News Digest 4th September

Right-extremists and the limits of free societies

On Saturday, an estimated 38,000 people, including those protesting the corona restrictions, anti-vaxxers, Putin supporters, the far left and members of extreme right groups, such as the anti-state Reichsbürger and neo-Nazis, demonstrated in Berlin. The demonstration was organised by “Querdenken 711” (Lateral Thinking 711). Speakers included the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, who spoke against the development of the 5G cellular network in his speech, warned of a surveillance state and attacked Bill Gates, and others. He said, “Today Berlin is again the front against totalitarianism.” Thousands also took part in counter-demonstrations, shouting at the protestors, “You’re marching alongside Nazis.”

No social distancing, no face masks, tweeted a Welt journalist

The police broke the demonstration up as the protestors were not keeping hygiene regulations (including wearing masks and socially distancing). A group, many of whom were seen wearing colours and flags of the Reichsbürger movement (which evoke the Nazi era), later tried to storm the Reichstag building. Hundreds of protestors were arrested.

The actions of the extreme right protestors caused outrage and a discussion about the limits of free speech, even before the demonstration. Last week, Berlin’s Senator for the Interior, Andreas Geisel (SPD), had sought to ban the demonstration, but was overruled by a court; the organisers responded with a message, “The freedom virus has reached Berlin.”

The Zeit was concerned about a statement Geisel had made; that he did not want to provide a stage for the demonstrators, commenting, “‘What a dangerous statement!”

The article states that Geisel had said, “I am not prepared to accept for a second time that Berlin is misused as a stage for corona deniers, Reichsbürger and right-wing extremists.” Trying to ban the demonstration on the basis of banning freedom of speech, rather than for security or hygiene issues, was the wrong decision, argued the Zeit: “Yes, there are dangerous opinions, those that violate other legal interests and can lead to violence. That is why freedom of expression has limits… However….. it is not the opinion itself that may be forbidden, but the dangers that may arise from its dissemination. For example, for public peace. Or the health of others. That is a small, subtle difference, but one that is a characteristic of this republic. The Berlin Senator for the Interior does not seem to have understood him.”

The Süddeutsche Zeitung also argued that, “It was right that their event should be allowed by the courts. The Berlin police and the Senator for the Interior were wrong when they issued their ban on Friday….. Andreas Geisel saying that he did not want to allow Berlin to once again become the stage for “Corona deniers, Reich citizens and right-wing extremists”, he was forcing the administrative and higher administrative courts to guarantee this stage. In a democracy everyone has the right to deny Corona as he (or she) wants.”

Reactions to the events on Saturday amongst political parties were unanimous, reported the media. Generally, the right to protest against the corona restrictions was supported. As a Tagesspiegel headline summed it up, “Unbearable, bizarre – but also legitimate.”

However, the spectacle of right-extremists storming the Reichstag, the seat of German democracy, was condemned, as was the risk to the police, the fact that moderate demonstrators had walked alongside and therefore legitimised neo-Nazis and the fact that the demonstration had probably acted as a super-spreader.

The Handelsblatt argued that, “Free societies have to live with unreasonable demands. However, the events that took place in Berlin over the weekend exceeded the limit of what the democratic state should accept.”

Federal President Steinmeier said that, “Reich flags and right-wing extremist rabble in front of the German Bundestag are an unbearable attack on the heart of our democracy. We will never accept that,” and, “My understanding ends where demonstrators let themselves be harnessed to the carts of the enemies of democracy and political agitators.”

Foreign Secretary Heiko Maas, said that the spectacle of the far-right flags in front of the Reichstag was ‘shameful’ and that, “NOBODY should have to chase after right-wing extremists, endanger police officers & expose many to the risk of infection.” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said that “Diversity of opinion is a hallmark of a healthy society. However, freedom of assembly has its limits where laws are trampled underfoot,” and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz that “Nazi symbols, Reich citizens and imperial flags have absolutely nothing to do with the German Bundestag.”

The Welt reported that security outside the Reichstag is to be tightened up and that a CDU politicians had called for the right of assembly to be reassessed. “In view of the pandemic situation, the laws are no longer precise and timely enough.” It must be possible to ban a demonstration if a gathering is obviously only used to provoke regulatory violations such as non-compliance with the corona rules.

A Tagesschau commentary argued that, “Above all, the demonstrators have shown that they don’t care if they march with right-wing extremists. They tolerated the Reich war flags in their ranks, there was no public distancing from them, no protest before or during the demonstration. And they discredited themselves with that. Anyone who makes common cause with right-wing extremists does not represent legitimate interests.” The Süddeutchse Zeitung agreed: The demonstrators on Saturday did everything they could to not be listened to.”

