The Federal Chancellor’s image is currently used as the imagination of the liberal opposite pole in the free world to the right-wing populism of Donald Trump. And she has been in power since 2005, and could thus become as long serving Chancellor as Helmut Kohl (1980-1998). Her party, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) has maintained a double-digit lead over the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in opinion polling since the 2013 election. And although it seems quite clear that she will succeed in the upcoming elections on 24 September 2017, there are new factors in the German political landscape.
While in the past, the two historical political camps – Christian Conservatives and Social Democrats –were followed by the Liberals or the Greens, it’s now another party that looms to become third and thus impact political debates, the right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany). The party that was founded in 2013 and originally gathered not only right-wing people but also liberal economy-minded ones, clearly took a path to right-wing populism. While the AfD originally was a member of the Conservative’s parliamentary group in the European parliament, the ECR, one member today is member of the right-wing ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom), which has 40 members, amongst others from the Austrian FPÖ, the French Front National, and many other right-wing parties from nine countries.
While the party was still too new on the political scene to gain massive support in the last federal elections in 2013 and missed the 5% threshold by 0.3 percent, today the situation is completely different. In the meantime, the street protest movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West/Occident) had successfully mobilized thousands of people for a nationalist, right-wing program and disappeared again. According to a poll by The Economist, nine out of ten PEGIDA protesters would have backed the AfD. In the meantime, also the so-called refugee crisis had started and hundreds of thousands of refugees from war torn Syria and other places have arrived in Germany with Chancellor Merkel opening the borders of the Federal Republic and welcoming less than one million. All of this helped the AfD to enhance its profile. Today, the AfD has seats in 13 state parliaments, more than any nationalist political party had ever gained in Germany since the end of World War II. And the AfD, similarly to other successful Western European right-wing populist parties, tried to distance itself from anti-Semitism and focused on Muslims as the new enemies. This is one of the reasons why it gained much more support than the more old-fashioned NPD, the National Democratic Party of Germany, was ever able to attain. Similar to Trump’s supporters as well as the Pegida protesters in Germany of 2014 and 2015, most of the AfD-electorate is male and white. And they share especially one feeling: A concern that immigration and Islam destroy an imagined unified German culture.
Hence, stereotyping Muslims is central to the AfD. In May 2016, the party adopted a program arguing that “Islam is not part of Germany”. According to the AfD, Islam was not only incompatible with German legal and cultural values, the AfD also called for several restrictions of Muslim religious practice like. The “Islam is not part of Germany”-mantra had been widespread amongst many of the Social Democratic as well as Christian Democratic electorate, but was now represented by a party line. A focus was hence put on racism against Muslims. Raging against new immigrants, one sexist and racist slogan poster during the elections says ‘New Germans? We do them on our own,’ showing a pregnant white woman lying on a green site. Another poster shows three women in bikinis from the back under the slogan ‘Burka? We like Bikinis.’
Hence, in a brochure of the AfD entitled ‘Islam is not part of Germany’, some of the main messages include the ban of constructing mosques by foreign countries, the ban of building minarets and the ban of the call to prayer, the obligation to preach in German during Friday prayers, and the ban of the full face veil.
The AfD has gained representation in 13 of the 16 German state parliaments. According to most polls, the AfD is currently the third largest party with 11% of the votes, following the two old grand parties and would thus for the first time in its short history enter national parliament. Thus, it has not only received more representation in state parliaments than any other right-wing party before, but it is also the first right-wing party to have a real chance to enter national parliament.
But it would be naïve to believe that the rise of the AfD was the initial spark for Islamophobic populism in Germany. To give but one example: While Chancellor Merkel supported the slogan of ‘Islam is part of Germany’, this induced criticism within her own party. The parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder objected to the party leader and argued that Muslims should deliberate on the question why so many violent people refer to the Quran. Nothing was more revealing of this than the only TV debate, when the leaders of the two biggest parties, Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, went head to head during a live debate. The mere question by mainstream journalists, if Islam was part of Germany or not, can be seen as deeply reflecting Germany’s troubled relationship with race and othering religion. And the fact that Islam and immigration took a prominent place during the only TV debate between both candidates also reflects the centrality of the identity issue in Germany. But Merkel and Schulz both represent a political style of calm and practicality. They both responded in affirmation to the ‘Islam is part of Germany’ mantra and argued that most Muslims are well integrated into German society and contribute to the country’s success. But still, f.i. Merkel asked Muslims to make clearer in that ‘Islamist terrorism’ has nothing to do with Islam. Also Schulz declared that there must be something done against Muslim hate preachers. No wonder, white homegrown nationalist terrorism such as the NSU was not even worth discussing by the journalists.
Also, on a regional level, Islamophobic claims are regularly made by politicians of the centrist party, especially the Christian democrats. So has the parliamentary group leader of the CDU in Schleswig-Holstein argued that the German majority should not remove pork from the menu in preemptive obedience to (Muslim) minority, since eating pork was part of German tradition. Since the AfD not only wants to win over social democrats, but also Christian democrats, some leaders of the Christian democratic party may also want to enter the race for the most Islamophobic. Surely, a stable position of the AfD in the federal German parliament will create new possibilities, as has been the case for some time in other parliaments of European nation states.
Farid Hafez is political scientist at Salzburg University and Senior Research Fellow at Bridge Initiatve for Georgetown University.