Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 29 April 2024

 Scandals hurt the far right less than its rivals hope

Tony Barber · 30 Apr 2024

In May 2019, Austria’s misleadingly named far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) was embroiled in a scandal known as the Ibiza affair. It concerned a video, secretly filmed on the Spanish island two years earlier, that showed the then party leader and one of his lieutenants discussing dubious business deals with a woman masquerading as a Russian oligarch’s niece. The Ibiza affair destroyed the coalition government, which included the unashamedly Russophile FPÖ. In the snap elections that followed, the party’s vote slumped.

From this episode it may seem tempting to conclude that, if a farright party engages in behaviour that opens it to accusations of corruption or bootlicking of foreign dictatorships, it will suffer serious damage. Doubtless moderate German politicians are dearly hoping this fate will befall Alternative for Germany (AfD), which for almost a year has occupied second place in opinion polls. Last week, an assistant to Maximilian Krah, a senior AfD politician, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Then it emerged that prosecutors had put Krah himself under preliminary investigation on suspicion of receiving Russian and Chinese payments. Krah denied wrongdoing and said he would sack his aide.

Opponents of the AfD would be wise not to raise their hopes too high. True, the party has found itself in an awkward spot on several fronts this year. Mass protests erupted in German cities after it came to light that some party members had discussed a “remigration” plan involving the deportation of asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin. Then the leader of the AfD’s branch in the eastern state of Thuringia went on trial on charges of using a Nazi slogan — charges he rejects. Since January, the AfD’s poll rating has slipped to about 18 per cent from 22 per cent.

However, the allegations of corruption and espionage, and the widespread public association with dangerous rightwing extremism, may inflict little more than short-term damage on the party. Its dip in the polls seems to have been driven less by public disapproval of its antics than by the arrival on the German political scene of an upstart anti-establishment movement, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance. With its combination of leftwing populism and a strident line on migration and national identity issues, this party has attracted some AfD voters, particularly in former communist eastern Germany where the far right is strongest.

In spite of this dent in its support, the AfD is still well placed to win or finish a strong second in elections due in September in the three eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Even a victory in just one state — Thuringia is the likeliest — would mark a breakthrough for the party. No radical rightwing party has won a German state election since the democratic federal republic’s creation in 1949.

To account for the AfD’s attractiveness to a hard core of voters, we must look beyond those Germans who abhor the idea of casting a ballot for an extremist party, let alone one that is in trouble with the law and is friendlier to autocracies than to Germany’s allies. AfD voters see matters differently. For them, what counts has been the party’s rhetoric against migrants, Islam, Covid lockdowns and expensive climate change policies. They brush off the AfD’s legal difficulties as proof that establishment politicians, the media and the judiciary are victimising the only party that dares speak the truth about modern Germany’s ills.

There is a lesson from neighbouring Austria, too. There the FPÖ has recovered from its electoral battering in 2019 and is top of the polls as the country prepares for national elections due before the year’s end. One reason is that Austrian voters are right in not seeing the FPÖ as the only party tainted by corruption or incompetence. The alleged misdeeds of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, once the youthful superstar of Austrian politics, have harmed the reputation of his conservative Austrian People’s party and, for some citizens, make voting for the FPÖ an entirely reasonable choice.

In Germany, the outlook is somewhat more reassuring. Mainstream parties and politicians have not fallen into the discredit that has engulfed Kurz. And while the FPÖ has served several spells in government since the 1980s, there remains a taboo in Germany against letting the radical right anywhere near real power. But for many democracies, the question is how long such taboos can stay in place if enough voters are determined to support far-right candidates and parties — no matter how grave the allegations of misconduct against them.

No comments:

Post a Comment