Twilight of the Merkel?

Today’s interesting read is from Paul Hockenos, an expert on German politics, in the Nation.* Titled “Merkeldämmerung [Merkel-twilight]: The Transatlantic Right Has Germany’s Chancellor in Its Sights,” it focuses on the conflict between the anti-immigrant hard right, represented by Donald Trump, and Europe’s mainstream politicians, pre-eminent among them German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Like much that you find in the Nation, it’s absorbing but a little alarmist. While Merkel’s position is certainly difficult, I don’t actually think her internal enemies are (yet) serious about trying to overthrow her.

Nor are they yet ready to co-operate with the neo-fascists in Alternative for Germany (AfD). Hockenos says that AfD “now polls 16 percent nationally, up from the 2017 election’s spectacular 12.6 percent result, the absolute highest conceivable tally that any of us could fathom—at the time.” In fact, however, it was consistently polling close to 15% through much of 2016; its 2017 result was a comedown from earlier expectations.

But Hockenos makes important points about the way that the Trump administration has aligned itself with the European enemies of democracy and cosmopolitanism. His support for the far right is probably still less important than that given by Vladimir Putin (a point the Nation is disinclined to stress), but it’s catching up.

(In that context, readers might enjoy a recent poll from Monmouth University, which shows that “when asked to come up with the world leader who has the best relationship with Trump, 27% of the American public name Putin as that person” – far ahead of any other option. Only 1% nominated Merkel.)

One point, however, needs to be examined more carefully. At the end of the article, Hockenos claims “There is no evidence that an incumbent can win back voters from a populist outsider by accepting the outsider’s premises. Given the choice, the voters inclined to racism and conspiracy theory will vote for the real thing.”

Earlier, in reference to Bavaria, he says the strategy of moving rightwards is “In defiance of all evidence to the contrary (see Austria, Italy, and France)”.

I agree that it’s generally best for centre-right parties to resist the temptation of appeasement. But it’s not true to say that there’s no evidence that it sometimes works, as Hockenos’s own examples show.

At the beginning of 2017, Austria’s far right Freedom Party was recording a third of the vote in opinion polls. Then, in May, the centre-right chose a new leader who took his party to the right, particularly on immigration. The Freedom Party vote plunged, and at the election in October it managed only 26%.

Similarly in France: the National Front’s weakest period in recent years coincided with the ascendancy of Nicholas Sarkozy on the centre-right, who echoed many of its themes and stole some of its thunder. (John Howard did something similar in Australia with One Nation.) Conversely, a more moderate centre-right leadership in 2016-17 saw the far right scale unprecedented heights.

It’s not that the evidence is unequivocal; there are certainly other cases that point the opposite moral. (If political science was easy, everyone would be doing it.) But I don’t think we can rely the comfortable assurance that the centre-right’s self-interest will always point towards standing up for decency.


* Hat tip to Race Mathews for drawing it to my attention.


7 thoughts on “Twilight of the Merkel?

  1. The British Conservatives’ destruction of UKIP by moving significantly to the right to win back their voters is another example against Hockenos’s theory.


  2. Focussing on the extremists is not the relevant thing. They are merely symptoms not the cause. There are a whole series of problems facing the EU of which the refugee influx is only one (though admittedly one that is a lot worse directly because of Merkel’s unilateral action). Merkel may be good at winning (German) elections but she is not very good at solving these problems. And at her fourth term she is well beyond her sell-by date. In fact by virtue of her long reign she personally owns these problem. Many put Germany at the heart of, and the cause of, the biggest problems causing trouble in the EU. Just recently an economist repeated the suggestion that it is Germany who should withdraw from the Euro because it is the cause of the distortions.
    The best thing Germany could do for Europe is quit the single currency – but it won’t
    EU leaders are saddled with a mechanism that doesn’t work. There are ways to fix that, but not the will
    Larry Elliott, 6 June 2018.–stiglitz-2018-06
    Can the Euro Be Saved? Across the eurozone, political leaders are entering a state of paralysis: citizens want to remain in the EU, but they also want an end to austerity and the return of prosperity. So long as Germany tells them they can’t have both, there can be only one outcome: more pain, more suffering, more unemployment, and even slower growth.
    Joseph E. Stiglitz, 13 June 2018.

    Germany and the EU are in trouble if there is really no alternative to Merkel. I’m pretty sure that Macron, and Italy and Greece etc would agree.


    1. Thanks Michael – I agree and disagree. I think Merkel did the right thing on the refugee crisis, and I think you need to distinguish between austerity and stupid monetary policy. I strongly suspect the European Central Bank would continue to do stupid things quite independent of who was chancellor.
      But I agree that Merkel’s attitude to austerity hasn’t helped, and it’s definitely time to be preparing for some sort of transition. But not, one hopes, to someone like Seehofer. Once again I blame the Liberals – first for rejecting coalition with the SPD in 2005, and then for walking out on talks with the Greens last year. The parties of sanity and decency have overwhelming support between them, but they need to show that they can work together.


  3. The problem with any Anglo-American-Australian take on European political affairs is generally the lack of background knowledge of post-WW2 history and politics and how this still influences contemporary politics. Support for the AfD within Germany is estimated at around 20%, but that’s the upper limit. Grass roots movements are pushing back against the AfD and as this weekend’s party conference is demonstrating, the AfD has no policy position on any of the important social issues. And cracks are beginning to appear between those wanting to ape the American Republican no-government stance and those wanting to address the concerns of the average white German. And The current stupidity of the CSU can’t be reduced to the actions of Seehofer alone (he had a long and distinguished career in federal parliament once before) but need to be seen in the context of the CSU’s history and internal battles for power. German democracy remains healthy – much healthier than that in the Anglo-American-Australian realm


    1. Thanks Phillip – I think you’re probably right there. I can imagine the CDU/CSU knifing Merkel at some point, but even then only a handful of them would contemplate any sort of alliance with AfD. I might write something more about this in the morning.


  4. German democracy remains healthy – much healthier than that in the Anglo-American-Australian realm

    That’s not saying much these days.
    But what is important about German politics is its relevance to the EU. And it’s not good. With little sign the Germans, citizens and their politicians, know or care about the damage they are inflicting.

    As a 21+ year European resident I know I would be furious if the German chancellor acted so unilaterally, without either consulting or thinking about the impact of, that impetuous declaration on refugees, that didn’t represent any kind of solution to the problem and would simply make things worse, especially for those in the frontline and who can least cope.


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