By: Evan Myers, Staff Writer
On Oct. 14, Bavaria, a bundesland in Southern Germany, heads to the ballot box to elect a new state legislature, and it is almost certain that the CSU (Christian Social Union) — which has governed Bavaria since 1946 — will lose its absolute majority, largely due to the rise of the fringe political party known as AFD.
AFD (Alternative for Deutschland) is a far-right political party energized by anti-immigrant fever and euroscepticism: a lack of faith in the European Union and a desire to return to nationalist politics. Nearly one hundred years after the rise of another far-right radical political party in the Weimar Republic, the AFD’s popularity is a serious threat to the current political order in Bavaria, Germany, and Europe.
Let me be clear, AFD’s rise does not represent the return of the Nazis to prominence in German politics. It does, however, embody a trend across Europe of far-right parties who build support on platforms of paranoia and anti-immigrant sentiment. What’s more, AFD has become increasingly willing to give into the worst fear-mongering elements of the German far-right and work with organizations like Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).
The most radical of these elements were on display as recently as August of this year in the “Chemnitz Protests.” Chemnitz, a German city in Saxony where nearly a quarter of the population voted for AFD in the 2017 elections, was the site of a late night brawl in which a Cuban-German man, Daniel Hillig, was fatally stabbed. Among the suspects was Yousef Ibrahim Abdullah, an Iraqi immigrant. Accused of stabbing Hillig five times for no “justifiable reason,” Abdullah’s arrest warrant was released to the public in several newspapers just days after the fight, violating German privacy regulations and further provoking protestors. At the height of the unrest, 6,000 far-right protestors (including Neo-Nazis) encountered some 1,500 counter protestors as police struggled to control the situation. Eventually, the protests became violent and some far-right hooligans even harassed people that appeared to be non-Germans in the streets. The scenes from Chemnitz would be disturbing anywhere, but they are particularly frightening in Germany and eerily similar to communist-fascist street fighting that took place before WWII.
In the aftermath of Chemnitz, German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) issued a strong condemnation of the protests. Other German officials, however, hesitated to criticize the far-right. Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian CSU and German Minister of the Interior, has been quoted saying, “Migration is the mother of all problems… demonstrating doesn’t make you a Nazi.” In addition, Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of Germany’s domestic security agency, the BfV, has made accusations that videos of right wing protestors abusing foreigners had been falsified, invoking calls of “lügenpresse” or “fake news.”
Leaders reactions to the protests in Chemnitz are indicative of current trends in German politics. Known as “The Union,” Seehofer’s CSU and Merkel’s CDU have been historically inseparable. However, the recent rise of the AFD has polarized German politics and is testing their bond. Under pressure, the regional CSU has appeased the far-right, as seen in Seehoffer’s response to the Chemnitz protests. Merkel’s CDU, on the other hand, answers to a more national constituency and cannot afford to stray from the ideological center. Thus, the upcoming Bavarian elections will bring not only a new state legislature, but will act as a referendum on how the leaders of the CSU and CDU have dealt with current issues, especially immigration. If the CSU loses its majority — as is projected — leaders such as Seehoffer and Markus Söder, the CSU’s Minister President of Bavaria, could get the axe. If things do not change, Merkel May be soon to follow.
But why should you be concerned about state elections in Bavaria? It is quite possible that you are not concerned with your own state’s elections in the upcoming midterms. Sunday’s Bavarian elections, though, are especially important: they are the next installment in a series of European elections in which radical political parties have chipped away at the power of the mainstream. Whether it be the far-right Sweden Democrats, the Left Front in France or Germany’s own AFD — who currently has the third largest delegation in the Bundestag, the German federal parliament — new radical parties are building pressure and causing real change in Europe’s political atmosphere.
The United States is, without a doubt, undergoing a similar political transformation. Although the far left and far right parties may not have risen to prominence in the United States, there are deep, radical undercurrents in both the Democrat and the Republican parties that are dragging them away from center.
It is easy to blame the new polarized political climate on poor leadership or a lack of bipartisan compromise, but we should not be so quick to forget that our political climate always reflects public opinion. Politicians, though not perfect, are not entirely to blame for current issues. We must take a long hard look at ourselves too.
Bavaria’s elections are more than a referendum on CSU and CDU leaders or German politics; they are a referendum on humanity and how people respond to crises. If the AFD do as well as they are projected to, it will be a victory for populism and extremism in Europe. It may also mean many more Chemnitz to come. Something needs to change; and that change must begin not in Washington or Berlin, but in our own communities and culture — in towns like Chemnitz and Charlottesville.