The Tagesspiegel was concerned about driving away the people who only wanted to protest the corona restrictions with accusations that “anyone who marches with right-extremists, Reichsbürger, aluminum hat wearers and other lunatics” are the same: the anti-foreigner demonstrations organised by Pegida, which exploded after the influx of refugees in 2015, also started with non-radical people, argues the Tagesspiegel. The problem was, that these people became radicalised by the ‘for us or against us’ mentality: “The ‘heart of our democracy’ that Steinmeier sees attacked is also the heart of people who are against corona measures. One should not drive them away verbally, but bring them back.”

The demonstrators make up a tiny minority of opinion in Germany. As the Tagesschau also pointed out, Angela Merkel has said many times that the virus is an imposition on democracy, but that the restrictions are necessary. The vast majority in Germany agree with the restrictions; only 11% think the restrictions have gone too far. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine argued, “In the fifth month after the outbreak of the corona pandemic, there is no sign of a broad and loud protest movement against federal and state politics.”

However the Handelsblatt issued a warning: “The corona protest is loud and angry, and it doesn’t have a majority. But neither should one made the mistake of trivialising it…….The corona crisis has revealed lines of conflict that will outlast it. The decisive political argument is no longer being fought between left and right, but between the open society and its enemies, between constitutional democracy and false utopias.” The danger, argued the article, is that, “the open society is taken by surprise by its enemies, which is what the pictures from the Reichstag symbolise,” and that “the dangerous thing about the corona demonstrations is the fact that they offer right-wing extremists and Reischbürger a coat that makes them socially acceptable….Everyone who marches in the protests because they see their civil liberties curtailed, and everyone who suspects a global conspiracy behind the virus should know who they are being used by.”

The Zeit too, was concerned that the right-extreme is still not being taking seriously enough by the political establishment: “the right-wing extremist danger and racism in Germany are repeatedly talked down and countered with counter-narratives. The right-wing extremists can now firmly count on that. So much so that it has become a tough political force.” Although the extremists may be in a minority, “Berlin has also proven this – there are now people in very many parts of society who are willing to form alliances with right-wing extremists. And the right-wing extremists don’t need anything else………. The attack on the seat of the German Bundestag was a clear message to their supporters, but also to the Democrats. They showed what they would like to do.”

Leadership questions

The SPD got well ahead of the Chancellor candidate game by nominating Olaf Scholz as candidate two weeks ago. The CDU, however, still has a leader to elect, as well as a Chancellor candidate to select.

The planned conference to elect the successor to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in April was delayed because of the corona pandemic. It won’t happen until December and the three candidates – Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz and Norbert Röttgen – will see an election in a very different political world to when they announced their candidatures in February.

In an interview with ZDF at the weekend, Kramp-Karrenbauer warned against “ruinous competition,” arguing that the candidates must act as a team.

The deck has been re-shuffled for Chancellor candidates in the last few months: the CSU’s Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria, performed strongly through the corona crisis and is now the most popular choice to be the CDU/CSU’s candidate amongst voters, if not among politicians. Similarly, Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU), who against expectations did not announce he would stand to be leader in February, teaming up instead as a deputy to Laschet, has also perfumed so well that he is now being discussed as a possible Chancellor candidate.

Meanwhile, the Left Party leaders Bernd Riexinger and Katja Kipping announced that they would not be seeking re-election in October, since they have been in office for 8 years, the longest allowed by the party rules. The Süddeutsche Zeitung commented that the question of who will succeed the duo is complex since the party wants a balance between East and West Germany, and between the pragmatists and the party left. Currently, the two names being discussed as successors are Janine Wissler, the parliamentary group leader in the Hessian state parliament, and the Thuringian state chairwoman Susanne Hennig-Wellsow. The candidates seem a good option, commented the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “because Wissler is an exceptional rhetorical talent and popular with the more left-wing base. Hennig-Wellsow also enjoys a high reputation across both camps.” However, continues the article, “the situation is also unpredictable because former front woman Sahra Wagenknecht is continuing to work in the background. She is trying to get more of a class-warrior candidate into position. That could be party vice Ali Al-Dailami.” Further, “the greatest unknown remains the pandemic. If the party congress actually has to be postponed again, then the Left would inevitably go into the federal election year 2021 with Kipping / Riexinger. And then suddenly it would have the same problem as the CDU.”

The leadership questions are important as far as coalition building after the next election is concerned. A radically left wing Left Party leader could make it impossible for the SPD and Left Party to work together in coalition; a move to the right in the CDU/CSU Union could make a CDU/CSU Union/Green Party coalition unlikely.

Five years after ‘We can do this’

Some media outlets looked at the success Germany has had with integrating the asylum seekers who came to Germany five years after Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders with the words, “We have already achieved so much. We can do this.” In 2015/2016, almost one million people applied for asylum; the numbers have declined significantly since then. The Deustche Welle argued that while many figures tell a story of successful integration into German society, public opinion is still divided. An Insa poll showed higher levels of rejection of Merkel’s policy: 33.3% said they rejected it at the time, and still do, while a further 17.6% supported at the time but now no longer do. 25.7% supported it and still do, while only 4.6% said they rejected it at the time but now support it.

