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The Germans go to the polls today

Spelling matters. The Germans have been going to the Poles on and off for about a thousand years, which generally has not been a very good experience for the Poles, but quite often it has also turned out not to be a very good experience for the Germans. Fortunately, all the people exchanges over the past 72 years have been restricted to tourism and business. Let’s keep it that way.

Today is the election day across the German land, from the Polish border on the Oder river to the Rhineland in the west, including Aachen and Cologne, which I visited briefly earlier last month. The Chancellor Angela Merkel, the former East German chemist, is running for her fourth term at the head of the Christian Democrats, the sort of German centrists with vague right leanings.

The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, the two biggest parties, have been kinda campaigning against each other because they are the two biggest parties, but also kinda not, because in two out of Angela Merkel’s three terms so far, they have been in a grand coalition together, and could be so again after today. But they are certainly campaigning against the Alternative for Germany; the Social Democrats for ideological reasons (the “far right” is the devil) and the Christian Democrats for pragmatic ones (AfD steals more votes from them than anyone else).

So while the Christian Democrats are going into the election with a strong lead (34 per cent), and the Social Democrats a distant second (21 per cent), the big story of the election is the rise of the Alternative, which this time looks extremely likely to pass the 5 per cent vote threshold necessary to ensure seats in the Bundestag (sitting at 13 per cent in the latest polls). The Christian Democrats will not have a governing majority and will have to form a coalition of some sort (there is an unlikely possibility of a broad left-far-left coalition), but the Alternative is a tar baby of the German political scene; no one from the respectable, established political parties will touch them.

AfD started in 2013 as mainly a Eurosceptic party that was campaigning against another EU bailout of the basket case Greece with the German taxpayers’ money. The party, however, quickly broadened its appeal during the refugee crisis of the past two years. It also saw some internal infighting between the more mainstream faction (led, coincidentally, by another female chemist) and some less savoury, in the German context, forces.

Today, the Alternative is running election billboards featuring a bearded Muslim man and his burqa-wearing wife with the slogan “Islam does not belong in Germany”. By and large, the migrant influx does not seem to have harmed Merkel politically in the broader electorate, except to the extent of the rise of the AfD in the polls. The Alternative will enter the parliament for the first time, but Merkel looks set to be reasonably comfortably re-elected. For all the controversy, immigration does not seem to resonate quite as much as an issue in the political mainstream as it does in the English-speaking democracies like the United States, Great Britain or Australia, possibly because the German economy has been going quite well and the electorate is not particularly restless at the moment.

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But in another illustration of the principle that the political spectrum is not a straight line but a horse-shoe or even a circle, another AfD advertisement has been causing a stir. It features Che Guevara, quotes the famous revolutionary slogan “fatherland or death”, and claims that Che would today vote for the Alternative. Well, maybe not. Che would no doubt consider all the German left-wing parties to be sell-outs for engaging in a democratic process, but even though Che was a racist and a homophobe in real life, I doubt whether the AfD goes far enough in that direction for him. Interestingly, even though the party opposes same-sex marriage, the Alternative enjoys quite a strong (if rather closeted) support from the German LGTBQ community, possibly because many feel their lifestyle threatened by the mass migration from the Islamic countries.

All in all, it seems “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

(Cover image: “Burqas? We prefer our bikinis”)

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