Bonn, Germany — Even though Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, the issue of how much it should surrender its sovereignty and wealth to Europe has been pretty much a non-issue in its elections this coming Sunday.
But a new protest party challenging the wisdom of the euro and the bailouts Germany keeps paying to support is on the verge of breaking through the silence. Polls show Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which wants Germany to withdraw from the euro but remain in the European Union, close to the support it needs to enter Parliament. The size of its vote could also determine whether Chancellor Angela Merkel can maintain her current coalition.
“I grew up in East Germany where you could only speak the truth at home or in church,” she told The Economist. “We have reached the point with Germany in Europe where people say: This is not what we went to the streets for in 1989. There is a feeling that democracy has gone wrong.” Indeed, one of the signature planks of the AfD’s platform is a call for more popular democracy: Swiss-style initiatives and referenda.
“The people were never consulted directly on scrapping the deutsche mark for the euro or on any part of the expansion of the EU,” Erich Weede, a professor at the University of Bonn, told me. That only increases the resentment of many Germans as they see their government sign up for one bailout of indebted countries after another. Merkel’s Christian Democrats squelched talk of possible future bailouts during the campaign, but in August her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, let slip that he expected Greece to seek another bailout once the German election was safely past.
But the polls still showed the AfD stuck at 3 percent support for months. Still, as the Wall Street Journal Europe noted: “Polls in Germany must be digested with great caution: the biggest ones are conducted by organizations close to the major parties.” That’s why it was big news in Germany on Thursday when the INSA polling firm showed the AfD breaking the 5 percent threshold of support required to win any seats in Parliament. The public also noted that a cousin of the AfD, an anti-euro regional party named “Free Voters,” won 9 percent of the vote in last Sunday’s elections in Bavaria, becoming the third-largest party in that state’s parliament.
As Germany’s version of the Tea Party, the AfD has a different look and feel from most populist movements. It was founded by staid, respectable professors, and the party largely eschews anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks on immigration. Indeed, it has lately been the victim of left-wing Alinsky-style agitators who have sought to drown out its speakers. At a recent rally in Bremen, protesters even used pepper spray against AfD co-founder Bernd Lucke, a distinguished professor of economics. Just this week, the car of AfD candidate Beatrix von Storch was vandalized in Berlin, with all of its windows broken.As for the Right, Merkel’s Christian Democrats have shifted from trying to ignore the AfD to belittling it. Finance Minister Schäuble, a stalwart supporter of the EU, has said the Alternative’s platform “has no credibility and is extremely dangerous for our prosperity.” Merkel supporters also argue that a large number of votes for the AfD will make it more likely she will be able to govern only in a “grand coalition” with the left-wing Social Democrats — who want even faster EU integration and have voted for every emergency bailout in Parliament.
But others argue that handing the AfD a megaphone and funding as a party group in Parliament would curb the appetite of any governing coalition of Merkel’s for more European-wide solutions to the euro crisis. Goldman Sachs economist Dirk Schumacher told Reuters that “the better the result for the AfD, the more reluctant the center-right parties are likely to be to support further European integration.”
And it turns out that many votes for the AfD won’t be depleting the ranks of Merkel’s supporters. “The interesting thing is that 41 percent of AfD voters either voted for the ‘other parties’ category or not at all in 2009,” INSA chief pollster Hermann Binkert told Reuters. He noted that another 10 percent of AfD voters come from the hard Left, which is also skeptical of the euro. Many others have long ago given up voting altogether — until now.
Of course, the AfD represents a disruptive force, and if it does well on Sunday it may well discomfit the cautious, pallid conservatives of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. But democracy in Germany hasn’t been messy enough since the Berlin Wall came down nearly a quarter century ago. The AfD’s stirrings of strength are a signal that the public resents not having a robust political debate on an issue as important as Europe. That’s why more and more people in Germany say “an Alternative” voice is needed.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.