Kurt Biedenkopf, the Christian Democrat politician who was premier of the eastern German state of Saxony after reunification, told the weekly newspaper Die Zeit why he believes the rise of the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party is not necessarily a sign Germans are rejecting the euro.
Mr. Biedenkopf, how much of a threat is the Alternative for Germany’s election success in Saxony? SPD boss Sigmar Gabriel calls them “German nationalists” and Heiner Geissler, the former CDU general secretary, finds them “backward-looking.”
Kurt Biedenkopf: I don’t share this assessment. My impression is rather: The Germans are doing so well that even when there is a small change in the status quo, they start to develop feelings of crisis and look for a way to let off steam.
The vast majority are experiencing the present time as one of great prosperity and great stability. That can give some people the feeling that they can play a bit with democracy and try out something new.
Do you believe that the AfD won’t manage to establish itself in the long run?
That remains to be seen. Up to now the AfD has been a political group that is on its way to becoming a party, nothing more. That alone is why the CDU has ruled it out as a coalition partner. It is still too heterogeneous and thus cannot guarantee stability as a partner.
One could never be certain how its members of parliament would vote in critical situations. In Saxony the AfD was united by the election campaign. However, I suspect that they could fall apart if they were faced with political responsibility. They’ve already provided examples of that.
Are coalitions with the AfD wrong only for practical reasons or also because of policy differences?
When looking at the AfD program for the European elections, I notice that at no point does it mention the economic or financial consequences of AfD demands for changing the euro zone. The required explanation is missing.
That is not political. If Spain, Portugal or Italy were to leave the euro zone and to devalue their currencies, as suggested by the AfD, the consequences for Germany would be dramatic.
The southern European countries would be able to export their products far cheaper, thus undercutting German product prices. The result would be massive unemployment in Germany. No one here can want that.
In Saxony the AfD in the end made headway with issues like alleged criminality by foreigners, referendums on the building of minarets and encouraging families to have three children – policies that appealed to many CDU voters. What does that say about your party?
In Saxony, with its catch-all issues the AfD was successful in its attempt to fill a political vacuum that has developed because the CDU and the SPD have become too similar and occupy the political center. There was no mention of the euro issue. The Pirates had similarly aimed to fill this vacuum. They have, however, failed to do so.
Is the CDU too left-wing?
It’s not an issue of left or right. What is missing is a serious political force that challenges the two big parties and their policies. The super-coalition in Berlin has practically overridden the democratic principle of separation of powers. Government and parliament are too close.
Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel have established a division of labor. The chancellor is responsible for foreign and European policy, the deputy chancellor for economic and energy policy, most likely the most difficult domestic issues.
At first there was a lot of criticism of this division of labor. But actually, this division was a brilliant move by the chancellor.
“ A political vacuum has developed because the CDU and the SPD have become too similar and occupy the political center.”
Is it not a failure on the part of the CDU that in Saxony two right-wing parties, the AfD and the NPD together attracted 15 percent of the vote?
I consider it unreasonable to mention the NPD and the AfD in one breath. The CDU has practically retained its strength. Its government was and is very successful. Saxony has won prizes for its education policy, it has run a virtually debt-free budget, and the premier has for years enjoyed the broad support of the population. It is the smaller parties that have changed. The issue of the NPD has been put to rest by the voters. They will most likely not reopen it in 2019 either, if by then there is a new party which answers the demand for conservative politics in a serious manner. At present such a party does not exist. The FDP has caused its own failure. The AfD has appeared as a new political force. One will have to wait and see what becomes of it. It is premature to classify the AfD as right-wing in the usual sense of the word.
Many countries have seen right-wing populist parties do well, often by attacking foreigners. What makes you so certain that we are not about to see a similar development here?
What makes you so uncertain that you have to ask? Ever since the Republicans entered the Stuttgart parliament (the right-wing populist Republicans party was represented in the Baden-Würrtemburg state parliament from 1992 to 2001. Eds.) around 20 years ago, the vast majority of German voters have disproved your concerns. I see no sign of a significant change. As far as the AfD is concerned: Why do you object to family policy concepts encouraging families to have more children? It is as much the AfD’s right as it is that of other parties to espouse equality for gay marriage. It is interesting, however, that we see the AfD family image as terribly conservative, almost like that of the NPD, while we welcome street festivals for the gay and lesbian community in the capital as wonderful. There seems to be something wrong here with the objectivity of our perception. As to the building of minarets there have in recent years repeatedly been calls for referendums on them.
The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, earlier this year demanded: “Those who cheat should leave” referring to alleged benefit fraud by foreigners. Aren’t these kinds of phrases also designed to fend off competition on the right-hand side of the political spectrum?
I would advise my party against these kinds of formulations. If someone from Romania comes here and expects to be given support amounting to the very minimum cost of living, which according to the Constitutional Court everyone is entitled to, that is fine.
I don’t think much of demands for closing borders. There does exist an emotionally fraught conflict between the free movement of people in Europe and the resulting burden on our social systems. This conflict has to be resolved.
But not by expecting the political parties to act as educators of the people. That is not what they should be. I ask those deputies who claim they had to “bring along” their voters with him: Where do you want to bring them and how?
It is their task to argue and persuade, particularly when it comes to the difficult decisions. When it comes to preventing political extremism, the Germans have enough political sense to protect our country.
Is it smart to avoid debate with the AfD? Ever since Volker Kauder, the CDU’s parliamentary leader, said he wouldn’t sit down with AfD politicians on a talk show this position has almost been adopted by the whole party.
I am sure that most CDU politicians are perfectly capable of deciding when it is worth debating a member of the AfD and when it is not.
What is your approach?
There are members of the AfD who I would rather avoid. There are others I respect. I regard party chairman Bernd Lucke as a bright man. I have had correspondence with others about the euro. We appreciated the exchange of ideas.
Shortly before the state election the CDU general secretary warned Saxony’s premier, Stanislaw Tillich, not to enter a coalition with the AfD. Would you have forbidden that kind of interference?
As I know Stanislaw Tillich he would probably make it clear to the general secretary that he should hold off with these kinds of warnings. Presumably, they would actually only be to the AfD’s benefit. They could claim that the CDU is scared of them. I think Stanislaw Tillich was well advised not to make a public statement about the coalition question.
Would a coalition of the CDU and the Greens in Saxony be capable of helping the state develop further?
In principle, yes. However, a CDU-Green coalition would have too narrow a majority and there is not enough inner stability in the Greens group.
The SPD has experienced the Greens and Left Party permanently establishing itself on the left-wing spectrum. Are there mistakes they made that the CDU can learn from?
I don’t believe that mistakes are the reason for the SPD’s weakness. The central issue which has defined their identity, the social question, has lost its fundamental importance.
From the beginning the CDU as a people’s party had developed a broader realm of issues and thus was not as vulnerable to chance.
In the meantime both parties show a tendency to define themselves less on the basis of the basic questions of substance. They are both more inclined to muddle through and take their directions increasingly from the opinion polls. However, that may change again in a few years.
More likely than not policies will once again be determined by basic social conflicts, such as the fight over the distribution of scare resources in Europe or global overpopulation – essentially conservative themes. I believe that it is quite likely that this is what will happen.