Amid fears of a rising populist tide in Europe, Germany seems to be resisting its rightward tug with unique success. The day after Donald Trump’s election, The New York Times hailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the “Liberal West’s Last Defender.” And it was to Merkel, the new “leader of the free world,” that Barack Obama directed his final phone call as president. Meanwhile, others around the world are embracing right-wing populism, from the Britons’ stunning decision to leave the European Union to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian policies. Trump’s election has appeared at times to inject fresh energy into the right-wing parties of Europe. As some countries there brace for national elections this year, the prospects for these parties look bright. In France, for example, far-right National Front party leader Marine Le Pen is expected to advance to the second round of balloting in April’s presidential elections; recent polls show her beating scandal-ridden conservative candidate Francois Fillon in the first round.
Of course, Germany has had to cope with the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party peddling the same jingoistic, xenophobic populism as its cousins promote around the globe. The party has received outsized attention from media, both in Germany and abroad. Recent incidents, including a high-profile defection from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have added a note of panic to Germany’s politics.
But despite hysterical headlines claiming that the AfD’s presence augurs a “return of the Nazis,” support has remained tepid at best. In recent elections in Lower Saxony, the party garnered only 7.8 percent, below its stated 10 percent goal and far less than the CDU’s 34 percent. In an election last weekend in the Saarland, the CDU won over 40 percent of votes. The AfD won only 6.2 percent, barely clearing the threshold to take seats in the regional parliament.