By Anne Applebaum
Yes, it looks like a foregone conclusion. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the center-right candidate (with an emphasis on center) is comfortably ahead in the pollswith 8 days to go in one of the most boring German elections anybody can remember. And no wonder: Merkel leads a country that hasn’t been this relatively rich or relatively powerful in many decades. Unemployment is low. The budget is in surplus. Germany is the undisputed leader of the euro zone, the club of countries that use the European currency.
More important, the election of President Trump seems to have convinced many Germans, as it did many other Europeans, that they need a safe, predictable leader who is committed to Western values. With that in mind, most German politicians have rushed toward the center ground. During Merkel’s only debate with Martin Schulz, her main center-left opponent (with an emphasis on center), the two appeared to be nodding along with each other’s main points.
But any time the establishment candidates come too close together, they leave gaps that will inevitably be filled by outsiders. The economy might be fine, but a poll conducted in August by the International Republican Institute found that more than half of Germans named terrorism, refugee policy, extremism or immigration as the “worst problem” facing Europe. And right now, only one political party is consistently focused on these issues. Day after day, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s far-right party — to the extent “far right” means anything anymore — says over and over again that Merkel herself is responsible for the refugee crisis, that Merkel’s policies have led to an increase in terrorism and that extremism has risen on Merkel’s watch. The party’s “Merkel must go” hashtag (#MerkelMussWeg) is repeated again and again in the online forums where AfD supporters go to get information.
An election monitoring project I help to run at the London School of Economics has found, among other things, that the German edition of Sputnik, the Kremlin “news” site, wrote significantly more positive articles about the AfD in recent months than about any other party. State-controlled Russian media, which is popular among the surprisingly large (up to 3 million) Russian-speaking community in Germany, gives AfD figures platforms on its glossy talk shows. Russian-language social media in Germany is awash with Russian and German media stories about immigrant crime in Europe, and with ads for the AfD. Some accounts post so assiduously it suggests they are automated.
It might be a useful shock. Most Germans — voters, politicians and media alike — play down or even ignore the existence of the far-right echo chamber in Germany and its Russian supporters. But we know from other countries (and other eras) that if they are never countered or confronted, “alternative” views have a way of abruptly entering the mainstream, especially at moments of crisis. Whoever is the next chancellor of Germany has many tasks in front of her. Finding a way to reach this alienated slice of the voting public should be high on the list.Top