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Germany: A Populist Dilemma and Encirclement by Russian Aggression

11 March, 2024

by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant

The spectre of populism is haunting Europe. The populist parties are surging around the whole continent, and Germany is not an exception. The support for the far right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) has risen significantly, which brings with it concerns about the sustainability of German democracy in the future. According to the various measurements of democracy, V-Dem in particular, a reunified Germany is mostly rated as highly democratic and considered a fully consolidated democracy and one of the worldwide titans of economic development. For a long time, Germany was introduced as an ample example of successful democratic consolidation after 28 years of division under contrasting political regimes. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was a tipping point for German society that posed an exceptionally uneasy task. Germany diligently tackled the responsibility of eradicating totalitarian institutions in the East and introducing democratic governance. It assisted in the unification of society and established a firm foundation for democratic flourishing, while also putting German democracy in jeopardy. This oxymoron can be explained by the fact that Germany was not indeed entirely equalised and unified after the Cold War.

German Economic Slowdown and Support for the Far Right

The lingering impact of the east-west divide has always been an interline of German politics. The ideas prevailing in Western Germany embodied the entire international image of a reunified Germany and shaped the new German identity. After the reunification, the political, economic and social systems of West Germany were rapidly extended to the  eastern part. The Ossi had no choice but to quickly accept the new, uncanny and foreign liberal values and get assimilated with them. It created a vision of Western Germany as a liberalising ‘big brother’ eternally leading the Eastern ‘lagging little brother’. It marginalised and spawned the inferiority complex among Easterners, which forced them to choose life in the Western part with more attractive opportunities. This influx of population under internal migration created a vicious cycle: the West was developing in a geometric progression, while the East remained in a deadlock. The Wessi’s initial initiative to take guardianship over Ossies turned out to be the constant pattern of German domestic political affairs. As a result, the East remained politically underrepresented and economically stagnant. Consequently, this lingering division can be demonstrated by the following numbers provided by Statista on the example of the year 2019:

  1. in 2019, there was a big gap between GDP per capita in East and West, constituting 43,449 euros in the West and 30,027 in the East;
  2. the unemployment rate is usually 20% higher in the East;
  3. in the West gross annual income stood out to be dominating over the East: 37, 844 euros contrasted to 31,347 euros.

As it was stated by Mounk, an expert on populism and author of “The People Vs. Democracy” to The New York Times,  Germany’s strength in resisting to populism after the 2008 financial crisis lied at the root of stable economic growth, which ensured unaffected equal distribution of resources that did not allow for the radicalisation of the political climate.

As is observable in data provided by V-Dem, the equal distribution index remained stable before and after 2008, whilst the moderate fluctuation started namely in 2013 – in  the year when the AfD was created. From this data it becomes apparent that the further decline of this index was closely tied to the German economic hardship, and hence the electoral success of AfD.  For example, in 2019 the German economy decreased by 0.1 percent between April and June, meeting the technical definition of a recession.  The times of economic hardship spawn greater polarisation of society that naturally creates  the demand for right-wing powers. The AfD experienced a significant increase in support during elections in two eastern states of Germany, constituting  27.5% in Saxony in 2019.

The German economic troubles amidst the impact of globalisation created a significant economic insecurity, growing Eurosceptisim and mistrust of the current government among its citizens. Accordingly, there is a correlation between economical challenges and the reinforcing of the far-right populists that voice instant radical solutions, creating an alternative for the current regime and engaging more electorate. The sentiment of the equality crisis, higher unemployment rates and economic slowdown in the East played into the AfD’s hands.  Far-right parties often exploit the economic anxiety and insecurity of the population  by blaming the policies of incumbent political elites. The moderate disparity between votes from the AfD ( 23.5%) and the incumbent party SPD (26.2%) in Brandenburg serve as an ample example of this tendency.

The Invisible Berlin Wall and the Identity Crisis

Above all, the West became a centre of decision-making for the entire country. Even though the easterner Angela Merkel was serving as Chancellor since 2005 and Joachim Gauck was holding the position of Federal President from 2012 to 2017, Eastern Germans remain underrepresented in political office. Hence, economic complexities, political underrepresentation decreased political support and approval of the government in the East that undermined the effectiveness and credibility of democracy in the entire country.

