Germany has embarked on its third ‘grand’ coalition government, with Angela Merkel sworn in as Chancellor for the fourth time. With the two main parties joined in government, the far-right AfD becomes the largest opposition party. The opposition also includes other parties, of course, both on the centre-right (FDP) and left (Greens, Die Linke, whose combined seats outnumber those of the AfD). So why does the AfD’s status matter?
It matters because the AfD’s influence will grow as a direct result. First, the largest opposition party has particular privileges and rights in the Bundestag. For example, in plenary debates it is the first to respond to the government speaker.
The AfD can look forward to even more exposure than ever
This might seem irrelevant; let’s be honest, not that many people sit and watch parliamentary debates. But come the evening news you’ll see ‘highlights’ from the minister’s speech and then from the principal opposition. Contributions from other opposition parties are shown after that, if at all. This coverage combined with a near ubiquitous presence on political talk shows means the AfD can look forward to even more exposure than ever. And this is a party that thrives on publicity.
Second, the AfD has the right to chair some of the Bundestag’s key committees. Die Linke has attempted to prevent this; not by disputing the party’s formal entitlement, but by questioning individual AfD deputies’s suitability for the role. However, although it makes a brief political point, this approach isn’t really an effective strategy over the long term; and anyway, the other parties either supported the AfD appointments or abstained. The AfD now heads up three committees. But again, why is this an issue?
For one thing, such appointments bestow the chair and his/her party with a degree of authority or respectability. At some stage, parliament and its committees is likely to demystify the AfD, by making it part of the same political class it claims to challenge. Just as a solid parliamentary presence (and experience of regional government) eventually faded Die Linke’s appeal as a protest party.
But in the meantime, chairing and sitting on committees has the potential to ‘normalise’ the AfD’s presence in the Bundestag and, importantly, its relationships with other parties. Over time, it is not uncommon for political adversaries to also become professional colleagues, particularly on an individual level: ‘I disagree with their party’s views but as a person they’re actually okay’.
The Bundestag has been here before. Die Linke’s predecessor, the PDS, was itself something of a pariah in the post-unification period, but had deputies sitting on various Bundestag committees. It also held a number of seats in eastern regional and local legislatures. Several deputies managed to build professional working relationships with members of other parties, with a pragmatic approach focussing on ‘getting the job done’. The point is that away from the spotlight these relationships helped signal the PDS’s potential to become a reasonable and ‘responsible’ partner.
Within a just few years the party entered into regional supply and confidence deals and eventually coalitions with the Social Democrats, often against the wish of the SPD’s national leadership. How soon will it be before we see the AfD following suit, cooperating with the CDU at local or even regional level, particularly in the east? In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, where the preference of some CDU deputies for closer cooperation with the AfD has been described as an ‘open secret’?
With this in mind, the CDU parliamentary group’s recent decision to withhold support for any draft legislation even co-sponsored by the AfD might be regarded as a warning to local CDU branches (e.g. in Saxony-Anhalt): no cooperation with the AfD. But that’s not the full picture. For the CDU also intends to take the same approach towards draft legislation supported by Die Linke, bizarrely claiming the latter want to ‘lead the country away from western values’.
Obviously, there is little love lost between the CDU and Die Linke, but this decision is worrying nonetheless, as it plays straight into the AfD’s hands. Yes, it fuels AfD displays of indignation. But what’s worse is that by making no distinction between Die Linke and the AfD, the CDU is consciously downplaying the specific, far-right, nationalist nature of the AfD — and therefore relativising the threat it represents.
All in all, we can’t just assume that parliamentary life will tame and weaken the AfD. If anything, there’s a real threat that the party’s influence will grow. Both publicly, as its ideas receive greater exposure, and in more subtle ways, with the formation of political and strategic alliances.
Image credit: LoboStudioHamburg @ pixabay