Living abroad, I am bombarded with news about how badly Britain is faring (the latest being the post office scandal and the continuing tortuous debates about a plan to send migrants to a country far away in Africa), as the country waits for the long overdue election to change its government and hope for more sense, centricity and accountability.
But while I have every confidence the UK will turn a corner in January 2025 (or before), my greater concern lies in my homeland, where real trouble is brewing in Germany.
As always with the success of populist movements, the trouble stems from the inability of mainstream, traditional, left- and right-of-centre parties in government to act effectively and decisively, in this case the inevitable results of tensions in the most unlikely coalition of social democrat, greens and liberals (especially the unlikely coalition of the liberals with the greens, two parties with opposing views on almost anything of substance except their hostility to Russia during the Ukraine war).
While the government struggles to unite on a range of issues ranging from social security payments to heat pumps to farming subsidies, the populists are making hay while the sun shines.
Having done not especially well in the last election, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), under the leadership of the slick Alice Weidel, is once again scoring near 20 per cent in the polls federally, and even more in the East.
That’s a threat that has long been known, and the AfD remains under scrutiny because of the far right tendencies of some of its leading candidates in the East.
But there is a greater danger coming from the centre-right and, unexpectedly, from the left.
It has now become known that some CDU politicians aligned with the ‘Werte Union’, a conservative ‘values’ movement within the party, met with representatives of the AfD and one or more leading extreme right activists in Potsdam last year for … an exchange of views.
That this exchange included questions of migration policy won’t surprise anyone, that it included discussions of how to more quickly repatriate individuals who won’t be granted leave to remain is similarly unsurprising. We know such debates and ‘exchanges of views’ from the UK, and other countries.
That the discussion may have included thoughts on the “re-emigration” of people living in Germany legally who are not deemed as of German descent, who are not, as one commentator remarked, ‘Bio-Deutsche’, is genuinely shocking – especially in a country where one quarter of the population has some kind of migratory background.
The CDU is quickly distancing itself and its senior leadership from any such discussions and it is possible that participants at the meeting in Potsdam will be expelled from the party. But the threat of the centre-right giving a credible platform to the far right is evident. We have seen in the UK what happens when a traditionally centre-right party begins to woo the far right to secure a populist vote.
But the Conservative party might be forgiven for losing its way as it does not have the history of the German right-of-centre in colluding with extremists. The CDU has no such excuse.
Thankfully, the weekend just passed saw mass demonstrations in several German cities, including Potsdam, against the kind of migration policies apparently contemplated at the Potsdam meeting.
Greater still, I fear, is the threat of an economically left-wing, but socially right-wing, nationalist and populist movement. Enter the glamorous, popular, insidious Sahra Wagenknecht and her ‘Coalition Sahra Wagenknecht’.
Now formalising as a party under its charismatic leader, once the darling of the Left and its party Die Linke, the new movement aims to enter into local elections in this year.
Pollsters are already predicting 20 per cent of the vote in Eastern regions, possibly even higher than for the AfD. Wagenknecht proposes economic policies largely drawn from her Socialist background mixed with very conservative social values and with a strongly populist, nationalist and nativist tinge: reducing migration, prioritising ‘real Germans’ and a much softer line on Russia, a policy which she shares with the AfD.
Socialism mixed with a kind of Nationalism-Nativism is not a new phenomenon in Germany, and it is seductive especially for those in the East who feel left behind.
Wagenknecht does not pose a threat to democracy, nor the constitution – which the AfD has been accused of doing – but a Nativist-Socialist based movement which pillories the government and articulates to the people facile answers to difficult questions is not the way forward for Germany.
With luck, two populist parties will steal votes from each other, rather than further damaging the right and left of centre parties in Germany’s broad democratic spectrum. But the presence of two successful, populist parties is a stark warning to the governing parties, and to the CDU opposition desperate to govern, to take nothing for granted.
As a social democrat, had I been in Potsdam this weekend, then like the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, both in parliament as representatives of that city, I too would have joined the protests in Potsdam against extremism.