The Progressive Post

🇩🇪 Irrelevant at last?

Germany's cautionary tale for Progressives across Europe

Research officer at the University of Tübingen, Germany
04/06/2024

In the European elections, Germany’s progressives flopped yet again – and this time out of a position of power. With unwavering confidence that the far right can be beaten by normalising it, Germany’s divided left marches towards an uncertain future.

Commentators are shell-shocked: Germans voted as expected. After years of having been normalised, the far right thrives. Ultimately, however, this was a vote on the notoriously unpopular Ampel – the ‘traffic light coalition’. 

Hopes were high when the trio of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals took office in 2021. They promised to ‘dare more progress’, waking the nation from 16 years of conservative slumber. Instead, voters saw publicly staged infighting, communication disasters and a lack of political leadership. Now, the ruling parties enjoy the fruits of their labour: a collective vote share of 31 per cent. Polling data confirms that this was a decidedly national vote. Throughout the legislative period, EU achievements were barely acknowledged or even framed as national projects. Tenuously praising the EU every five years only to cannibalise its contributions for national gain remains the modus operandi.

Despite the chokehold of national politics, the elections were dominated by global issues. Freedom, migration, farmers’ protests, war and security were as salient in Germany as they were across Europe. In the light of economic worries, social security also made a comeback. Sahra Wagenknecht’s newly founded BSW (Bündins Sahra Wagenknecht), an economically left-wing anti-migrant split-off from the Left party, capitalised on this. Notably, the climate issue was largely demobilised, leading to an implosion of the Greens.

Janus-faced Social Democrats

The SPD struggled in an election that was an ‘unpopularity contest’ from the get-go. With 13.9 per cent, they scored their worst result in the history of European elections. This has become a well-rehearsed routine: with one exception, all European elections since 1979 went downhill for Germany’s Social Democrats. 

During the campaigns, the party was Janus-faced across the board. Among EU enthusiasts, candidates like Katarina Barley, Gaby Bischoff and René Repasi are held in high regard, though they are far less known to the broader public than Olaf Scholz. The chancellor, however, kept alienating progressive voters by lending rhetoric from the right, dreaming of mass deportations, including to Afghanistan and Syria. Of course, the AfD and the BSW occupied the anti-migrant niche much more credibly. Scholz’s zigzag between nationalism and pro-Europeanism makes one wonder what he stands for: from building a fence around Germany unless EU citizens are excluded from social assistance to ‘Hamiltonian moments’, everything seems possible. Contradictions and blunders also plagued the SPD’s campaign. Barley’s efforts appealed to a progressive, pro-European electorate, standing up ‘against hate and sedition’. Undeterred, her party tried spinning the ethno-nationalist call ‘Deutschland den Deutschen‘ (Germany to the Germans) into a campaign slogan

Too far to the right for progressives and too progressive for nationalists, German Social Democracy finds itself at a crossroads in an electoral system that has long left the catch-all parties of the post-war years behind. Crucially, it is well-publicised by now that copying far-right talking points does not weaken but risks strengthening ‘the original’. The unwavering confidence of some Social Democrats that they can achieve a Social Democracy by sacrificing Social Democratic ideals remains astonishing.

Dangers of complicity

The success of the AfD sent shockwaves through Germany’s media landscape. However, this performative act of surprise bears little credibility. In fact, the AfD performed much worse than polling suggested earlier this year, when nearly a fourth of Germans seemed willing to vote for the far right. 

Across the EU, the strengthening of right-wing fringes will make it harder to find majorities. However, this is no one-off seismic disruption ending the EU as we know it. Instead, the main threat to European unity manifests slowly. In stark contrast to Germany’s AfD, many far right parties have succeeded by way of whitewashing. Simultaneously, mainstream parties feed into a creeping normalisation of far right talking points. In combination, both trends wear down the fabric of public resistance against actors and ideas that were once shunned. 

While it is easy to blame the centre-right, Social Democrats also need to get their own house in order. Since the SPD’s 2021 election victory, party leadership gradually pivoted to the right while intra-partisan resistance slowly faded. Germany’s Social Democracy crumbles in terms of votes, rhetoric and contents – a cautionary tale to progressives across the Union and beyond. 

Photo Credits: Shutterstock.com/SymenonidisDimitrios

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