Elephants in the Room
German Democracy Is Too Strong for the Far Right to Destroy
Germany appears to have resisted the siren song of the far right and far left and opted to stick with a known quantity.
With incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s win in Sunday’s federal elections — her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) alliance took approximately 32 percent of the vote — Germany appears to have resisted the siren song of the far right and far left and opted to stick with a known quantity. Whatever opinion one holds on the specifics of Merkel’s policies, it is reassuring that in a time of upheaval and attempts at Russian subversion, Germans have bet on a leader who has been perhaps the most stalwart defender of Europe’s postwar — and post-communist — democratic project.
On the surface, the performance of the radical, right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) reads like the story of the weekend. The party took 13.2 percent of the vote and will be in the parliament — the first time since World War II that this has happened — as the third-strongest party. Additionally, the radical left-wing Die Linke delivered almost the same result as in 2013.
These developments should by no means be understated. But despite the general mood of political upheaval, neither of these political forces ever had any hope of challenging for the lead in this crucial ballot. Moreover, the establishment Free Democrats and Greens both made gains in this election — gains that might propel them both into a much-discussed “Jamaica” coalition with Merkel as chancellor.
In other countries in Europe this year the results were far more radical. Austria, the Netherlands, and France all had worryingly close calls in their flirtation with far-right parties. In December 2016, Austria’s Freedom Party fell only seven percentage points short of winning the second-round elections for the presidency after driving the mainline center-left and center-right parties into fourth and fifth place, respectively, in the first round.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom appeared poised to win a majority of seats in the Dutch Second Chamber and finished second in the end. And in France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front placed a close second in the first round of the presidential elections, while the mainline center-left was destroyed and voters of the main center-right party were torn apart by corruption allegations and the influence of Russian meddling.
Yet in Germany — this year’s jewel in the crown of European elections — yesterday’s vote demonstrated that the country’s democracy is robust and resilient, and coping relatively well with regional and international challenges. Certainly, there was a significant protest vote out there — with large numbers of previous non-voters and other disaffected turning out for the AfD — but Merkel’s CDU/CSU actually took almost the very same percentage as eight years ago.
Let’s focus for a moment on what did not happen in this election. In contrast to France, Russian interference never seemed to take off with the German electorate. This is remarkable in light of the fact that it was the infamous “Lisa Case” in Berlin in January 2016 that first brought the seriousness of Moscow’s disinformation machine to the world’s attention.
The case involved a young Russian-German girl who claimed to have been raped by a group of Arab migrants, but quickly retracted the story. Despite the facts of the case, the Russian media and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov presented the story as an example of Merkel’s failure to protect her own people from a dangerous migrant population — a clever method of stoking tensions over a divisive issue in order to undermine the German government. It’s no coincidence that Merkel was the leading European proponent of imposing sanctions on Russia in response to the illegal invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.
After the Lisa Case, Merkel, her government, her intelligence agencies, and her party spent the next 18 months working to vaccinate the German electorate against further Russian interventions. Merkel spoke publicly about the fact that Moscow would attempt to influence the election. And Germany’s intelligence services further explained the problem for the public, noting the 2015 hack of the Bundestag’s computer systems.
This demonstrated that disinformation campaigns are much less likely to have an impact when the public knows they might be coming. According to a new poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in August, nearly half the population said they believed that Russia was somehow interfering in the election. However, the same survey shows that 61 percent were confident that German democracy was strong enough to resist those efforts, and it should be considered more of a nuisance than a threat.
It also helped that Germany’s media landscape is stable and trusted. According to the same poll, a majority of Germans believe that state-supported news broadcasters are generally fair and unbiased. Unlike their counterparts in other European countries, very few Germans go looking on the darker parts of the web for alternative sources of information.
This contrasts with previous International Republican Institute polls focused on identifying vulnerabilities to disinformation in Europe, which recorded worrying vulnerabilities in countries like Slovakia and Hungary. There, large blocks of the population receive the bulk of their news from “alternative outlets” or rely on friends and family — creating the kinds of echo chambers in which Russia’s fake news campaigns thrive.
So the question remains — why has Germany proven so resilient as a democracy?
For all its flaws and challenges, contemporary German democracy is in many ways a tremendous return on the investment the United States made with the Marshall Plan, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. Working with West German partners, the United States helped lay the groundwork for a country that had been devastated by Nazism to build a strong constitution, parliament, free media, independent judiciary, and multiparty system. After the collapse of communism in East Germany, the United States stood with Chancellor Helmut Kohl to implement the vision of a “Europe whole and free,” expanding democracy to former captive nations of the Soviet empire and ushering in a new era of European prosperity.
Of course, this project could not have succeeded without the commitment of the German people themselves, who spent seven decades rebuilding their country from the ground up. Party foundations like the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Hanns Seidel Foundation have been instrumental in that process, and today use their own experience to help transitioning democracies navigate the perils and opportunities of democratization. There was a day when the Greens were a revolutionary party — hardly the case today, as the party’s affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation works alongside all its counterparts in the establishment.
Germany’s election shows that hard work and investment in democratic institutions — combined with strong, levelheaded political leadership — pays off, and is a key source of inoculation against hostile disinformation and foreign meddling. It may not sell many television commercials or generate much clickbait, but at least in this case Germany’s election shows a democracy that’s able to take a few hits, but is built to last.
Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images
Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute and a former counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute. Twitter: @DCTwining