Ger­many’s ne­glected far right

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL - ANNE APPLEBAUM

Yes, it looks like a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, the cen­ter­right can­di­date (with an em­pha­sis on cen­ter) is com­fort­ably ahead in the polls with 8 days to go in one of the most bor­ing Ger­man elec­tions any­body can re­mem­ber. And no won­der: Merkel leads a coun­try that hasn’t been this rel­a­tively rich or rel­a­tively pow­er­ful in many decades. Un­em­ploy­ment is low. The bud­get is in sur­plus. Ger­many is the undis­puted leader of the euro zone, the club of coun­tries that use the European cur­rency.

More im­por­tant, the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump seems to have con­vinced many Ger­mans, as it did many other Euro­peans, that they need a safe, pre­dictable leader who is com­mit­ted to Western val­ues. With that in mind, most Ger­man politi­cians have rushed to­ward the cen­ter ground. Dur­ing Merkel’s only de­bate with Martin Schulz, her main cen­ter-left op­po­nent (with an em­pha­sis on cen­ter), the two ap­peared to be nod­ding along with each other’s main points.

But any time the es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates come too close to­gether, they leave gaps that will in­evitably be filled by out­siders. The econ­omy might be fine, but a poll con­ducted in Au­gust by the In­ter­na­tional Repub­li­can In­sti­tute found that more than half of Ger­mans named ter­ror­ism, refugee pol­icy, ex­trem­ism or im­mi­gra­tion as the “worst problem” fac­ing Europe. And right now, only one po­lit­i­cal party is con­sis­tently fo­cused on these is­sues. Day af­ter day, Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD), Ger­many’s far-right party — to the ex­tent “far right” means any­thing any­more — says over and over again that Merkel her­self is re­spon­si­ble for the refugee cri­sis, that Merkel’s poli­cies have led to an in­crease in ter­ror­ism and that ex­trem­ism has risen on Merkel’s watch. The party’s “Merkel must go” hash­tag (#MerkelMussWeg) is re­peated again and again in the on­line fo­rums where AfD sup­port­ers go to get in­for­ma­tion.

In trans­mit­ting this mes­sage, the AfD has some out­side help. Al­though Rus­sian hack­ers are known to have stolen ma­te­rial from the Ger­man Par­lia­ment, Rus­sia has so far not sought to make a ma­jor im­pact on this elec­tion, per­haps be­cause the Rus­sians have long-term business in­ter­ests and po­lit­i­cal links in the coun­try they don’t want to dis­rupt, or per­haps be­cause their at­tempt to use leaked ma­te­rial in the French elec­tion failed quite com­pre­hen­sively. This time the tac­tic is dif­fer­ent: Both of­fi­cial Rus­sian me­dia and un­of­fi­cial pro-Rus­sian trolls of­fer con­stant and repet­i­tive sup­port for the AfD and its anti-im­mi­grant mes­sage.

An elec­tion mon­i­tor­ing project I help to run at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics has found, among other things, that the Ger­man edition of Sput­nik, the Krem­lin “news” site, wrote sig­nif­i­cantly more pos­i­tive ar­ti­cles about the AfD in re­cent months than about any other party. State­con­trolled Rus­sian me­dia, which is pop­u­lar among the sur­pris­ingly large (up to 3 mil­lion) Rus­sian-speak­ing com­mu­nity in Ger­many, gives AfD fig­ures plat­forms on its glossy talk shows. Rus­sian-lan­guage so­cial me­dia in Ger­many is awash with Rus­sian and Ger­man me­dia sto­ries about im­mi­grant crime in Europe, and with ads for the AfD. Some ac­counts post so as­sid­u­ously it sug­gests they are au­to­mated.

In a coun­try where (ac­cord­ing, again, to the In­ter­na­tional Repub­li­can In­sti­tute poll) the ma­jor­ity still trusts the strong, po­lit­i­cally neu­tral cen­trist me­dia, this doesn’t mat­ter as much as it would else­where. As I’ve ar­gued be­fore, a large num­ber of Ger­mans also ad­mire Merkel’s refugee pol­icy and have pitched in to help with refugees’ in­te­gra­tion. Nev­er­the­less, both the AfD and its Rus­sian sup­port­ers might be bet­ting that, as in other coun­tries, an an­gry, ac­tive, ded­i­cated mi­nor­ity can cause quite a bit of dis­rup­tion, par­tic­u­larly given that even a vic­to­ri­ous Merkel will prob­a­bly need to form a coali­tion. The dis­tri­bu­tion of votes be­tween the four small par­ties — the lib­er­als, the far left and the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Greens, as well as the AfD — will mat­ter. And in post­war Ger­many, where the far right has never made in­roads, even a 12 per­cent re­sult would come as a shock.

It might be a use­ful shock. Most Ger­mans — vot­ers, politi­cians and me­dia alike — play down or even ig­nore the ex­is­tence of the far-right echo cham­ber in Ger­many and its Rus­sian sup­port­ers. But we know from other coun­tries (and other eras) that if they are never coun­tered or con­fronted, “al­ter­na­tive” views have a way of abruptly en­ter­ing the main­stream, es­pe­cially at mo­ments of cri­sis. Who­ever is the next chan­cel­lor of Ger­many has many tasks in front of her. Find­ing a way to reach this alien­ated slice of the vot­ing pub­lic should be high on the list.

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