Merkel can’t ignore the far-right echo chamber

  • 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 polls with 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.

In transmitting this message, the AfD has some outside help. Although Russian hackers are known to have stolen material from the German Parliament, Russia has so far not sought to make a major impact on this election, perhaps because the Russians have long-term business interests and political links in the country they don’t want to disrupt, or perhaps because their attempt to use leaked material in the French election failed quite comprehensively. This time the tactic is different: Both official Russian media and unofficial pro-Russian trolls offer constant and repetitive support for the AfD and its anti-immigrant message.

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.

In a country where (according, again, to the International Republican Institute poll) the majority still trusts the strong, politically neutral centrist media, this doesn’t matter as much as it would elsewhere. As I’ve argued before, a large number of Germans also admire Merkel’s refugee policy and have pitched in to help with refugees’ integration. Nevertheless, both the AfD and its Russian supporters might be betting that, as in other countries, an angry, active, dedicated minority can cause quite a bit of disruption, particularly given that even a victorious Merkel will probably need to form a coalition. The distribution of votes between the four small parties — the liberals, the far left and the environmentalist Greens, as well as the AfD — will matter. And in postwar Germany, where the far right has never made inroads, even a 12 percent result would come as a shock.

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.