How did your democracy fail? “Two ways,” Mike replied. “Gradually, and then suddenly.” Mike, in this famous exchange in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, was of course answering a different question (how he went bankrupt). But this dynamic — too slow to be worrisome at first, then unstoppable — applies to many things. Take populism. What we again saw yesterday from Sweden to Germany suggests that we are in the gradual phase of a trend that could, one day, slip out of control and turn suddenly.
Up north, the Sweden Democrats, a far-right and anti-migrant party led by Jimmie Akesson (pictured below), did far less well in yesterday’s election than polls had suggested. Even so, they came in as the third-largest party overall, and scored their best result ever, with more than 17 percent. That’s only slightly better than the poll numbers of Germany’s equivalent, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The main effect of the Sweden Democrats, like that of the AfD, is to keep hollowing out the political center. Neither Sweden’s center-right nor its center-left bloc can now form a majority government. Having ruled out a coalition with the Sweden Democrats, the centrists thus face the same unappetizing options that Germany’s centrists confronted last autumn: left-right “grand coalitions” that turn off voters even more, or minority governments.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the trend toward populism, while still “gradual” as in Mike’s quote, also appears inexorable. If its epicenter in recent weeks was the eastern city of Chemnitz, it is now the eastern city of Köthen. There on Saturday night, two Afghan migrants got into a fight. When a young German man tried to separate them, they started hitting him. The German, who had a pre-existing condition, then had heart failure and died.
On cue, a few thousand people took to the streets of Köthen, as others had done in Chemnitz, ostensibly to mourn the German, but really to protest against migrants, and the whole “Merkel system”, as populists like to call it. Every such march is a gift to the AfD, whose supporters happily join in and raise the temperature.
To complicate matters, the AfD, as a mirror of society, naturally has sympathizers “within the system”, from cops to judges. But how high up does this support reach? Some Germans in the political mainstream now worry that even Hans-Georg Maassen has been giving the AfD a fillip here and there. He is the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and thus the head of the agency tasked to keep an eye on any movement that could undermine Germany’s constitution.
Maassen recently raised eyebrows when he contradicted Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that he had seen no evidence of people in Chemnitz “hunting” foreigners in pogrom-like mobs. He suggested that a video showing such an incident might not be authentic.
On top of that, Maassen has been meeting with AfD politicians. And there are suspicions that he may have passed on information, or advice, to the AfD that could help the party stay out of trouble with the agency he runs. READ MORE
What do we know in aggregate about supporters of the AfD? Quite a lot, thanks to pollsters like Manfred Güllner, who runs the Forsa Institute. Based on its latest survey, he concludes that although AfD types are good at using verbal fig leaves, they do represent a danger to democracy. More than half of AfD supporters (52 percent) say they are not satisfied with the democratic system enshrined in Germany’s postwar constitution. That compares to 20 percent of other Germans who say the same thing (and even that seems uncomfortably high).
Some 59 percent of AfD supporters say that Germans “must fight for our country” because “refugees bring violence and turmoil”. Only 8 percent of others eligible to vote say that. And 33 percent of AfD supporters think that Germany again needs a “strong leader” — the precise German word in the question is Führer. Moreover, 24 percent of them answered that National Socialism also had “good aspects”. (Only 4 percent of other respondents went that far.) Much to ponder.
Andreas Kluth is Handelsblatt Global’s Editor-in-Chief.
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