Op/Ed: The German Populist’s Balancing Act

Populism has become a contending political ideology, not only in the United States, but all around the world.  In Europe especially, distrust of experts and anti-immigrant sentiments have risen since the refugee crisis in 2015, driving many native Europeans to far right populist parties.  The key feature in many populist parties has always been the personality that leads it.  The classic example being Donald Trump’s bombastic personality representing the populist ideas, rather than the Republican Party.  This feature remains consistent across Europe with politicians like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.  In contrast to this, German populism has seen a rise, but the leaders of this movement have been more divided on their stances, often preferring more moderate approaches to populism.  What does German Populism look like and how does the history of the country help us understand the 2017 election? To understand this we must look into the German electoral system, as well as to the history of German populism.

The 1919 German Constitution established universal suffrage, making the vast majority of Germans, including women and m


inorities able to vote.  Despite the surprisingly liberal policy for the early 20th century, it actually made democracy weaker because everyone was able to participate in politics, and anyone was able to make a party.  The result of this move was 40 parties being represented in the modern day Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament, after 1924 including the Nazi Party.  This gave rise to extremist parties being able to gain parliamentary seats, and power within the German government.  Despite the eventual rise of the Nazis and establishment of a dictatorship, the erosion to German democracy began with an over-representation of parties in politics, making it difficult to reach consensus.


After the Second World War, an attempt to prevent this issue was implemented into the new German constitution via the 5% rule which stated that each party must receive at least 5% of the national vote in order to be eligible for a seat in the Bundestag.  The intention of this rule was to prevent too


many parties from being in the Bundestag and preventing extremist parties from gaining too much power.  Despite this, in 2017 Alternative for Germany (AFD) received 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats (out of 709) in the Bundestag, marking the first time they have been represented in the Bundestag and the first time since the Second World War that a populist party would break the 5% threshold.

AFD’s far right ideals of anti-immigration and distrust of experts are creating a party that appeals to many of the populist sentiments seen commonly across Europe and the United States.  Despite this, their party leaders have remained disunited and without a clear direction to follow.  Donald Trump runs the most powerful nation on Earth through a twitter feed while the leaders of AFD struggle to maintain a united leadership as ideas of whether the party should remain as a more moderate party, rather than an extremist one, caused the former chairwoman Frauke Petry to switch to an independent seat after the 2017 election.

The reason for the divide of AFD’s leadership can be understood through analyzing Germany’s history. Since the events of the Second World War, the German people have largely expressed remorse for their actions and see the Third Reich and its actions as a dark period in their own history.  Richard Von Weizsacker, the president of  what was then West Germany in 1985 referred to the Allied victory over the Nazi’s as a liberation of Germany. Politicians in the AFD like Björn Höcke are now calling for Germans to be proud of their past.  Because of the German people’s apprehension of their past, this has drawn significant controversy from not only the leaders of more moderate German parties, but also within AFD itself from powerful members like Petry.  Contrast this with the United States where many hold pride of some golden era of American past, exemplified by the slogan “Make America Great Again”.  The leaders of AFD do not have the popular support to be able to make such bold statements due to the skeletons in their closet.  Many Germans do not see the early 20th century as a golden age of German achievement that they must look to remake, but instead a point of national shame where they must be better moving forward.


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