Far-Right AfD Dreams of “Healthy Patriotism”, Social Democrats Have the Blues

Germany, 13 Apr - 10 May 2016
No minarets, please! How to deal with anti-Islam party AfD? ++ What’s left of the left? Social Democrats struggling to regain popularity ++ “The world needs a united Europe” – Obama’s farewell message to EU citizens. by Peter Sawicki
No minarets, please! How to deal with anti-Islam party AfD?

Three years after being founded, the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) adopted its first official policy manifesto. It is chiefly based on the party’s severe opposition to Islam, calling for a ban of Islamic symbols such as burkhas and minarets. The manifesto, published during the AfD’s party congress in Stuttgart on May 1, is using the slogan “Islam is not a part of Germany.” It was a clear rejection of a prominent mantra of former Federal President Christian Wulff (Christian Democratic Union) who in 2010 had declared the opposite, fuelling a vivid discussion about integration and multiculturalism in Germany.

The AfD’s manifesto moreover includes a strict stance against the common European currency, the European Union as a political entity and the deployment of German soldiers in overseas regions. Prominent party members, including deputy chairman Jörg Meuthen, passionately called for a “healthy patriotism” in political debates in the Federal Republic. Meuthen also said his party was fed up with “the Germany of 1968, infected by the socialist and environmentalist left.” It was time, he declared, the country refocused on its traditionalist “family values” and developed an ideology of a “modern conservatism”.

Aiman Mazyek, leader of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, said the AfD’s agenda included racist facets and may likely spread an atmosphere of “Islamophobia” all over Germany. In an earlier statement he had compared the party’s attitude towards Muslims with that of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis towards Jews. Josef Schuster, who chairs the German Central Council of Jews, said the AfD’s anti-Islam policy revealed its general disrespect for any religious minority. “With this manifesto, the AfD has departed from the foundations of our constitution,” Schuster said. Various politicians echoed this kind of critique, including the Social Democrats’ (SPD) vice chairman Ralf Stegner who described the manifesto as a source of division and discrimination. He said the AfD was no more than a “crazed far-right party” offering no solutions for Germany’s problems.

There is, however, likewise a growing number of voices urging to deal with the AfD’s core political positions more seriously than in the past. Jens Spahn, a leading member of the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), ruled out his party would seek political cooperation with the Alternative for Germany. He nevertheless said he was “not interested at all just about constantly talking” about the party and some of its members’ statements. Instead, the CDU should develop fresh and coherent policies regarding topics such as domestic security in order to render the AfD superfluous, Spahn said.

SPD’s Olaf Scholz who has served as First Mayor of Hamburg since 2011 similarly exclaimed it was counterproductive to purely “demonize” the AfD, bearing in mind its increasing popular support. As long as the party argued in “populist terms, we should not call them ‘Nazis’ – this is the wrong approach.” There was enough potential, as Scholz further wrote in a position paper, to confront the AfD with reasonable arguments.

What’s left of the left? Social Democrats struggling to regain popularity

Less than 18 months before the upcoming federal parliamentary election, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – Germany’s oldest political association – is facing its arguably deepest crisis in recent decades. According to various surveys, support for the SPD had temporarily plummeted to just 20 per cent. The results display an even lower level of support than the party’s 23-per-cent-showing in the parliamentary election in 2009 which had then been the SPD’s lowest performance since World War II. The trend coincides with an ever-growing popular support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), climbing to a record 15 per cent. The SPD has for a long time proved unable to regain wider trust in their political agenda despite Germany’s soaring rates of economic inequality which are the highest in the euro zone.

The alarming survey results – along with crushing defeats in recent regional elections in the federal states of Baden-Württemberg as well as Saxony-Anhalt in March – have stirred a debate about the SPD’s core political identity. Johanna Uekermann, head of the Young Socialists in the SPD, the party’s youth organisation, said the Social Democrats were primarily suffering from a “lack of credibility”. She lamented more and more voters had lost their faith in the SPD’s original promise to contribute to higher levels of social equity. Uekermann furthermore declared it was time for the party’s main figures to conduct “an unsparing analysis” regarding future Social Democratic policies in Germany.

Philosopher Michael Reder made similar remarks, urging the party members to be more precise about their political guidelines. He suggested the SPD paid stricter attention to “environmental issues” as well as delivered a “more tangible notion of what social justice on a global scale truly means.”

It remains uncertain, though, if Sigmar Gabriel, who has been the SPD’s chairman since 2009, is going to be the one to spearhead his party’s next federal election campaign. Gabriel, who currently serves as the federal government’s Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economic Affairs, was re-elected as the SPD’s chairman last December. The vote’s slim result – with only 74.3 per cent supporting Gabriel as party leader – however indicated a huge amount of party members did not believe Gabriel was the right man to challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2017. More recently Infratest dimap, a pollster, further revealed he is among the least popular members of government across Germany. Critics have long bemoaned the 56-year-old’s overly harsh debating style as well as his fickle character. Even though Gabriel brushed off recent rumours it was a matter of time he would step down as the SPD’s chairman, there are signs he will not be a part of those shaping the party’s short-term future.

“The world needs a united Europe” – Obama’s farewell message to EU citizens

During his last visit to Germany as President of the United States, Barack Obama gave a speech at the Hanover Technology Fair. It took place on the final day of Obama’s 48-hour-visit which was part of a tour around Europe and the Middle East. In his speech Obama paid tribute to Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, amongst other things. Obama, whose second term as U.S. President is going to end next January, said Merkel was “on the right side of history” with the way she managed the refugee crisis despite facing fierce opposition domestically as well as in numerous other parts of Europe. “She is giving a voice to the kinds of principles that bring people together rather than divide them,” Obama said.

The 54-year-old moreover praised the achievements of several decades of European integration and urged EU citizens not to accept tendencies of intolerance and authoritarianism. Obama described the European Union as a global role model of peace, pluralism and liberal values. “Perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who is not a European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved,” Obama said. He further emphasized the global relevance of European politics and declared he had “come to the heart of Europe to say the U.S. and the entire world needs a strong, prosperous, democratic and united Europe.”

Obama’s speech received positive reactions in various German media. The left-leaning weekly news magazine Der Spiegel praised Obama’s passionate message and wrote he had been “a great visitor”. Die Welt, a conservative daily newspaper, similarly declared Europe should be “grateful” to the first U.S. head of state of African American origin for his call for more political unity within the EU. Die Zeit, a liberal weekly newspaper, however, reminded its readers many Germans were “disappointed” with some of Obama’s policies. After almost eight years in office, as the journal argued, many were left with a feeling of neglect and were particularly disenchanted with the NSA scandal and the U.S.’s use of drones in war areas.

During his visit to Hanover, Obama also strongly expressed his support for the EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – an agreement the German government has likewise firmly lobbied for during recent years. TTIP, however, is increasingly unpopular in both Germany and the United States, amid expectations the deal would chiefly benefit huge corporations. More than 30,000 protestors had marched through Hanover’s streets ahead of Obama’s visit, demonstrating against TTIP.

According to recent EU surveys, 59 per cent of Germans are opposed to the trade deal. Scepticism regarding TTIP is likely to grow even stronger as Greenpeace, a prominent NGO, published secret contents of current TTIP negotiations. The leaked documents uncovered there were “irreconcilable” differences between the U.S. and European negotiators, including U.S. demands making the EU breach certain promises it has made on consumer protection. Jorgo Riss, the director of Greenpeace EU, said TTIP would pave the way “for a race to the bottom in environmental, customer protection and public health standards.”

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