Comment

German election results a vote for principled leadership

On Sunday, three German states went to the polls. These elections had been anxiously anticipated, not least by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition government. Their results are significant, and may have implications beyond Germany.

The polls in Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt were the first state elections held after the dramatic rise of asylum-seeker arrivals in the middle of last year. With the next federal election due next year, they were an opportunity to gain a sense of German voters' reaction to those arrivals.

Merkel's handling of the asylum-seeker issue dominated the election campaigns. And for months, the impending state elections overshadowed the debate about Germany's response to asylum-seekers, with Merkel and her coalition government of Christian Democrats, Christian Social Union and Social Democrats constantly being told that they would be punished at the polls for their increasingly unpopular policies.

Were they? The election outcomes have been notable in two respects. The first concerns the success of the populist right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD. It was founded in 2013 as a party of Eurosceptics, but has since drifted to the far right of the political spectrum. 

It campaigned on an anti-immigration platform; its leader Frauke Petry went so far as to say that the security forces ought to be given orders to shoot asylum seekers trying to cross into Germany. The AfD won 12.6 per cent of the vote in Rheinland-Pfalz and more than 15 per cent in Baden-Württemberg, and became the second-largest party in Sachsen-Anhalt, where it secured almost a quarter of the vote and will occupy 24 seats in an 87-seat parliament.

At the same time, in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, the parties of the reigning premiers, Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens and Malu Dreyer of the Social Democrats did better than could have been expected. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens overtook the Christian Democrats (which had decisively won all 15 previous state elections since 1952) and became the strongest party. Kretschmann and Dreyer had both supported Merkel's policies, while the state leaders of her own party, Guido Wolf and Julia Klöckner, had tried to garner votes by disowning the chancellor.

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What could be learned from these outcomes? Support for the AfD in the former German Democratic Republic is far stronger than in West Germany; in East German Sachsen-Anhalt, where the leader of the AfD belongs to the party's radical right wing faction, the combined vote of the AfD and the even more extreme National Democratic Party amounts to more than 27 per cent. While the AfD did also well in Baden-Württemberg, its leading candidate there espoused comparatively moderate views.

The AfD's success needs to be seen in perspective, though. In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front finished first in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, when it won almost a quarter of the French vote. In Austria, the populist far right Freedom Party surpassed the 30 per cent mark in state elections last September. According to recent opinion polls in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats could win a third of the vote if national elections were held there now. If federal elections were held in Germany now, the AfD's share of the national vote would be significant but still much smaller than that of comparable parties elsewhere in Europe.

Nevertheless, an alarmingly large proportion of Germans are prepared to support a party that has little time for the rule of law and principles of democracy and openly advocates jingoism and xenophobia. Attempts by the leaders of moderate parties to appeal to these same sentiments in the hope of stopping the haemorrhaging of support largely failed – not the first time.

Twenty-four years ago, Germany was also deeply divided over the question of how to respond to asylum-seeker arrivals. Then, the Christian Democrats were afraid of another party on the far right, Die Republikaner, and ahead of state elections in Baden-Württemberg they sought to cancel out the far right's appeal by embracing some of its rhetoric. The strategy misfired badly, with Die Republikaner gaining almost 11 per cent of the vote. Most of the right-wing party's voters had previously voted for the conservatives.

After these 1992 state elections, and after it dawned on moderate political leaders that they had contributed to the poisoning of public debate by tolerating racism and xenophobia, Germany's political establishment distanced itself from the far right and its xenophobic rhetoric. With some notable exceptions, particularly in Saxony, subsequently the far right lost votes and influence. Moderate political leaders, both in Germany and elsewhere, would do well to heed this lesson: It does not pay to appropriate the far right's anti-asylum seeker rhetoric.

According to surveys conducted earlier this month, most Germans are unhappy with Merkel's response to asylum-seekers and would like the government to impose an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers admitted to Germany (an option that Merkel has so far ruled out). 

But even in Sachsen-Anhalt, an overwhelming majority of voters supported either parties represented in Merkel's government or parties that, while in opposition in Berlin, are broadly supportive of her response to asylum seekers and refugees.

Surprisingly many voters seem to respect principled leadership. Kretschmann and Dreyer, who endorsed Merkel's unpopular policies, and, by extension, Merkel herself weren't the losers of Sunday's elections. And while the asylum seeker issue dominated the election campaign, only a minority of voters were guided by their views on that issue when casting their vote. 

Both Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull may want to closely study the German results; they might find that the electoral cost of closing the offshore detention centres on Manus and Nauru is lower than they have assumed.

Klaus Neumann is professor of history at Swinburne University.

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