By Susanne Ganss (Staff Writer)
German politicians are struggling to find a way to respond to the Pegida movement in Eastern Germany. The movement, “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West”, has brought more and more people to the streets of Dresden every Monday since October. What started out as 500 people demonstrating against radicalism and ‘preachers of hate’, has grown to over 25,000 in the span of three months[i]. The movement increasingly attracts former supporters of the governing party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as well as those on the political far right. Dealing with this mass movement has become a headache for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who went from largely ignoring it to condemning its leaders in her New Year address when the movement had grown too big to be ignored [ii]. The question that presents itself to the German political elite now is whether or not to engage in dialogue with the organizers of the movement. Some argue it will give the movement, explicitly defined by several as racist, merit. I argue that it might be more politically costly not to open the doors to dialogue.
For the past 20 years, Germany has been one of the exceptions among EU member states, in that no populist right wing party has manifested itself in its politic terrain. Virtually every other member state has seen the rise of Eurosceptic parties gaining support by either opposing certain elements of the EU or certain EU policies (soft Euroscepticism) or the European integration project in its entirety (hard Euroscepticism).[iii] From Ukip in Britain to The National Front in France, political parties expressing hard Euroscepticism have gained traction all over Europe. A common feature of several of these parties is the advocacy of stricter rules on immigration and the need for better integration of immigrants into society. The German political elite has, however, remained united in its support of the European Union, and German politicians have been among the most vocal in Europe about the importance of tolerance and diversity.
When considering how much Germany has gained from its EU membership, both politically and economically, this is not surprising. It went from ruin at the end of the Second World War to becoming the contested ‘leader of Europe’. In reviewing its past, it is no wonder that the political elite in Germany see the importance of breeding tolerance and multiculturalism. Further, this helps to explain their unwillingness to engage with or give an opportunity to the political far right.
The Pegida movement can however be seen as a sign that not everyone is able to find their place in this political landscape. A lot of the people who participate in these demonstrations feel marginalized and overlooked by German politicians. This is precisely what the newly established political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is capitalizing on. The party was founded in 2013, and began by campaigning “for a dissolution of the Eurozone and a radical re-configuration of German foreign policy”[iv]. Formed only months before the general election, the party got 4.7 percent of the vote, very close to the electoral threshold of five per cent. In the European Parliament election last year, the party managed to get seven per cent and seven seats in the parliament[v]. The AfD presents an alternative to the mainstream parties, and has attracted several voters from Angela Merkel’s CDU, which under her leadership has moved towards the center, alienating those on the right wing of her party.
Vice-President of AfD, Alexander Gauland, has called the Pegida movement their “natural allies”[vi] and several members of the party are participants in the demonstrations. Most of the other German parties have, however, stated publicly that they will not engage in a conversation with Pegida leaders, as they do not view them as legitimate and because Pegida leaders preach racism. CDU is somewhat split over the issue, whereas its Bavarian sister party, the Christian-Socialist Union (CSU), welcomes a dialogue. [vii]
When looking through the 19-point manifesto the Pegida movement is built on, it is initially difficult to understand why most German politicians are so against engaging with it. The manifesto lists clear political goals. Among them is a democratic system similar to the Swiss model of direct democracy, as well as the adoption of a screening system of asylum seekers more similar to the Dutch or the Swiss systems, in order to shorten the time period spent on processing asylum applications.[viii]
However, though some of these political goals may be sincere, they do not come across as the main message of the movement. The language used by the protestors is often racist and generalizing of Islam, as a religion, and Muslims, as a group. The co-founder and, until recently, leader of the group, Lutz Bachmann, does not help to legitimize the movement. With a criminal record for drug dealing, as well as breaking and entering, he was disliked by many from the beginning and perhaps not taken seriously by the political establishment in Germany. Recent photos of him posing as Hitler certainly do nothing to help the matter and rather add merit to the claim that the Pegida movement is racist.[ix] This claim is reinforced by the fact that several neo-Nazis figure prominently in the marches, among them the new leader of the extremist right party, National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP), Frank Franz.
It is still important to keep in mind that, increasingly, more of the people turning up for Pegida demonstrations, especially in Dresden, are ordinary citizens who are protesting the political establishment and worry about conservative Islam and the effects it might have on German society. These are people who often feel that they are left behind by contemporary society and might end up finding an outlet in racism. If they feel like their opinions are cast aside as illegitimate, they might start distrusting the politicians even more and possibly also the democratic system in itself. Including them in the political dialogue might ameliorate their sense of being left behind. For chancellor Angela Merkel, and the CDU especially, keeping the dialogue open is also the politically smart thing to do as there are formed CDU members apart of this group and likely that they could end up losing these as well as more voters to the AfD. More importantly, dialogue is a vital part of democracy and should always be pursued.
[iii] Taggart, P. and Szczerbiak, A. (2001) “Parties, Positions and Europe: Euroscepticism in the EU Candidate States of Central and Eastern Europe”. SEI Working Paper, no. 46. Sussex European Institute.
[iv] Arzheimer, Kai (2015). “The AfD: Finally a Successful Right-Wing Populist Eurosceptic Party for Germany?” In: West European Politics 38, in print, p. 2