Last week we looked at the shift towards the left in the German Social Democratic Party. Subsequent reports show the new leadership possibly having second thoughts about the wisdom of leaving the grand coalition, still pressing for a new policy direction but downplaying the threat of walking out if it’s not achieved.
But the SPD isn’t the only party embarking on a change in direction. Germany’s far right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), also had a leadership election a week ago, and it’s also being seen a shift to the left. But in AfD’s case that means moving towards the mainstream rather than away from it.
AfD has already undergone a number of ideological twists and turns in its short life. Founded in 2013 as a largely free-market Eurosceptic party, it achieved modest electoral success in its first two years. Then in 2015, as the refugee crisis became a major political issue, it lurched towards the far right with the election of Frauke Petry as leader.
Petry modeled herself after Marine Le Pen in France, and aimed to make AfD a powerful nationalist party. That produced solid gains, but she soon came under fire from forces further to the right, with their obsession with Islam and open flirtation with fascism.
In April 2107 Petry resigned (and subsequently left the party) when her program was rejected by the party’s congress. Jörg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland became joint leaders, with the support of the extreme right. But the cycle then repeated: Meuthen and Gauland were not rabid enough to satisfy their party’s extreme wing, and were challenged in their turn.
This time, however, the party membership declined to side with the extremists. Meuthen was comfortably re-elected, and with Gauland’s retirement he secured the election of Tino Chrupalla, a relative moderate, as his colleague – beating hardliner Gottfried Curio with almost 55% of the vote.
“Mainstream”, of course, is a relative concept. AfD has a long way to go before it will be accepted as just a normal player on the German political scene. But its new leadership’s plan is to move close enough to the centre that it will become possible, even indispensable, as a coalition partner for the Christian Democrats.
Meuthen and Chrupalla seem to think that they can do that without permanently alienating the Holocaust-deniers and other crazies that populate their extreme wing. That seems unlikely. More probable is that they will wait for an opportune time to conduct a purge of the extremists, as Le Pen did with followers of her father.
In its current condition, the idea of bringing AfD within the tent of ordinary democratic politics seems much too risky a move. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t one day be a reasonable thing to do. And Germany’s federal system allows the experiment to be tried in one or two places without putting too much at stake.
Over recent years, far-right parties in several European countries have either participated in government or been part of a governing majority without any sign – so far – of lasting damage to the body politic. I don’t believe it’s ever an ideal course of action, but it might sometimes be better than tying the system in knots to try to lock out a party that has significant popular support.
Last year, in a series of posts, I considered the position of the European far left, and the reasons for thinking that it poses less of a danger to democracy than the far right. Germany is a good example: its Left party, despite its antecedents in the dictatorial Communist Party of East Germany, has become a more or less normal participant in democratic politics.
It currently leads one state government and participates in another two. I would never vote for it myself, but like a number of other far left parties it has, as I put it, built “a record of democratic participation that allows voters to see them as an option within the system, not an alien threat from outside it.”
There is no reason in principle that AfD cannot also reach that point. But despite last week’s events, it’s not there yet.