Germany’s rude political awakening

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Germans have long considered the blandness of their politics to be a virtue.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a man whose seeming automation earned him the sobriquet “Scholzomat,” was voted into office on an unspoken promise to keep German politics boring. He depicted himself as a guarantor of stability and as the natural heir to his predecessor, Angela Merkel, who reigned over Germany for 16 years while delivering equilibrium in increasingly volatile times.

But things haven’t worked out as planned for Scholz. German politics are now more fractious and charged than at any time in recent memory, with the country awash in protest and strikes, economic trouble brewing — and the German far right ascendant.

Germans tend to view America’s deeply polarized politics with horror. So many took note when, in response to recent angry farmer protests across the country, Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir of the Greens spoke of a “dangerous” urban-rural divide in German society that had the potential to produce “conditions like those” in the U.S.

“People no longer talk to each other,” he went on. “They no longer believe each other, and they accuse each other of all the evil in the world.” The goal, Özdemir concluded, must be to “keep the country together in the middle.”

Germany’s new landscape of strife arrives at a time of increasing global instability and the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency in the U.S., which could radically alter the security architecture Europe depends on. With the war in Ukraine and fears of a conflict with China over Taiwan, the EU may need Germany’s leadership more than at any point since the Cold War.

In other words: It’s a bad time for German politics to become dysfunctional.

The unraveling

Although Germany went through its share of turbulence during Merkel’s long tenure — the refugee and eurozone debt crises, for starters — her chancellorship was built on pragmatic centrism and political consensus, though many now see her constancy as a mask for complacency.

Under Merkel, with the U.S. guaranteeing Germany’s defense, the country managed to remain secure without being called upon to sacrifice. Cheap energy from Russia and unencumbered global trade helped keep German industry competitive; and despite the birth of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2013 — then as an anti-euro party — the notion it could grow so popular as to challenge for power seemed far-fetched.

Germans are now being rudely awoken from such pipe dreams.

The country’s leaders fear a second Trump term could leave Europe without American protection and leave Germany as Ukraine’s biggest military backer. Germany’s export-oriented economy, battered by high energy prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and myriad global trade disruptions, was the world’s worst-performing major economy last year, and with no rebound in sight looks destined for its first two-year recession since the early 2000s.

Merkel’s chancellorship was built on pragmatic centrism and political consensus, though many now see her constancy as a mask for complacency | Patricia de Melo/AFP via Getty Images

Germany’s economic woes have been compounded by a by a series of strikes by train drivers demanding shorter work hours, including a longest-ever six-day strike that has halted passenger and freight trains, further disrupting supply chains. A spokesperson for Germany’s state-owned railway operator called the action “a strike against the German economy.”

At the same time, trust is eroding in the ability of mainstream parties to tackle the country’s formidable problems. Germany’s left-leaning tripartite coalition government, beset by infighting and a budget crisis of its own making, is one of the least popular in Germany’s postwar history — just as Scholz is one of the least popular chancellors. Surveys show that popular trust in political institutions is falling precipitously: Only 13 percent of Germans now say they trust political parties, according to a recent poll.

‘Genie out of the bottle’

There’s no greater sign of Germany’s shrinking political center than the rise — and growing extremism— of the AfD.

In recent days, Germans who view the party as a grave danger to the republic have taken to the streets in massive demonstrations. The catalyst for the protests was a report detailing a clandestine gathering of right-wing extremists —including politicians from the AfD — at a hotel near Potsdam to discuss a “master plan” to deport foreigners and “unassimilated citizens.”

The report galvanized German society as little else has done since reunification, and drew condemnations from politicians and public figures from Scholz on down. In an interview, Hendrik Wüst, the Christian Democrat (CDU) premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, called the AfD a “Nazi party;” even the managers of Bundesliga football clubs chimed in.

“If you don’t rise up now, you haven’t understood anything,” Christian Streich, SC Freiburg’s 58-year-old coach, said at a pre-match press conference earlier this month. Wearing a somber expression as advertiser brand names flickered from a screen behind him, he added: “It’s five minutes before midnight. If you don’t understand that now … you didn’t learn anything from your history lessons at school.”

German leaders and mainstream politicians have embraced the mass demonstrations.

“Perhaps what we are now experiencing on the streets is a wake-up call to the democratic center,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview on German public television.

The key question now, however, is whether the belated uproar can halt the far right’s ascent. The AfD is polling at 21 percent nationally, down slightly since the protests began, but the party remains in second place behind the center-right alliance that includes the Christian Democratic Union.

In the regions of the former East Germany, where many of the AfD’s most extreme politicians are based and where three state elections will be held in September, the party continues to lead in the polls. Its core supporters, particularly in its eastern strongholds, are unlikely to defect despite the invocations of Germany’s appalling Nazi past.

The AfD’s continued high support suggests a deep divide that is making governing the country increasingly challenging | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even the mechanical Scholz, in an interview last week with German weekly Die Zeit, doesn’t believe the AfD’s support will melt away.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said.

The AfD’s continued high support suggests a deep divide that is making governing the country increasingly challenging. The political fragmentation is being compounded by the arrival of upstart populist parties, such as the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance, launched earlier this month by Wagenknecht, a former leftist icon, combining traditional left-wing stances with restrictive migration and asylum policies — and advocating closer ties to Moscow.

The party plans to compete in the June election to the European Parliament and in state elections in Germany’s east. Polls suggest it could be a formidable new political force in the country, further scrambling its political landscape.

Other protests

On a cold January day, thousands of farmers drove their tractors into Berlin and parked the vehicles along roads leading to the city center’s iconic monuments — the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column.

The farmers were ostensibly in town to protest a government plan to phase out tax breaks on diesel fuel for the agricultural sector — a cost-saving measure by the coalition in response the budget crisis — but the protests then morphed into a much broader movement of outrage.

One tractor parked near the Victory Column had a portable toilet strapped to its rear, with a placard stating: “Foreign policy is shit. Asylum policy is shit. Environmental policy is shit. Health policy is shit.”

Truckers also joined that day’s protest to demonstrate against toll hikes and carbon taxes. One flatbed truck among the tractors was decorated with a German flag that read: “Germany must come first.”

Far-right groups in Germany have attempted to co-opt the farmer protests — a phenomenon also seen in France, where demonstrating farmers have been blocking highways.

The protest in Berlin certainly seemed to have attracted more radical, anti-government malcontents. Two middle-aged men stood among the tractors and trucks, warming their hands over a fire pit they’d built on the side of the road. It wasn’t their first protest against the government, they said: They’d been to protests against Covid measures and against arms deliveries to Ukraine. Tax hikes on farmers and truckers, they said, were just the latest affront.

“The coalition government must go,” said one of the men, Martin Zühlke, who claimed to head an association of biogas plant owners from the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “When we look at the government’s policies, we see a lot of arrogance, ignorance and stupidity packed with ideology and still more stupidity.”

His companion, Thomas Strahl, who said he worked in a municipal office, delivered a far more extreme assessment — and one that went well beyond diesel — saying he’d been disturbed by the government’s arms shipments to Ukraine and by what he called its “Russophobia.”

“What they are doing today,” he said of the German government’s robust line against Russian aggression “it’s similar to what the Nazis did back then.”

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