Democracy Under Pressure in Germany: Fighting AFD’s Populism

, by Dvir Aviam Ezra

Democracy Under Pressure in Germany: Fighting AFD's Populism
DIE LINKE, CC BY 2.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

This text is written and published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe

Since World War 2, the Federal Republic of Germany has been a success story for liberal democracy, from a destroyed shadow to an independent country, economic powerhouse, and one of the leaders of the European Union.

One of the reasons for those successes, was the relatively moderate German politics. When other countries swung from left to right, Germany, under both the SPD (center-left) and the CDU (center-right) party stuck to a liberal, pro-European and tolerant course.

However, in recent years, with the migrant crisis and the economic pain of both the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and increased world tension, many Germans feel the pain and turn to the enemy of political progress – regressive populism.

Alternative für Deutschland began in 2013 as a party led by economists with innovative but radical ideas. Since then, it took a far-right course, fraternizing with the likes of Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, and other right-wing populists from across Europe. The party also harbours anti-semitic and racist tendencies, with its members objecting to holocaust memorials across Germany, defending neo-Nazis, and appealing to the fears of farmers and other groups which are currently suffering.

Luckily, the German political establishment has placed the AFD under a strict Cordon Sanitaire, refusing to cooperate with them even at the local level, and uniting against their racism and intolerance. Their plans to deport even German citizens with "foreign background" were exposed in January 2024 and led to the emergence of a broad democratic coalition which took to the streets across Germany, urging vigilance against the far-right. The security apparatus of Germany is also taking steps against the AFD, working to define the party as "extremist" and place it under legal surveillance.

However, the fragmentation of the political arena may still eventually provide an opportunity to the AFD. A swing to the right among the CDU and especially its Bavarian wing, the CSU, may lead them to signal openness to at least a form of cooperation with the AFD. In addition, in some eastern German states, such as Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg, the AFD is polling at the first place and sees an absolute majority in the local parliaments within reach.

Mainstream parties should understand that when German democracy is under threat, all of European democracy is under threat. True, the situation in Germany is not as bad as in Hungary or Slovakia, but AFD getting close to power in Germany would send shockwaves throughout the continent that could weaken its resolve in the many challenges that lie ahead – such as defeating Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and fighting climate change. Reports that the AFD is winning the youth vote with extremely high TikTok presence should also not be disregarded.

In the short term, German democratic parties should commit to form any constellation or coalition that would block the AFD from grabbing power, even locally. In the long term, the CDU should return to Merkel's pro-European course and propose a bold pro-European agenda, including treaty change. Only with such bold and brave moves can democracy defeat populism. The people, who have protested in their millions against the AFD, are definitely ready for such moves, inspiring people across Europe and especially touching the hearts of minorities and the Jewish community who fear a return to fascism. Countering the AFD, pro-Russian, pro-Authoritarian agenda can be done by setting our own tolerant, multicultural, progressive agenda forward.

After World War 2, Germany got another chance. The released prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp said after their release in 1945 "Nie Wieder" (Never Again) in reference to the holocaust. This was true 79 years ago, and it is true now as well.

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