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OPINION: Germany faces a hellish year in politics amid rise of far-right

Brian Melican
Brian Melican - [email protected]
OPINION: Germany faces a hellish year in politics amid rise of far-right
An AfD election poster with the slogan "The East stands up!" hangs on a main road in the district of Sonneberg, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Martin Schutt

Things aren't looking good for Germany's government, already torn apart by internal strife and growing populism, as many states head for the ballots later this year, writes Brian Melican.

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What a difference a year makes – especially one like 2023. In late 2022, Germany appeared to have got back on an even keel after the fright of its life earlier that year: despite expectations, the gasometers were full and Putin’s troops were not parading through Kyiv on their way towards Poland.

Yet now here we are, slightly over twelve gruelling months later, a nervous wreck of a country in the early days of 2024 hovering between abject fear and resignation to our fate.

What went wrong in 2023?

The biggest problem is our lack of political leadership. Last autumn, when the first signs of serious political strain in Berlin started to become impossible to ignore, I argued that the tripartite coalition government was actually, given the unforeseen circumstances, making a decent fist of things.

Yet now, not even a convinced proponent of the social-liberal-green project like me is still going to try to defend the current administration. Somewhere in 2023, something broke, and even the last of us have lost faith.

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Looking back, the debacle of the Heizungsgesetz this spring and summer was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The infamous Heating Act had the noble intention of decarbonising our primarily gas-fired infrastructure, but was seriously flawed, somehow managing to be both pie-in-the-sky unfeasible and terrifyingly specific at the same time – and, more damagingly, it bought out the worst in each of the coalition parties.

The Greens showed themselves to be just as dogmatic and ignorant of real-world concerns as their critics had always claimed; the FDP reverted to its populist, pig-headed political adolescence; and the SPD bigwigs dithered, wavered, and hoped that, by letting the other two tear strips off each other, they would come out of things looking like the adults in the room.

Robert Habeck Olaf Scholz Christian Lindner

Economics Minister Robert Habeck, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) hold a press conference on the budget crisis in Berlin in December. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/IMAGO/Bernd Elmenthaler | IMAGO/Bernd Elmenthaler

They didn’t, though. And for all his performative scowling, Scholz is clearly not up to the job of banging heads together when necessary; in fact, he has managed to look more indecisive than his predecessor Merkel, a past master in the art of putting things off.

Now, following the Constitutional Court’s recent decision that, no, you can’t simply take €60 billion of money ostensibly borrowed for fighting a pandemic and stick it in a climate transition fund (whoever would have thought it?), he and his government have reached a political dead end.

Back in those halcyon days of autumn 2021, they promised an audacious approach which would be more than just the lowest common denominator – and to avoid another stint as ‘the sick man of Europe’, what we need is genuinely transformative politics. Yet now, having failed to agree to any more than the bare minimum to get a budget through, our ministers backtracked on it.

READ ALSO: Is Germany really the sick man of Europe?

What to expect in 2024

Yes, 2024 is going to be hell. Precisely what kind of hell becomes clear when you realise that this government, already riven by internal strife, is headed for a punishing round of ballot-box defeats likely to break it apart.

Although Bundestag elections aren’t scheduled until autumn 2025, the parties in government are likely to get a pummelling in a range of other ballots next year – and each blow will make it all the more likely that one of them, punch-drunk, pulls the plug early.

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While they might just make it through the predictable drubbing at the European and local elections on June 9th (about which, luckily for Scholz et al., no-one actually cares that much), there’s a left-right/one-two coming in September when Saxony and then Brandenburg go to the polls to elect their regional parliaments, the former on 1st (“Pinch, punch, first day of the month!”) and the latter on the 22nd.

Saxony, the racist-uncle home of such delightful political movements as PEGIDA (Remember them?) and the AfD’s unquestioned stronghold in Germany, is likely to return at least 30 percent far-right state parliament delegates, rendering itself essentially ungovernable.

Then there’s Thuringia, which hasn’t yet announced the date of its long over-due regional election, but which is already in a state of persistent political chaos.

The two options for governing these three eastern states next autumn will be rather unappetising.

Either every other party that isn’t the AfD – including the remnants of Die Linke (The Left) and, potentially, some of Sahra Wagenknecht’s breakaway weirdos – gets round a table to enable a bare-bones administration with the sole purpose of stopping the fascists, or the right-of-centre CDU takes a leaf out the Swedish Moderates’ playbook and gets itself into power on a confidence and supply agreement with the fascists.

READ ALSO: Scholz 'concerned' about growing far-right popularity in Germany

Either way, the fascists win. (I’m allowed to call the AfD fascist, by the way: court judgements have ruled that this does not constitute defamation when a party’s personnel are, well, openly fascist…)

At the same time, after having failed to make it over the five percent minimum in Berlin and Bavaria this year, it’s highly likely the FDP will disappear from at least two of the eastern regional assemblies in 2024, leading it to throw a wobbly, flounce out of Scholz’ government, and go full populist in an effort to galvanise its core supporters ahead of 2025.

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Or it could even be the Greens who, stymied in their climate transition ambitions and also cruising for a ballot bruising, jump ship early. Given the state the government’s in, it’s tempting to say that it will be for the best, but the alternative is Scholz staying in power via a back-up fudge with Friedrich Merz’s rump CDU: “Yay! Yet another not-so- Grand Coalition…”

CDU leader Friedrich Merz speaks in the Bundestag.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz speaks in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

What new devilry…?

Whichever way it goes, Germany is now rudderless in a new year set to be easily as stormy as the one which just ended.

This winter will see some of the worst strikes in living memory, with train drivers threatening to walk out for up to five days at a time (or potentially longer) from January 8th while workers in all manner of other industries and public-sector services join them in wrangling over higher pay and/or shorter hours. Farmers are now replacing Extinction Rebellion (Whatever happened to them?) in blockading roads.

READ ALSO: Germany faces major strike week as numerous sectors threaten walkouts

And then there is the explosive combination of increasingly radicalised pro-Palestinian protests, a neo-Nazi terrorist underground which hasn’t gone away, and – this now clearly being the Worst Of All Worlds in which everything which can go wrong actually does – some new devilry from an unexpected corner. (Question: Do we have active volcanoes in Germany?) And in case you were wondering: yes, the recession is set to continue.

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So even with a half-way decent government, we’d be pretty screwed: with this lot at the helm, I’d keep your life jacket very firmly on. No one likes to be the purveyor of exclusively bad news, though, especially not at the start of a new year, so I’ll close on the one positive note I can find in all this: inflation in food and consumer goods is easing off, down from sky-high to just high. Turns out, when everyone’s run out of money, businesses can’t raise prices as fast. So: Happy New Year!

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Comments (2)

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Max 2024/01/07 19:12
Brian Melican, it’s Kyiv, but not “Kiev”. Please correct, thanks.
Grovy 2024/01/04 22:11
As a non German I find it amazing that establishment has no interest in listening to pains of its citizens and then media complains rise of AFD and label each n everyone as far right. Current govt is the most non-competent even scoring below or at par with the lost man in America. Why blame rise of opposition instead look at the conditions which is pushing people to AFD

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