Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

Opinion

Following Austria's Kurz will not save German conservatives

  • An AfD election poster - 'The AfD delivers, what the CSU only promises' (Photo: EUobserver)

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the shooting star of Europe's political right, is in Berlin today and yesterday (June 12-13).

His official meeting with German counterpart Angela Merkel will cover questions of European policy – but outside the meeting rooms, his visit will serve to reignite a fundamental debate about the future of German politics.

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For many German conservatives, Kurz embodies everything they want their party to become once Merkel is gone, which likely will by 2021 at the latest.

They look with disdain at the way Merkel has moved the German Christian Democrats (CDU) into the political centre during the last decade, a decision many blame with creating the vacuum on the political right that is now being filled by the anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

Inspired by Kurz' success in Austria's 2017 general elections – where he led his conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) to the right and to victory – German conservatives now call for their party to 'reclaim the political right' and thereby push the AfD out of the Bundestag again.

As attractive as this approach may sound to some, it ultimately is flawed and short-sighted. It will neither be an electoral boon to German conservatives, nor a viable solution to the country's long-term challenges.

Although the AfD is often portrayed as simply a far-right party, it is more than that – it is increasingly a nativist and communitarian grouping, similar to the French Front National. On the basis of the national paradigm the party has managed to attract anti-globalist and also anti-liberal voters from both the right and the left.

In Germany's last federal elections, more than one million voters came to the AfD from centre-left SPD and far-left Die Linke. These voters are unlikely to ever have supported German conservatives, and thus can hardly be 'won back' by them.

The same may be said about most of the 1.4 million non-voters the AfD managed to mobilise in 2017.

While a shift to the right may help Merkel's CDU, and their sister party the Bavarian CSU, win back some of their former conservative voters, it surely will not be enough to push the AfD out of parliament.

There would also be a political cost, of course. Merkel managed to attract millions of centrist voters to the party during her (so far) thirteen-year reign, many of whom may abandon the party again once it shifts towards the right.

'Kurzian' recipe for CDU/AfD alliance?

Crucially, instead of leading to the declared goal of pushing the AfD out of the Bundestag, applying the Kurzian recipe to German conservative parties may instead ease their way into government.

While a CDU-AfD coalition so far remains unthinkable at the federal level, it is already being contemplated within CDU factions in some German states.

Further political convergence between the CDU and AfD may erode existing barriers even quicker. And the example of Kurz's coalition with the far-right Freedom Party shows that what once was a taboo and led to EU sanctions in 2000 is largely accepted today. It is not unlikely that we could see a similar "normalisation" process in Germany as well.

The AfD's success stems from a more fundamental dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

Its appeal is not only about simply proposing different policies but representing a different kind of politics. As the parliamentary arm of a broader far-right social movement, it mobilises voters by skilfully drawing on cultural narratives and challenging the very foundations of contemporary German identity and politics.

Thanks to a well-established alternative media network, and empowered by social media, a far-right counter culture has emerged whose supporters will not be won back without substantial concessions to their world view. And such concessions could embolden these supporters rather than attract them to the centre.

To deal with the rise of the AfD, German politics have to find broader solutions than just a move to the right and adoption of nativist narratives.

Instead of trying to turn back the clock, German conservatives need to regain a credible profile that connects to their political traditions and reinterprets them in the context of the 21st century.

This new profile has to be presented with verve.

It needs to address the social transitions and future challenges the AfD currently frames in a dystopian way with proactive visions and constructive solutions. It must not ignore legitimate concerns over the consequences of migration or societal change, but offer a positive narrative of the opportunities lying ahead.

It needs to be able to tell a story of change and hope, as lofty as that may sound, and ground it in concrete measures in the future. It is by following this drive for change and a different, new way of doing politics that Kurz could serve as a model.

The departure of Merkel by 2021 will offer the opportunity for a credible reorientation of German conservative politics. This must not be squandered by pandering to a regressive right-wing.

Julian Gopffarth is a PhD candidate at the LSE European Institute where he researches on nationalist ideologies and polarisation in contemporary German politics, Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at Open Europe, where his work focuses on EU-UK relations, German politics and EU reform.

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