terça-feira, 15 de março de 2016

Far-right thorn in Angela Merkel’s side

Far-right thorn in Angela Merkel’s side

Whether AfD remains a political force depends on the chancellor’s plan to reduce the refugee influx.


BERLIN — For a fledgling party that nearly collapsed last year amid intense infighting over its direction, Germany’s populist AfD scored a result in Sunday’s regional elections that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Though the Alternative for Germany was expected to put in a strong showing, the final results surpassed even the most bullish projections. It won 24.2 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, 15.1 percent in Baden-Württemberg and 12.6 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate.

As Germany’s angst-ridden political establishment struggled on Monday to find explanations for the right-wing surge, one question dominated the debate: Does the AfD have staying power?

Clues to the answer can be found in the reams of data collected as voters left the polling stations.

Two findings stand out: first, nearly one-third of AfD supporters did not vote in the previous election; second, most AfD voters (about 90 percent in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, and 64 percent in Saxony-Anhalt) said they supported the upstart because it “tells it like it is,” not because they were convinced by the AfD’S ability to fix problems.

A national issue — the refugee influx — was on top of everyone’s mind, according to the exit polls.
In other words, the AfD’s success was the result of a classic protest vote, driven by Germans disenchanted with the establishment, especially on the question of refugees.

Though voters were electing regional parliaments in the three German states, a national issue — the refugee influx — was on top of everyone’s mind, according to the exit polls. Given that all of the incumbent parties support Angela Merkel’s refugee policy to varying degrees, the AfD was the only option for voters who oppose the government’s position.

That dynamic has some political observers predicting a bleak future for the AfD.

Lack of a figurehead

Unlike in other European countries, where populist parties rally around a single personality, be it Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the AfD has no such figure. It’s leader, Frauke Petry, inspires none of the unbridled emotion of her populist peers in Europe.

“Le Pen and Orbán have been replaced by what has been declared a non-person — the refugee,” the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote in its lead editorial Monday. “This non-person has become the AfD’s dominant figure.”

The refugee crisis has given AfD a dramatic boost in support. In August, as the party was still reeling from an internal battle over its direction, support for the AfD dropped to just 4 percent. Then in September, Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees and the party’s fortunes reversed, scoring 11 percent in most recent national polls.

Whether the AfD remains a political force largely depends on the success of Merkel’s plan to reduce the influx of refugees. What has most unnerved Germans about the crisis is not the number of refugees who landed in the country last year, more than one million, but the outlook.

With thousands pouring in every day, many Germans feared there was no end in sight. That’s now beginning to change. The recent closure of the so-called Balkan route has reduced the number of new arrivals to a trickle.

Though Merkel, concerned about the strain the closure has placed on Greece, vociferously opposed the decision by Austria and its neighbors to seal their borders, she is benefiting from it politically.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) top candidate for Saxony-Anhalt, Andre Poggenburg

Across Bavaria, communities have been given the green light to decommission emergency shelters, allowing high school gyms and other public facilities to be used for their intended purpose. The number of emergency shelters in southern Bavaria has in recent weeks dropped to just four from 20, for example.

One-issue party?

To ensure the shelters stay closed, Merkel will have to negotiate a breakthrough at the EU summit later this week. European leaders are expected to finalize a complicated deal with Turkey at the meeting that promises to significantly reduce the number of Syrians and other asylum seekers reaching Europe.

If successful, the plan would allow Merkel to rob the AfD of its only issue, analysts say.

“As soon as the public anxiety about refugees diminishes, fewer people will vote for the AfD,” said Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “There’s a certain maximum expansion they are likely to have reached.”

That isn’t to say the AfD will disappear.

Germany has long been an anomaly in Europe by not having a potent populist party. That era appears to be over. The AfD is now represented in half of Germany’s 16 state legislatures and appears likely to win entry to the federal parliament in next year’s general election. In 2013, it missed the 5 percent threshold by a fraction.

To succeed at the national level, the party will have reconcile its extreme and more moderate messages. Though the party has a general anti-foreigner view, its representatives in Germany’s eastern states tend to take a harder line than those in the west. That has led to tension in the party’s leadership which is likely to continue in the months ahead.

AfD leaders have suggested that German border police be allowed to shoot refugees as a last resort, including women and children.
Unlike in France, where one party dominates the government, Germany’s political culture is driven by consensus. And the center of German politics remains firm. Despite the AfD’s gains, centrist parties such as Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats still captured a clear majority of the vote on Sunday.

So far, all of the centrist forces refuse to cooperate with the AfD. After largely ignoring the party in recent years, Merkel’s conservatives, which are most exposed to the AfD, appear prepared to go on the attack.

In many respects, the AfD is an easy target.

In recent months, its leaders have suggested that German border police be allowed to shoot refugees as a last resort, including women and children. They also espoused racial theories about Africans that recall the Nazi’s pseudo-science. All the while, they have made the mainstream media a target, lampooning journalists who ask critical questions as the Lügenpresse, or lying press.

Not long after the first results came in Sunday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel conservative, gave the AfD a taste of what’s in store.

During a talkshow appearance with Beatrix von Storch, who represents the AfD in the European Parliament, von der Leyen told her: “From now on there is no more Lügenpresse. From now on there are minutes of the legislative proceedings that everyone can read.”

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