- - Tuesday, February 20, 2018

BERLIN — The big winner out of Germany’s long and painful talks to form a new government may be a player not even at the table.

The far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, once considered a fringe party, has emerged as the largest opposition bloc in parliament, and its popularity is rising as longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel struggles to cobble together another broad, centrist governing coalition in Berlin.

Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats reached a tentative coalition agreement with the left-leaning Social Democrats this month after a long period of political turmoil following September’s national elections, but pundits and polls suggest there is little reason for either camp to celebrate. Lacking a clear profile, both parties are sinking in the polls, the compromise government is widely seen as uninspiring and some within Ms. Merkel’s own party are calling for new leadership.

Instead, many political watchers here say the party, known by its German initials AfD, has shown a bump in the polls since the election and stands to benefit the most from the wreckage.

AfD officials say another four years of the same governing coalition in Berlin only bolsters their party’s role as Germany’s de facto opposition party. And if the watered-down, split-the-difference government that Ms. Merkel heads fails to address such hot-button populist issues as immigration and the future of the European Union after Britain exits next year, frustrated voters may be even more willing to give the once-pariah party another look.

“The AfD will be the strongest opposition party, representing alternatives to the political establishment in all policy areas,” Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD, told The Washington Times. “The AfD will emerge strengthened from the growing political chaos that the established parties have to answer for.”

Alexander Hausler, a sociologist at the University of Applied Sciences in Dusseldorf, whose research focuses on right-wing extremism and populism, said “it’s clear that the AfD will massively benefit from this constellation.”

“The tumbling-down of this grand coalition is clearly grist to the mill for the AfD,” he said.

The writing is already on the wall, said Mr. Hausler: Both Ms. Merkel’s center-right bloc and the Social Democrats had their worst-ever showings in the postwar era in the Sept. 24 federal election, winning only 33 percent and 20 percent of the vote, respectively.

Their support has continued to fall, with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavaria-based sister party polling at 31 percent and the Social Democrats at 17 percent, according to the latest figures from Germany’s Forsa Institute.

Such numbers have already prompted leadership change within the Social Democrats’ camp. The party’s embattled chief, Martin Schulz, resigned this week amid criticism over his leadership, and some conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) members are now calling for the same, albeit while keeping Ms. Merkel at the helm.

“The CDU is the party of families, the party of the social market economy, the party of Europe and the party of a dominant German culture,” conservative Christian Democrat and party up-and-comer Jens Spahn said in a speech last week, adding that the party leadership needed new heads.

Anti-establishment wave

The AfD, riding a wave of anti-elitist and anti-immigrant sentiment after Ms. Merkel’s decision to let in over 1 million refugees from Syria and other global crisis spots, entered the federal Bundestag for the first time in September after receiving almost 13 percent of the vote, making it the nation’s third-largest party. Some polls put the party’s base at 15 percent.

Frustration with the status quo mounted as a weakened Ms. Merkel struggled to create a coherent government — with the AfD shut out of the talks.

“I’ve had enough of these elites,” said Elisabeth Erdmann, 69, a retiree in Berlin who teaches German to refugees. “All they care about is power and what posts in the government they can get. They don’t listen to the problems of normal people.”

Ms. Merkel managed to secure the Social Democrats’ support to form a government by making concessions on immigration policy and social programs, agreeing to nominal reunification of refugee families on German soil, and bolstering housing and child care subsidies.

But the move comes at a steep political price, analysts said.

“The CDU had to make a lot of concessions and compromises in this coalition agreement — it clearly bears the signature of the SPD,” said Juergen W. Falter, professor of political science at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. “And that almost certainly benefits the AfD, [if only] by that fact that the [CDU] had to give up certain core conservative values” to cut a deal.

“The AfD will now try to fill this gap,” he said.

AfD party leader Alexander Gauland is already making that case to voters. He told reporters this month, “The CDU has given up as a party so that a Merkel without any real content can stay at the top thanks to Social Democrat support.”

Germans contemplating their political future may need look no farther than across the border, where a long period of power-sharing between Austria’s mainstream center-left and center-right parties came to an abrupt end in October. The conservative Austrian People’s Party moved to the right and struck a deal with the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party to form a new government. The center-left Social Democrats got the largest single bloc of votes — 26.8 percent — but were left on the sidelines.

The AfD has moved to exploit the opening by drafting strictly conservative laws on refugees and family values since entering parliament, all while vehemently denouncing Ms. Merkel’s plans for a revived centrist “grand coalition.”

Analysts said there is little chance that a renewed grand coalition won’t come to pass, even though the agreement between the two parties won’t be concluded until a majority of the Social Democrats’ 460,000 party members approve the coalition in early March.

The AfD also has a chance to build on its momentum in upcoming votes for some of Germany’s powerful state legislatures. The party is polling as high as 23 percent in some East German regions, bastions of disenchantment with the status quo where a number of state elections will be held next year.

But the party will also face challenges in the months ahead transitioning from a purely opposition party into one that must actually share in the burdens of governing — a challenge that may strain the AfD. With 92 seats in the 631-member Bundestag, the AfD was given the right to appoint the chairman of the influential budget committee and is the first party given a chance to respond after Ms. Merkel addresses the legislature.

“This continuation of the status quo will only extend the amount of time that the AfD can play their cards as a protest party, but at some point in time they’ll have to actually deliver,” said Mr. Hausler.

In the meantime, the party will continue to benefit from the failures of the catchall parties.

“The AfD is here to stay as long as long as valued conservative positions aren’t occupied by the CDU,” said Mr. Falter.

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