A few years back, Germany’s far-right party was on the ropes after the euro-zone’s recovery proved the value of the common currency.
The Alternative for Germany, known by its German acronym AfD, had lost the primary issue it used to drive an anti-European agenda. Its poll numbers started to drop.
Then came the refugees, a wave of some nearly a million asylum seekers from Syria and northern Africa welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel over local and European objections in 2015.
The move created issues for integration, strained European unity and caused backlash among many Germans skeptical of the mostly Muslim outsiders coming into their country.
The far-right revival that ensued came straight out of the populist playbook — using fractious issues to instill fear, in turn spurring votes against those in power, Metin Hakverdi, who represents the city-state of Hamburg in the Bundestag, said during a wide-ranging World Affairs Council of Atlanta discussion on the “Rise of the German Right” Tuesday.
The formula has led to the AfD becoming the largest single opposition party in the German parliament, winning 12.6 percent of the vote and 91 parliamentary seats in 2017 federal elections.
“This is what populism is about. You look for issues, not policy,” said Mr. Hakverdi, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the minority coalition partner with the conservative Christian Democratic Union. “You pick something to have a good example for your exclusive storytelling, I would say your anti-democratic storytelling.”
Immigration is always a tough issue, but the AfD is using it as an existential wedge, and they aim to deploy political power to challenge the very institution that gave it to them: Germany’s inclusive, representative democracy, said Mr. Hakverdi, who serves as spokesman of the SPD parliamentary body’s U.S./North America discussion group.
True democracy means respecting the rights and dignity of all one’s countrymen, not just those who share your positions or party, Mr. Hakverdi said in a discussion with World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro.
Throughout the talk, Mr. Hakverdi articulated his personal case against populism, promoting resistance against identity politics and measured approaches to real issues, rather than positions designed to whip up partisan passions.
But he did acknowledge the challenge of dealing with those who see facts as less important than victory, especially on social media, and who will ally with anyone who shares their opposition to the so-called establishment, regardless of whether they agree on anything else.
“If you’re a populist, you’re in a fight, you’re in a war. You’re not criticizing your general even if he makes mistakes. If you’re at war as a white or as a Westerner or whatever, you will be always solid on the side of your team. Social media is a big advantage. You don’t need social bots, algorithms and machines. You have a bunch of people who are really committed to doing it all day long.”
Unlike the zealots of the far-right, the established, “rational” parties, are subject to criticism within their own ranks, precisely because they value democratic debate, he said.
It’s a catch-22 for those in power: let populists create their own rules and gain more of a voice, or silence them and face accusations of being anti-democratic.
That’s why Mr. Hakverdi believes it’s wrong to dismiss the AfD or other populists as insignificant or unintelligent. They can do real damage, especially given that they trade in the currency of emotion: particularly fear and anger.
Much of the AfD’s support comes from the former East Germany, where many feel forgotten after the post-reunification euphoria faded. When the Berlin Wall fell at the end of the Cold War, entrenched inequality remained.
Like right-wing parties in many places, the AfD has in some ways successfully linked economic concerns with xenophobia, Mr. Hakverdi said.
That was the prevailing sentiment that Atlanta immigration attorney Teri Simmons saw in action when attending a AfD demonstration in Dresden — as an observer. While she strongly opposes the anti-immigrant group, she asked Mr. Hakverdi what he would say to those who believe Germany can’t take care of the world if its “own people” face challenges.
He took issue with the assumption that politicians believe that the two are mutually exclusive.
“We still on this emotional thing. We are not really arguing about the technique. I’m a lawyer and a lawmaker — nobody knows the rules of asylum cases in Germany, but everybody has a feeling about it,” he said. “But it seems to me that the moment it is Muslims or people that look different, there’s a little more feeling about it. It should be our responsibility to say, ‘Guys, it’s an important issue, but don’t go crazy.’”
The parliamentarian pointed to his own Turkish name and said Germany has for too long been in denial about its own immigrant populations. A head-in-the-sand approach has harmed the integration efforts that could have grown Germany’s economy. Hamburg, where he hails from, still has residents who have failed to learn the language 50 years after arriving in the country.
“What a waste for everybody — because we’re ‘not an immigration country,’” he said, citing conservative slogans from Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1980s.
“The result is that we don’t have the right rules, techniques, institutions and knowledge of how to deal with immigration today, because we just didn’t take care of it in the whole of Europe,” Mr. Hakverdi said. “It’s run on fear, and that will really harm our societies.”
He pointed to the U.S. as a positive example of a country that has embraced the benefits of immigration — no matter the rhetoric politicians use today.
Still, appealing to voters back in Germany — and improving the fortunes of the Social Democrats — will be about reconnecting authentically with those skeptical of the parties in power. In that way, the his party can learn something from the AfD, he implied.
“I would advise my party to take a strong individualized economic point of view, to again put the individual back in the center of your campaign,” he said.
The program was part of the Wunderbar Together: The Year of German – American Friendship initiated by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Embassy of Germany in Washington. The World Affairs Council of America is a partner on the series.
Learn more about the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and its upcoming programs here.