment, the most plausible political option seems a future coalition of the Greens and the CDU, a new pact for stability combining the ecological agenda and a focus on the market. This could help stem the far-right tide.
But it would also not be a true agenda for change, leaving many of the systemic problems unresolved and the citizens discontented.
Georg Diez is a Berlin-based writer and journalist.