Thus the presence of the invisible Berlin Wall shaped a solid ground for the rise of populism. The fact that AfD has a larger popularity in the East signifies and highlights  unresolved inequality. What is more, this electoral pattern concerns both the younger and older generations that have witnessed the life behind the Berlin Wall with their own eyes. In fact, one in five voters born after 1991 voted for the AfD, who are said to have inherited an identity crisis due to the distinction between East and West and gained a self-perception as people contrasted to West Germany. The most recent opinion poll conducted by Infratest Dimap revealed that the AfD has garnered 20% voter support nationwide, positioning them as the second most influential political entity in Germany, trailing only the centre-right alliance of the Christian Democrat Union and Christian Social Union.

The secret behind AfD’s popularity is the ideological flexibility that allows them to catch public concerns at a specific time and exploit them in their favour. For example, their campaign starting with the slogan ‘The East Rises Up!’ marched in step with public moods in Eastern Germany that was a persistent underlying issue in the land. Hence, their further radical undemocratic stances originated from their initial approach to remind and emphasise the inferiority of Eastern Germany and fight for its flourishing.

Little attention was paid by the federal government to the inequality between the East and West, as the focus shifted towards more pressing global issues, such as the expansion of European values and addressing the migrant crisis. A “September fairy tale” emerged after Merkel’s bold words “We can do it!” initially ignited a wave of optimism across the nation about tackling the refugee crisis. However, it quickly outgrew into chaos given the frustration with the inadequate federal support and the overwhelming volume of refugees entering the country.

The attempts of the federal government to integrate migrants resulted in an ambiguous situation among Easterners. They did not feel themselves fully integrated into their own land, and the policy of refugee integration at the cost of the integration of ‘forgotten locals’ became the turning point for the high support for the AfD, who advocated for radical anti migration policies. A Social Democratic minister from Saxony P. Köpping gained popularity with a book titled “Integrate Us First!” that shaped the sentiment of Eastern Germans’ dissatisfaction with the current government and the quality of democracy they are subjected to. These individuals opposed liberal immigration policies and felt neglected in their own integration into the Federal Republic. As a result, the refugee crisis in 2015 was a milestone for AfD’s electoral success since the policy of this party reflected popular frustration.

Populist Dilemma: The Risk of Democratic Tyranny

The current political landscape of Germany is teeming with antidemocratic, xenophobic and Eurosceptic messages dictated by the AfD which calls itself a ‘major all-German party’ after state elections. It caused an opposing reaction among those backing democracy and believing in the high prospects of the European future. At the beginning of February 2024, the demands for the necessity of banning radical right-wing forces that spread hatred and polarized society echoed in the streets of Berlin. Approximately 150,000 citizens marched through nationwide demonstrations opposing the AfD.  It is important to note that the German constitution envisages the ban of political parties undermining democratic values. Such cases are known in history following the ban of the German Communist Party in 1956 and the prohibition of the Nazi successor party, SRP in 1952.

However, when it comes to the ban on AfD, one must be puzzled by the question of the legality of using this constitutional provision against the party that represents the political views of a third of the population. The motivation to preserve democracy by abolishing the neo-Nazi party would itself undermine the democratic values by distortion of the right for political pluralism. Given the substantial popular support for the right-wing political power, there is a risk that the banning of such forces would be supported by massive popular rebellion resulting in the strengthening and deterioration of antidemocratic stances.

The prospect of ‘democratic dictatorship’ poses a perplexing hurdle in the current political landscape of Europe.  There is an angst that rigid polarisation embracing opposing spectrums of political coordinates can result in violence. The populist dilemma is one of the most urgent and difficult challenges in the post-Cold War world order. The escalation of this struggle is in the air in Europe, with growing concerns that it might be fueled by the remaining authoritarian regimes. For them, the destabilization of Europe would prove advantageous for geopolitical reassertion and shift of the balance of power.

AFD and German Foreign Affairs

With regards to foreign affairs, the diplomatic course of Germany seems to be unaffected by the rise of populism. But it has its own nuances.

