So You’ve Got Populists in Your Parliament. What Next?


The motions and proposals the AfD has introduced to the floor in the past four months are an important tool in this triple strategy. Its members have introduced or co-sponsored 26 bills since October, more than Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Most of them reflect the party’s clear focus on questions of national identity and immigration control.

The AfD is clever at addressing real or apparent common ground with other parties’ positions, to make their proposals look conventional, even irrefutable. The party has proposed, for example, a ban on full veils in public — something that prominent conservative figures in Ms. Merkel’s party have supported, too. A few weeks ago the populists introduced a bill that would enshrine German as the country’s official language in the Constitution. The Christian Democrats adopted this same position in 2010, a fact the sponsor of the bill, Stephan Brandner, doesn’t fail to point out to journalists at the caucus’s weekly news conferences.

It is the party’s strategy, leading figures in the AfD admit, to make the other parties vote against positions they actually share, so that they have a hard time defending their decisions to their constituents. “It’s true that none of our proposals are passing,” said Bernd Baumann, the AfD’s parliamentary coordinator. “But that’s not the point. We are proposing legislation so that everybody knows what we stand for, to put our ideas on the top of Germany’s political agenda.”

On the surface, the AfD’s proposals remain within the mainstream, betraying its nationalist and xenophobic stance only in nuances — for example, by the frequent evocation of notions like “German soil” or “dominant foreign cultures.” Again, it’s the more radical statements outside the Parliament that set the tone. At a rally in February, André Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, called Germans of Turkish decent “cameleers” and said they should “get back to where they belong, far, far beyond the Bosporus” in Turkey. Albrecht Glaser, an AfD representative at the Bundestag, said at a rally that Islam was a “construction” that “does not know religious freedom and does not respect it — and who treats fundamental rights like this should be deprived of these rights.”

As one of its first acts in Parliament, the AfD nominated Mr. Glaser to be a vice president of the Bundestag (typically, each party is allowed to name at least one vice president). Given his attack on Muslims’ religious rights, the other parties blocked Mr. Glaser’s election, while their own nominees were all approved. The AfD then won headlines when it complained it was being treated unfairly by the sore losers in the establishment. All in all, a tie.

The AfD’s triple strategy of normality, provocation and self-victimization puts the other caucuses on the spot. But there has been some learning by their opponents as well. A broad consensus has emerged among the established parties that it is best to treat the AfD as normally as possible as long as it’s possible. “We must not generally deny them certain positions in the Bundestag,” Thomas Oppermann, the head of the Social Democratic caucus, wrote recently, and indeed the AfD heads three parliamentary committees.

Three strategies can be identified in response to the AfD’s provocations. First, the emotional response: Cem Özdemir, the leader of the Green Party, recently gave a passionate speech on the floor, calling the party “racist.” The video went viral. Second, pointing out the AfD’s inconsistencies wherever it makes mistakes. Third, tackling false allegations with facts: A young representative from the Christian Democrats, Philipp Amthor, responded to the AfD’s proposal to ban full veiling in public with an elaborate account of the rulings both by the German Constitutional Court and by the European Court of Human Rights that would stand against a ban. That video was widely shared, too.

All of these have pros and cons. The emotional response unites your own supporters but evokes an equal reaction on the other side. Pointing out inconsistencies and making a factual argument may work better, but that tends to reach a smaller, wonkier audience. For most hard-core AfD supporters, all three responses fall flat. The AfD has built a strong social-media presence that doesn’t let anything through without adding its own spin.

Four months into the experiment of countering parliamentary populism, it is too early to draw definite conclusions. The AfD’s presence in the Bundestag seems to consolidate, but not increase, its support. In the general election, its share of the vote was 12.6 percent; in February, most polls saw the AfD at 13 percent to 15 percent. But the other side, too, has profited from the party’s presence. It has directed media attention to the Parliament, to which the public usually pays just passing attention. It has invigorated the debates on the floor. It has made a very young backbencher’s speech widely seen.

Much of this is specific to German politics and doesn’t necessarily offer a model for Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and other countries facing a populist incursion in their own Parliaments. But it does show that populist parties can have a positive and invigorating effect on mainstream politics — arguably the first step toward a new turn to the center.

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2018-03-14 01:18:41
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