A Far-Right Warning From Germany

Mainstream parties need to consider broader coalitions if they want to avoid partnering with the extreme right.

Angela Merkel sits in the Chancellery in Berlin for a meeting.
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

The far right in Germany may be confined to the opposition benches, but they are proving just how disruptive they can be.

Earlier this month, in the country’s eastern state of Thuringia, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) joined Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling center-right Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats to elect the latter party’s candidate for state governor. That a regional leader was elected with far-right support prompted a national uproar. Within days, Merkel condemned the result as “unforgivable”; the winning candidate stepped down; and the Christian Democrats’ leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer—thought to be Merkel’s anointed successor when the chancellor steps aside next year—resigned.

This saga demonstrated just how much of a disruptive force the far right in Germany has become, but the lessons from the episode ought to be heeded by mainstream parties elsewhere in Europe too. As politics becomes more fragmented, and as established parties lose votes to emerging smaller ones, mainstream groupings can no longer count on ruling alongside like-minded allies, let alone by themselves. They must begin to form broad coalitions with opposition parties elsewhere on the political spectrum to avoid being forced into alliances with the far right.

Although far-right parties have surged across Europe, the response to their gains has varied widely. In several countries, including France, Denmark, and Sweden, mainstream center-right and center-left parties attempted to curb the far right’s ascent by adopting some of their language and policies—particularly on potent issues such as immigration—with the hope of attracting voters back from the fringes. In others, the mantra of “if you can’t beat them, join them” won out, resulting in the emergence of far-right parties in coalition governments in countries including Austria and Italy. (Though it’s worth noting that few of these coalitions have survived full terms.)

In Germany, however, the tactic has always been a simple one: complete exclusion. The reason for this is primarily historical. As a country deeply conscious of its Nazi past, the mere thought of allowing a far-right party like the AfD into government “would be a historical minefield,” Sudha David-Wilp, the deputy director of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told me. This is the reason that the country’s mainstream parties have mostly ruled out working with the AfD, and it also helps explain why the events in Thuringia reverberated in the way that they did. Though the candidate for governor wasn’t himself a member of the AfD, fears abound that the emergence of the far right as kingmakers, even at the local level, could put the party on a path to national dominance. After all, it was in Thuringia that the first Nazi politicians assumed office in the waning days of the Weimar Republic—then, too, with the support of conservative parties—before ultimately advancing to the national stage.

Not all of these strategies have been effective, though. Across Europe, mainstream parties’ tactic of imitating their far-right counterparts in a bid to undermine them hasn’t been proved to work: Not only do these parties fail to attract enough far-right voters (as France’s former far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen put it, “Voters always prefer the original to the copy”), but they also risk alienating their more traditional supporters in the process.

“There is no evidence that shifting to the right diminishes the electoral support for the radical right,” Werner Krause, a research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, told me. By copying their positions, he added, mainstream parties risk “legitimizing and normalizing” them instead.

Nor is there evidence to suggest that far-right parties, once in power, necessarily lose support (the theory being that inviting them into government would dull their extremism, or otherwise reveal that extremism to the wider public). In Italy, for example, Matteo Salvini’s League maintained its strength while in government, momentum it has kept since being booted from the governing coalition last year. Even in Austria, although the scandal-ridden Freedom Party has fallen in the polls, its core base of supporters remains intact.

In maintaining its cordon sanitaire against the far right, Germany has sought to avoid either scenario. But this hasn’t proved easy. Across Europe, political dealignment has made the formation of viable governing coalitions incredibly challenging—a lesson Germany knows all too well. Following the country’s last general election in 2017, it took four months for the Christian Democrats to begrudgingly resume their “grand coalition” with the center-left Social Democrats after talks with other smaller parties broke down. As far-right parties continue to gain electorally, shutting them out will prove all the more difficult. And once that cordon sanitaire has been broken, it’s nearly impossible to rebuild. (One could make the case that the damage has already been done: Though the AfD didn’t succeed in getting one of its own candidates into office in Thuringia, the party can point to the events there as proof of its outsize role in influencing the outcome.)

The only meaningful way that mainstream parties can continue to exclude the far right from government is to accept two new realities: First, they must abandon the hopes of governing exclusively in like-minded coalitions. For Germany’s mainstream parties, this means accepting that “there is no power option … for a right-of-center government,” Krause said. “This option, at least if we exclude the AfD, does not exist in the future.”

Second, and relatedly, they must be open to the formation of broader partnerships—even with parties they may not necessarily see as traditional allies. For center-right parties, in particular, this means looking further afield to groups on the left such as the Greens, which have enjoyed their own surge in popularity across the continent in recent years. After all, as climate change becomes a greater priority to voters, the shift won’t necessarily be a difficult one for mainstream parties to make. This creative approach is already being put to the test: In Austria, the ruling People’s Party (which was previously allied with the far-right Freedom Party) is now in coalition with the Greens. It was an arrangement that required compromise on both sides: carbon neutrality commitments to satisfy the Greens, and stricter controls on migration to placate the center-right.

The challenges of excluding the far right are only likely to get harder. Indeed, a recent poll found that nearly half of Germans expect the AfD to be in national government within the next decade. Absent a change in strategy by mainstream parties, they may find themselves proved right.