From one perspective, the leading party SPD sticks to its own course by not introducing restricting migration policies and welcoming more displaced persons from Ukraine contrary to AfD’s anti-migrant narratives. Germany has become the biggest recipient of Ukrainian refugees in Europe hosting 1.13 million people. However, the rise of anti-Ukrainian moods in Germany has facilitated recently, following the extreme case of murder of a Ukrainian basketball player in Düsserdorf allegedly motivated by national animosity.   Whilst there is not enough  evidence  revealed yet  to be able to assert the linkage between the latter crime and the rise of far-right populism, it is still  reasonable to state  that German hesitancy to arm Ukraine can be closely tied to the high popular  support for the far-right.  The growing ‘Ukraine Fatigue’  in Germany facilitates anti-Ukrainian moods not only among those nostalgic for the communism and sympathetic to Russia: there has been discussion of “Ukraine fatigue” among politicians and citizens of the EU, with many facing their own economic challenges amid a slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Apparently, this issue can deteriorate economic equality in Germany and hence create another sentiment for AfD to exploit. The AfD members and activists were identified as maintaining strong connections with Russian politicians and receiving financial advantages, as revealed in an investigation conducted by OCCRP into Russia’s International Agency for Current Policy.

Given the colossal support for AfD among the populace and anti-Ukrainian narratives among certain members of this party, the legitimacy of the current German government could be jeopardised. The greater engagement in the war with Russia may be result in an unprecedented public revolt and the ousting of a leading party. It places the federal government in a very ambiguous position: every decision made by the SPD in favour of Ukraine is like walking through a minefield. For example, initially Olaf Scholz supported the idea of the supplying Ukraine with the German-made Taurus long-range missiles.  However, domestic pressure made him change his mind: the Chancellor publicly opposed the shipment of Taurus long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine on Monday (26 February), expressing concerns about Germany’s potential entanglement in the war.

Political Encirclement by Russia Aggression

Russia receives clear benefits from the AfD’s success,  and this indicates the close affiliation between Russia and AfD. Factually, Russia remains in a win-win position as long as the high support for the AfD among the populace is kept afloat.

First, being aware of  the populists’ ability to quickly mobilise society by spreading manipulative messages, the leading  party SPD finds its hands  tied under the looming threat of public rebellion due to the extended support of Ukraine. In this case, the AfD’s potential for governance and Russian influence in Europe would be greatly enhanced. Moreover, it would create a domino effect for the reinforcing  far-right populist powers  in the neighbouring countries. Ukrainian ability to resist Russian aggression is highly dependent on the support of allies, and there is a high probability that the arms supply  to Ukraine will be decreased if not entirely  ceased in the countries conquered by far-right populist parties.  For example, it can strengthen La Pen’s National Rally party that has close ties with Putin in the neighboring France and thus bring Russia to geopolitical victory.

By supplying more arms to Ukraine, the German government is put at risk, which makes SPD leaders be more cautious and moderate in terms of supporting Ukraine militarily as compared to other NATO countries. This deadlock in the federal government hinders the supply of crucial  weapons  allowing Ukraine to start reclaiming the occupied territories. It enables Ukraine to keep only the defensive position, which helps Russia to win time for the troops regrouping, expanding weapons  production and strategic planning of further attacks.

Being encircled by Russian aggression, the incumbent German party is bearing double burden by attempting to secure its legitimate place in government and by safeguarding  democratic values in Europe by  helping to resist  Russian aggression against Ukraine. It underlines the necessity for the decisive combat  with the Russian regime and its puppets  that serve as the main threats to the peace in the post-Cold War world order.

Image: an anti-far right demonstration in Stuttgart, 20 January 2024 (cropped) (Source: Zinnmann via CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

About Oleksandra Zadesenets

Oleksandra Zadesenets is an undergraduate student at the University of Glasgow, where she is pursuing a degree in International Relations. During her recent internship with the School for Policy Analysis at NaUKMA, she co-authored an analytical article on the socio-cultural aspects of the transformational processes in Ukrainian society following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was presented at a scientific conference. Oleksandra's research interests cover a broad range of issues that shape international landscape. She is particularly drawn to the constructivist theory of international relations, and her area of research interest encompasses democratic transformations in post-Soviet countries, competitive authoritarian regimes, post-Cold War international affairs, closed autocracies, nationalist and dissident movements, human rights and human security, R2P, cultural diplomacy, war making and peace making.