Germany Doesn’t Have a Playbook for a Nazi-Sympathizing Opposition
A far-right party has entered German parliament, with uncertain consequences for the country’s democracy.
In Germany, every public issue eventually manifests itself in soccer, the country’s obsessive pastime. The questions surrounding the entry of a far-right party in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, are no exception.
Since 1961, the federal legislature has fielded an amateur soccer team, FC Bundestag — a vehicle for exercise and recreation but also cross-party comity and international good will. The team, which plays other parliamentary teams across Europe, has always stuck to its bylaws of turning a blind eye to party affiliation. This held true when countercultural Greens entered the West German parliament in the 1980s — Joschka Fischer (a center forward) took the field alongside conservative Christian Democrats — and even after reunification with East Germany, when representatives of various iterations of socialist parties were accepted as worthy teammates.
But that openness, like many other norms of Bundestag life, is up in the air after the nationalist populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party entered parliament last fall with an astounding 12.6 percent of the vote, the first time that a far-right party has held seats in the postwar institution. The new Bundestag includes 92 AfD legislators, which would make it the largest opposition party if the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) weld together another grand coalition, which seems increasingly likely after preliminary talks were concluded successfully last week.
Even without a new government in place, the Bundestag has already met several times, and the subject of the AfD’s impact on Germany’s national politics, as well as how the mainstream parties will treat the Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant party, is on the front burner. The established parties are still grasping for answers to the unprecedented procedural question that will shape the coming parliamentary term: How can they remain true to their principled democratic contempt for their new right-wing extremist colleagues without inadvertently fanning the populist flames that fueled their ascent? Should they engage, or rather ostracize, their new far-right colleagues? In short: What’s the best strategy to limit the damage posed by the AfD to German democracy?
These are questions the AfD itself, depending on its behavior in parliament, will have some role in answering. What’s already clear is that as the country’s third-largest party, the party will be the most prominent face of the opposition in the event of a grand coalition. It will have, proportionately according to its vote share, more time granted to its speakers on the floor of parliament and a greater number of committee chairs and committee members than either the liberal Free Democrats, the Left, or the Greens — presumably the other opposition parties. Only the CDU/CSU and SPD groups will have more power in the Bundestag’s official forums.
Thus, the AfD will be represented on the secret services committee, the responsibilities of which include monitoring right-wing extremism, as well as the culture committee, which promotes the values, such as tolerance, instilled in Germany as a consequence of Nazi rule and its atrocities. Berlin-based Jewish groups are already protesting that the AfD have a place on the board of the foundation for the national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, despite the fact that the party bemoans Germany’s determined remembrance of the crimes of the Third Reich. Last year, a regional AfD leader snapped, “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”
Germany’s parliamentary committees are the gear house of its democracy, where the opposition can scrutinize the government’s work, debates its policies, and, using majority votes, modify or present official alternatives to bills. While the process of staffing the committees is currently at an early stage — their composition is as yet completely undetermined — the AfD will have members in every committee and head up at least two, perhaps three, of them.
How the AfD will approach its work in these committees — constructively or disruptively, radically or pragmatically — is another unknown. The party has taken various approaches in the regional legislatures in which it is represented, though generally the AfD has not had the policy expertise to make much of an impact at the committee level, often leaving seats vacant for months.
Vicious infighting has also paralyzed some of the party’s regional branches. A 2017 study by the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Research showed that the AfD had both temperate and extremist wings, which, although they both pushed subjects such as migration, security, and Islam in Germany to the fore, understood their democratic responsibilities differently. Much like the Greens of the 1980s, divided between pragmatic and fundamentalist factions, the AfD is split between hard-line völkisch nationalists who want to yank Germany off its postwar path, led by the likes of Alexander Gauland, and a group of Euroskeptic neoliberals who would be content with a more traditionally nationalistic, self-assertive Germany, which includes Gauland’s co-chair of the AfD Bundestag group, Alice Weidel. The former currently, though, has the upper hand.
“So far, it’s been the AfD’s better people, the more professional and astute members, speaking out [in the Bundestag],” says Niels Annen, an SPD parliamentarian. With a few notable exceptions, Annen says, the AfD has “done a reasonable job,” keeping blatantly xenophobic, neo-Nazi language to a minimum in the Bundestag itself. “But at some point the lesser talents in the second and third rows of the AfD ranks, and there are Nazis among them, are going to speak up too. And they’ll be on the committees. Over time they can’t hide their real character,” he told Foreign Policy.
Annen, though, doubts that the AfD will accomplish as much in the committees — where expertise is required and majority backing necessary for decisions — as it will during open parliamentary debate on the floor and through its brash use of social media. The AfD’s minor victories until now — which have helped raise its standing in polls by one percentage point since the election — have employed the Bundestag’s podium as a stage to ridicule the other parties. For instance, during a usually pro forma annual vote on adjusting parliament members’ salaries to cost of living increases, AfD members took the floor to accuse Bundestag members of padding their wallets at ordinary Germans’ expense, implying that they alone were prepared to make it public.
“They’re not talking to us but to their base when they claim we’re taking food out of the mouths of Germany’s poor,” says Annen, calling it grandstanding. “It’s immaterial to AfD voters that they didn’t propose to debate the salaries issue in our forums — they just hammered us with the cameras running. They avoid debates about detailed policies.”
Where the far-rightists will have a real opportunity, though probably infrequent, to swing German politics to the right is on controversial, traditionally conservative policy proposals. If Merkel tries to pass restrictive migration laws — laws that might not have the backing of her junior coalition partner, the SPD — she may need the AfD’s votes. The country’s conservative parties, the CDU/CSU and Free Democrats, don’t together have a majority — but they do with the AfD’s 92 votes. In such a hypothetical situation, the far-right would have leverage to alter policies to its liking – presuming the other parties are willing to cooperate with it.
That’s not strictly inconceivable, because at the moment, there’s no concord among the established parties when it comes to relations with the AfD in parliament — even when it comes to the soccer team.
The SPD’s Dirk Wiese, FC Bundestag’s co-captain, says the team is rooted in the German Constitution’s respect for civil liberties such as equality and thus rules out players with “right-wing nationalist, racist convictions.” The Greens’ Dieter Janecek, a right midfielder, counters that the team can’t ban the entire AfD — just as it can’t be kept off the Holocaust memorial board — but that explicitly racist AfD players were definitely persona non grata. Presumably this would thus exclude the AfD parliament member Jens Maier, who in a Jan. 2 tweet called the German tennis champion Boris Becker’s oldest son, whose mother is black, a “half-negro.”
Janecek offers no specific criteria as to exactly what constitutes racism and who would do the judging. But he did suggest a way to encourage some self-selection; perhaps, he says, the FC Bundestag should start playing under a banner proclaiming, “For refugee aid and against racism.” That might work on the pitch — but the same option won’t be available in the Bundestag.