The Tagesschau wrote that Merkel’s words were intended to motivate the country – and partially did so. However, her words also polarised – the Alternative for Germany’s Alexander Gauland said “No! We don’t want to do it!” (The refugee crisis was successfully exploited by the AfD, which saw a significant rise in its support in the following year.) Perhaps more damaging was the reaction of the CSU’s Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer who complained about a “rule of injustice”. The Tagesschau comments that this was the beginning of an unprecedented dispute that almost tore the sister parties apart.

However, the Tagesschau also points to the successes; today, nearly 350,000 asylum seekers have a job paying social security and 75% are in private accommodation.

In another fact-checker report, the Tagesschau looked at crime and immigrants, since in 2015 the right wing whipped up fears of an increase in immigrant-related crime. The report concludes that the number of crimes committed by immigrants increased as a result of the sharp increase in immigration. However, if one subtracts the violations of immigration law that can only be committed by non-Germans, there is hardly any increase: in 2014 the number of overall registered crimes rose by 1.3 percent, then stagnated for one year and has been falling continuously since 2016.

Generally, the number of criminal offences recorded has fallen by around 20 percent in the last 30 years. The reasons for this are partly demographic: Germany has an ageing and declining population, which leads to less crime overall. For the same demographic reasons, the group of immigrants commits a disproportionately high number of crimes: they are significantly younger and more masculine than the average German resident population, and are more likely to experience precarious living conditions, which further increase the susceptibility to crime. Immigrants have a disproportionately high homicide rate, although the number is falling. Offences relating to bodily harm and sexually violence committed by immigrants rose after 2016. The Tagesschau concludes that there is not a civil war, but there are problems.

Left politician Sara Wagenknecht gave an interview this week in which she took Merkel to task about the integration of refugees. Wagenknecht was leader of the Left Party’s parliamentary group until March 2019, and one of the party’s more radically left leaders. While still leader of the parliamentary group, she set up a new movement called Aufstehen (Stand Up), which aimed to unite left-leaning voters and recapture working-class votes lost to the far-right AfD. In contravention of party policy, she argued against open borders and that the immigration of economic migrants should be controlled. Her initiative was opposed by the party and Wagenknecht resigned in March 2019, citing stress. This week, she said that Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to let in a million refugees has achieved one thing: “with her decision, she changed our country, which today is more divided than ever before, economically, socially and culturally….Today there are not fewer, but even more schools in which the majority of children speak German broken at best, even more desperate teachers who do not know how to teach properly under these conditions. There are even more residential areas in which the infrastructure is deteriorating, people are strangers to one another and feel unsafe,” reported the Welt.

Populist problems

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has had a bad year. Accusations of right-extremism have dogged the party; the leadership is split; the Brandenburg leader Andreas Kalbitz was thrown out of the party but launched a legal process against his expulsion; and the party lacked a coherent response to the corona pandemic. Its poll ratings have fallen to between 9% and 11%.

This week, the Welt reported on the splits amongst the MPs in the Bundestag. Two, including former leader Frauke Petry, left directly after the 2017 election to set up a new party, the Blue Party, but since the beginning of the year have sat as independents together with three other former AfD MPs. Now one of the MPs, Uwe Kamann, who left the AfD in 2018 in protest against right-wing extremist tendencies, has joined the LKR (Liberal Conservative Reformer), the party of another former AfD leader, Bernd Lucke which until 2019 had some MEPs (including Lucke). However, Kamann who told the Welt that there is “a vacuum in the liberal-conservative area that I don’t want to leave to the AfD,” is not allowed to form a parliamentary group on his own.

The Bertelemsann Foundation’s Populism Barometer published this week showed that populism in Germany is declining after a high point in 2018. Now 20% of voters are thought to have a populist mindset, compared to 33% in 2018. One of the authors said that, “The political centre, in particular, is proving to be able to learn and to be robust in dealing with the populist temptation, and is thus proving to be the cornerstone of this change in public opinion.”

Although the centre parties have gained much ground during the corona crisis, with the government winning high approval, the anti-populist change in opinion had already started well before the corona pandemic; the report states that the populist wave reached its peak at the end of 2018 and then subsided “like a landslide”. The increased trust in government work in the course of the Corona crisis stabilized and slightly reinforced this trend reversal, but not triggered it,” said one of the authors.

Further, the temptation of political parties to try and counter the rise of the AfD by appealing to populist instincts has stopped. The shift of centrists away from populism also means that the AfD is increasingly developing into a party dominated by right-wing extremist voters and the authors have pointed to the danger that the remaining populists, who have become defensive, could become more radicalised. This applies in particular to the AfD; a majority of 56 percent of AfD supporters are right-wing extremists and populist attitudes are also still disproportionately common among AfD supporters.

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