Angela Merkel Helped Defeat Germany's Populist Far Right Without Appeasement

Her principled defense of liberal democracy held the German center together in the recent elections even in the face of losses by her own party

For some time, a consensus has been emerging among highbrow types on the left and the right in both Europe and America that the best way of defusing the populist wave sweeping their countries is by addressing populist discontents. The common man has commonsense concerns against foreigners, foreign trade and elite rule that we ignore at the peril of electing authoritarians with contempt for liberal democracy, they warn.

But the German elections last week in which the nativist right lost to centrist parties defending liberal democracy cast serious doubt on this view.

Purveyors of this school of thought on the right include President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, David Frum. And on the left, President Bill Clinton’s deputy assistant for domestic policy William Galston and the former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of Liberal Democrats. Frum and Galston have been staunch NeverTrumpers and Clegg one of the strongest defenders of liberal openness Britain has ever had. And yet, like demoralized interwar French generals, they now feel that trade and immigration need to be restricted to protect the white working class. Liberal democrats cannot disregard the concerns of ordinary folks who are watching their towns and lifestyles transformed by rapid demographic shifts, they say.  Frum, who was never a fan of liberal immigration policies, has gone so far as to declare that if liberal democrats won’t enforce borders and enact immigration restrictions, fascists will.  Clegg, meanwhile, has argued that had the European Union allowed Britain to prevent EU citizens from moving there, Brexit could have been avoided and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron should have made concessions.

But Merkel’s Christian Democratic party (CDU), along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), defied this advice. And if there is a lesson in last week’s German elections, it is that perhaps they didn’t defy it enough!

Merkel, who has announced that she is retiring from the job she has held since 2005, is also a staunch defender and leader of the European Union, an entity that populists regard as an affront to national sovereignty. She sent shock-waves across the world in 2015 when she threw open Germany’s doors to one million refugees, mostly Syrians escaping civil war but also Afghans and Iraqis. This would have been a bold move at any time but especially when nativist forces were gathering steam in Europe and America. Indeed, Brexit campaigners used images of refugees en route to Germany as an example of everything that had gone wrong in Europe.

It is true that her refugee policy caused a small and vocal German minority to storm off from her party to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right populist nationalist party. In fact, after the 2017 election, the AfD became the largest opposition party, thanks to the anti-refugee backlash, a series of small terrorist attacks and the fact that the CDU/CSU governed in a “grand-coalition” with the center-left SPD. This caused panicked CDU members to demand that Merkel to move to the right and stop the bleeding.  

But despite such internal pressure, she stood her ground and unflinchingly proceeded with her “wir schaffen das”—“we can do this” campaign to integrate the new refugees. It proved a big success.

Many Germans responded to her call, taking migrants into their homes, offering them training and jobs at their companies, playing sports with them, and spending their evenings teaching them German and other skills. As many as 55% of Germans have contributed financially or with their time and other resources. Business leaders portrayed these refugees not as charity cases but as an answer to relieving Germany’s worker shortage. The government launched a nation-wide program to teach refugees everything from basic skills to negotiating Germany’s complex licensing requirements to cultural assimilation.

Though the “we can do this” campaign might sound banal to American ears, in Germany’s hyper-low-key political discourse, it stood as a strong and defiant stand against extremist voices. In fact, Merkel used the pushback against her policies as an opportunity to make her case. Through her unequivocal statements defending liberal democracy, she mobilized Germans around her platform and marginalized far-right leaders. Last year, she even condemned legislators who relied on AfD’s support to elect a regional leader, calling the move “unforgivable” and a “bad day for democracy.”  Rather than sacrifice democratic principles to appeal to AfD voters, she defended those principles and consolidated her support in the political center.

Her retirement announcement ahead of the election severely affected her party’s election performance, which suffered heavy losses in the center. The CDU, along with the CSU, received merely 24.1 percent of the vote for a second place finish. CDU itself just got 18.9 percent of the vote, down 7.9 percentage points from 2017.

But the noteworthy thing is that the AfD was not the beneficiary of CDU’s losses. In fact, the CDU picked up some 80,000 AfD votes despite (or by) sticking to its centrist message. AfD racked up just over 10 percent of the total vote, roughly two percentage points less than in 2017— ending in fifth place.

The CDU’s losses were in the other direction to parties emphasizing even more openness. The CDU lost nearly three million votes to the Greens, center-left Social Democrats and the libertarian Free Democratic Party. None of them, unlike the AfD, slammed foreigners.  Green co-leader and Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock is staunchly pro-immigration and her party has even demanded that Germany take in refugees currently stranded in the Greek camps.  The FDP also wants to liberalize immigration law.

Interestingly, Die Linke, the extreme left party, which, like the AfD, rails against globalization and draws support from the former East Germany, obtained less than 5 percent of the German vote. This was down from 11.9 percent in 2009, easing fears that it would have a seat in the next coalition government.

The emergence of a national populist right has affected Germany’s politics, to be sure. It has made it difficult to assemble a broad coalition stretching rightwards from the center without exceptional leaders like Merkel. Hanging on to the center risks losing votes on the populist right, as the refugee backlash to Merkel shows, and moving to the right risks losing the center. But Merkel’s resolute centrism boosted her stature (she bows out as Germany’s most popular politician, with broad support across society). It also boosted the electoral prospects of centrist leaders on the left, such as the Social Democratic Party chief and likely next chancellor Olaf Scholz, allowing them to coalesce around a principled liberal democratic platform and marginalize the extremists on their side who want to close off Germany for their own reasons.

Has Germany reached a post-fascist, exceptionalist state that has built-in resistance to nativist populist messages that other countries don’t? Maybe. But what’s more likely is that Merkel’s savvy leadership and messaging undermined the nativist appeal.

She refused to accept Britain’s populist intellectual David Goodhart’s framing that the current political conflict is between globalized elites who see the world from “Anywhere” and the rooted patriots who see it from “Somewhere.” Instead of cowering behind protectionist drawbridges, she sold openness, pluralism, diversity and other liberal values to Germans in terms calculated to resonate with them.

It is not an easy trick to replicate, to be sure. But for leaders in other countries who care to defend liberal democracy and marginalize populist demagogues, the “beat them, don’t join them” model that Merkel leaves is worth studying and emulating.

Garvan Walshe is an entrepreneur and writer. He’s the founder of the media tech startup Article7 and co-founder of the Hungary election watchdog Unhack Democracy.

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