Issue 123: 2017 10 05: All Right? (Neil Tidmarsh)

05 October 2017

All Right?

Not quite.

By Neil Tidmarsh

A couple of weeks ago, as the German elections approached, I wrote that the far-right anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative For Germany) “is in disarray”.

And what happened on election day?

The AfD emerged as the third biggest party in parliament.  It won 13% of the votes, entering the Bundestag for the first time, with 94 seats.  5.9 million voters backed the party, taking a million votes from Chancellor Merkel’s CDU and half a million from the SDP.

Oh dear.  An alarming enough result for anyone other than an AfD supporter, but for a political commentator who had dismissed it as a party in disarray… I wiped das Ei off my face and put my crystal ball out with the empty bottles and jam jars to be recycled into something more useful and reliable.

But then what happened?

In AfD’s very first post-election press conference, only days after the vote, the party’s co-leader Frauke Petry dismissed it as too ‘anarchic’ for government and walked out.  She stepped down as co-leader, resigned from the party and said she would sit in the Bundestag as an independent.  Her husband Marcus Pretzell, AfD group leader in North Rhine-Westphalia, also announced that he was leaving the party.  Four AfD members of the state parliament in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern followed their example a few days later.  Die Welt reported that Ms Petry’s state deputy in the Saxony state parliament and another senior member are also quitting the party.  And this week, further confusion ensued when AfD’s now sole leader, Jörg Meuthen, rejected Alice Weidel, its candidate for chancellor, as a replacement for Frauke Petry.

A party in disarray, after all.  I rushed out to the recycling bins to retrieve my crystal ball; luckily it was still there – the week’s collection hadn’t yet been made.

Frauke Petry had recently clashed with other leaders over her pragmatic approach (intended to give the party political credibility) and her attempts to lead the AfD away from xenophobia.  At the party conference in April, she withdrew from the running for the party’s candidate as chancellor; and in the run-up to the election, she was sidelined by the joint candidates for the chancellorship, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, who are taking it even further to the right.  It was Mr Gauland who said recently that Germany should be proud of its soldiers in the two world wars; and a court in Hamburg ruled earlier this year that a comedian had every right to call Ms Weidel a “Nazi slut” on TV.  One of the new AfD MPs is Wilhelm von Gottberg, a district mayor, who has said of the Holocaust “the genocide against European Jews continues to be used as an effective instrument to criminalise Germans”.  As a 77 year old, he would have had the honour of delivering the opening speech of the new parliament – which traditionally goes to the oldest member – had not the government (clearly equipped with a better crystal ball than my own) passed a measure a few months ago giving that honour to the longest-serving member instead (who happens to be Wolfgang Schauble, the former finance minister, who is being proposed as the new speaker).

The AfD isn’t the only far right party which seems to be in disarray at the moment.  This week, Marine Le Pen sacked the National Front deputy leader Florian Philippot as chief strategist and head of communications.  M Philippot promptly quit the party.  He had been recruited by Ms Le Pen in 2010 to help her detoxify the party and broaden its appeal; he advocated greater social tolerance and a move away from its traditional anti-immigrant, anti-Islam stance, which can’t have endeared him to many in the party.  And he supports absolute national sovereignty, which means he insisted that the party must be anti-EU and anti-euro, ideas which many members believe cost it votes in the presidential elections and led to its defeat by M Macron.  M Philippot’s departure, like that of Frauke Petry, seems to have been precipitated by a movement even further to the right; interviewed on television, he said that he thought the party might now make “a terrible return to the past, the FN caught up again by its old demons”.

And here in the UK, Ukip has just elected its fourth leader in less than eighteen months.  Just about the only heartening thing in British politics at the moment is the fact that the Brexit vote didn’t result in Ukip riding to any sort of success on the kind of wave of populist right-wing xenophobia which has sustained AfD in Germany (taking it into parliament as the third biggest party) and the National Front in France (bringing it neck and neck with the two main parties and taking Marine Le Pen right through to the final round of the presidential contest).  Ukip took less than 2% of the vote in June’s election, has no MPs and lost control of Thanet district council (the only local authority in which it had a majority) last July.  The temptation to use the leadership election to move even further to the right, as AfD and the National Front appear to be doing, must have been great; but to Ukip’s credit, it was resisted.  Anne Marie Waters, the director of Sharia Watch UK and anti-Islam activist described as “the Joan of Arc of neo-fascists” was the bookies’ favourite for leader – but she came second with only 21.3% of the vote.  A former Liberal Democrat, army officer and policeman, Henry Bolton, came first.  He has announced a plan to throw out the “integration agenda” which focuses on Islam and Muslims, and declared that his election has stopped Ukip from becoming “the UK Nazi party.”

Frauke Petry, Florian Philippot and Henry Bolton have all tried to make their parties less extreme and less intolerant.  Frauke Petry and Florian Philippot have largely failed; Henry Bolton appears to be succeeding.  There’s little to be thankful for in British politics at the moment, but that at least is something, I suppose.


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