When Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann resigned this week, in the wake of a surge in popularity of the far-right Freedom party, many wondered if the country is a warning for Germany and perhaps even the rest of Europe.
Suddenly Austria stands for the all but unavoidable failure of grand coalitions, the name given to governments that bring together center-right and center-left parties, such as those currently in power in Austria and Germany. The assumption is that such a constellation inevitably leads to the right-wing populists on their fringes becoming stronger. It is true that there are several political parallels between Austria and Germany. But it would be wrong to say that if we avoid grand coalitions, right-wing populist parties like the Austrian Freedom Party, or FPÖ, and Alternative for Germany, or AfD, will disappear, and everything will be back to normal.
It is true that Germany, like Austria, is ruled by a grand coalition that seems to be exhausting itself. The economic situation is stable in both countries, but crises are coming from outside their borders. As in Austria, Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats are listlessly working through the last items of their coalition agreement, while the Alternative for Germany is becoming more and more vocal in attacking the system. But that’s where the similarities end.
In Austria, for example, the longstanding grand coalition is more a consequence than a cause of the growing strength of the Freedom Party. Part of the party system since 1955, it began its transformation in the 1980s, under then leader Jörg Haider, into a modern, right-wing populist party. Germany’s Alternative for Germany only arose as a consequence of the euro crisis. If the influx of refugees and migrants had begun six months later, the party would have fallen apart last fall following the withdrawal of founder Bernd Lucke and the party’s economic wing.
The only thing Germany's main parties can learn from Austria is that running after populists does not work.
And in the rest of Europe, it was not grand coalitions that led to the strengthening of right-wing parties in France, Great Britain and Poland.
But regardless of individual coalitions, it is becoming evident throughout Europe that many voters are deeply dissatisfied with big-tent parties like the Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, as well as the Social Democrats. Their politicians are viewed as being out of touch, even if they spend every Saturday in pedestrian zones talking to their constituents. And the proportion of the population interested in getting involved with the big established parties is getting smaller and smaller.
In Germany, this political frustration is probably due in large part to the governing style of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, her style has been characterized by weighing up problems, moving forward in tiny, cautious steps and avoiding political dispute. This approach was very successful for a very long time. The financial crisis only grazed Germany, in the form of a short-term recession in 2009, and so far the euro crisis has only been felt in Germany as a nuisance, in the form of ultra-low interest rates.
Nevertheless, anxiety about the future is taking hold beneath the surface of an economically prosperous country. Banks and insurance companies are still struggling with the consequences of the crisis, and Greece hasn’t been rescued yet. The transition to green energy, known as the Energiewende, hasn’t been accomplished yet. And somewhere out there lurks the digital revolution, on the verge of consuming jobs in Germany. Problems are not being solved but merely managed politically.
Despite full employment, many Germans are wondering: “Exactly how secure is my job, my pension and my prosperity? Will my children be able to build a good life for themselves? And who is actually shaping the future if the government, in permanent reaction mode, is merely running after crises that arise elsewhere in the world: the financial markets, the euro, Fukushima, Ukraine, the refugee crisis?”
In the refugee crisis, growing dissatisfaction has found an outlet in the Alternative for Germany, as a protest party. So far, apparently only a minority of voters sees the party and its leaders, Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen, as problem solvers.
To win back voters the big-tent parties need to get back to basics and dare to propose plans for the future once again. At least Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel is on the right path, when he says that schools must become cathedrals of education.
If Ms. Merkel wants to preserve Europe’s open borders, she will have to campaign far more actively for her objective – and, at the same time, for greater security in the form of a larger police presence. A debate over taxation and social security contributions, and for whom they should go up or down in the future, will be urgently needed in the election campaign. That will require a fundamental political dispute.
The only thing Germany’s main parties can learn from Austria is that chasing after populists does not work. The same holds true in France, where President François Hollande’s deference to the far-right Front National has only weakened him.
A look at the last state parliamentary elections in Germany is also instructive. Politicians with clear positions were successful. The best way to oppose critics of the system is not to copy them, but merely to take a firm stance in defending one’s own values.
The author is the parliamentary correspondent in Berlin. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org