Populism and nationalist rhetoric has started to dominate the campaign ahead of elections in Germany.
A highly motivated, nationalist, anti-Islam, far-right party that wants to leave the EU and is hostile to migrants and wants Germany to side with Russia is predicted to enter the German parliament for the first time this month.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD), propelled by voters' anger towards Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy allowing over a million migrants to enter the country, is set to shock the political scene.
With debates revolving around populist discourse, little attention has been focused on other major issues such as the National Socialist Underground trial – a far-right group accused of a series of racist killings during the 2000s. Nor has much attention focused on the EU's future, the growing racism in society and a host of domestic issues.
The German political establishment has instead chosen to double down and is banking on far-right rhetoric to motivate voters. Increasingly mainstream parties are using language that targets minorities living, working — and even those born — in Germany.
Much has changed since the federal elections were last held in 2013. Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism — long suppressed in mainstream discourse — have become increasingly normalised.
Attacks on mosques, discrimination towards minorities, as well as far-right content on social media and elsewhere has not been seen at this level for decades. Moreover, the political campaigns of the major parties are fuelling the fire.
Whereas movements such as PEGIDA, which gave birth to the AfD party, were first and foremost in advocating an anti-EU policy, their discourse changed over time to anti-migration, targeting mainly oppressed Syrians fleeing the Assad regime. Anti-migration rhetoric then evolved into anti-Islam policies by directly targeting Muslims living in Germany.
AfD’s policies were condemned by some parties, NGOs and other institutions. Surprisingly, for some, the rise of the AfD was also a significant factor in regional elections. The momentum behind right-wing populist movements spans Le Pen in France, Wilders in Netherlands, Trump in the US, the Vienna-based Freedom Party in Austria and Brexit in the UK.
The success of some may have led to the success of others. Many commentators have suggested that because Le Pen and the Freedom Party in Austria were not able to win, it is proof that the populist tide has reached its high water mark but they are in fact lulling themselves into a false sense of security.
Le Pen basically doubled her father's vote share from 2002 both in number and as a percentage of the electorate. While the Freedom Party in Austria managed to garner more than 46 percent of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential elections. The trend clearly has an upward trajectory.
The communication strategy of right-wing populists has become increasingly media savvy. They have been able to connect with swathes of online users who — using the anonymity of the internet — have interacted with and absorbed right-wing content.
The ultimate aim of good political communication is to mobilise people to act. But at times this communication aims to bring fringe mentalities into the mainstream and into the political sphere, changing the very grounds of political discussion. This in many ways has been the foundational success of right-wing populism. They have, even without gaining political office, forced major political parties to borrow their rhetoric.
Looking at the major parties' webpages one can spot the similarities in language. The Social Democrats' (SPD ) slogan focuses on ‘equity,’ and the key term ‘future’ is at the epicentre of the Greens' (Die Grünen). The Left (Die Linke) is emphasising ‘social’ life for everybody as one can surmise from their political stance.
Interestingly, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU ) is accentuating a country in which people live well and happy (“For a Germany in which we live well and happily”) as if the CDU has not been the main ruling party since 2005.
These slogans all have one thing in common: all of them are proposing a brighter future, whereas each party is embracing and emphasising equity and justice. This would indicate a society that is concerned, disrupted and more importantly, anxious.
On the other hand, the AfD underlines that this election is about “our home, our culture, our Germany, our goals.” It summarises the rising concerns of the society which in fact is related to the identity policies of the government. Yet the Eurocentric perspective of the country is narrowing down to a German and nationalist mindset as in the pre-Cold War era. As a result, a more populist political landscape is on the horizon, as was observed in the televised debate between Merkel and SPD’s Schulz earlier this month.
With Germany and the EU facing a litany of issues — ranging from the yet unresolved refugee crisis, the EU’s future viability, National Socialist Underground killings, climate change, the rise of the far-right and Syria policy — the political establishment has chosen to focus on emotive topics focusing disproportionately on Turkey.
Yet, this again is the outcome of populist rhetoric to satisfy the public that Germany is not suffering under the refugee deal with Turkey.
As a consequence, Turkish President Erdogan called on Turks in Germany to not vote for the “enemies of Turkey.” As 64 percent of Turks in Germany were supporting the SPD and 12 percent the Greens in the 2013 election, Erdogan’s call is expected to have a negative impact, in particular on both parties as is already seen in the polls.
Evidently this ‘othering’ policy is a significant problem in German political debate. Instead of reducing discriminatory policies, more walls and barriers have been built within society. Even the curriculum of primary schools is imposing the hatred of certain politicians in young minds.
Populist rhetoric and racist narratives in Germany are in the ascendancy and until the German political establishment confronts it, re-emergent threats that hark back to the old days of a Germany long thought to have been laid to rest — the integration process in Germany will halt — with dangerous consequences for all.
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