Germany moves right in refugee crisis

One right-wing party is becoming increasingly popular as more refugees continue to arrive.

LewandowskyWe speak with Marcel Lewandowsky at the Helmut-Schmidt University in Hamburg, Germany. In his research he focuses on the German populist right party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). He tells us about how the refugee crisis is fueling the right-wing movement.

ResearchGate: How politically right is Germany at the moment?

Marcel Lewandowsky: I’m not sure whether you can call critics of the current refugee politics “right-wing.” Being right-wing means having a completely right-wing worldview, and that’s not necessarily true for the people who are critical of refugee policy. There’s a high acceptance of taking in refugees on the one hand, and on the other hand there’s fear. One person can feel both at the same time. It can’t be denied that there will be distribution battles and that these distribution battles will not take place in the upper third of the social demographic.

RG: What do you mean with distribution battles?

Lewandowsky: There’s the problem that refugee children are taught at schools where there aren’t enough teachers anyway. There’s the problem that refugees are housed in small communities where infrastructure is scarce already and so on.

These are distribution battles that are visible and are made more visible by the media. As long as refugees arrive and Germany continues its humanitarian politics adhering to its constitution and doesn’t restrict immigration, which would be difficult according to its asylum policy, these problems will persist. The public’s fears will continue to grow. This is the worst case scenario.

RG: First there was the “Refugees welcome” movement. Now public opinion seems to have turned. Calls for restricting the number of refugees allowed to stay in Germany are becoming louder, both in the political arena and in the public. When did this happen and why?

Lewandowsky: We don’t have data to back up anything yet. However I believe that Angela Merkel’s stance could have been one reason why public opinion pivoted. It overruled other European countries by saying “you close your borders, we open ours.” People felt disadvantaged on the one hand and afraid that we were now opening the country up to masses of refugees, risking our wealth and prosperity. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but on an individual level these fears are understandable.

RG: The party Alternative für Deutschland is right-wing and critical of the Christian Democratic Party’s refugee policy. According to recent polls it would score 10 percent if there were national elections on Sunday. How could this happen?

Lewandowsky: At the moment most parties are in a tricky position when it comes to the refugee question. Angela Merkel positioned the Christian Democratic Party far on the left. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) can’t be more open for the refugees than the chancellor already is. On the other hand, the SPD can’t be more critical than the chancellor because that wouldn’t sit well with parts of their voters. The CSU, the Bavarian branch of the CDU, is trying to be more conservative, eyeing for AfD voters. The CSU however has the problem that it’s part of the government and can’t position itself further right than the AfD. The AfD is the only party that holds strong conservative views in German refugee policy and as we can see, it’s benefitting from this situation at the moment.

RG: What’s happening in the population? Is it socially conservative, right-wing, or fearful?

Lewandowsky: It’s a combination. What a person is afraid of is partially determined by their worldview. I think we’re seeing a lot of different political stances that we lump together under the label “right-wing” in the context of the refugee crisis.

There are populist positions on the right that people can grab on to now. But that doesn’t mean that everyone these parties appeal to are united by a far-right worldview. It can also mean that some of them don’t feel well-represented by the other parties and that the AfD is the only one that connects with this segment of voters through its platform and its skepticism about Germany’s refugee policy – to use a careful formulation.

RG: How can we reach this portion of the population? 

Lewandowsky: Morality plays a big role in this discussion. Of course the question of whether people who are seeking help receive it is an ethical one. It’s a question that Article 1 of the Basic Law and Article 16a answer. At the same time, the morally loaded nature of this topic causes those in the population who are already fearful to feel even more excluded.

RG: How could these fears be alleviated?

Lewandowsky: These fears aren’t going anywhere for now. You can’t alleviate them by pursuing a different communications strategy, because they’re not being pulled out of thin air. These fears emerge from what people see in the media and in their daily lives. The question of whether fears endure is linked to concrete events and actual policy. You can’t oversimplify the issue.

RG: How do you see the German right-wing populist movement in comparison to similar movements in other European countries?

In neighboring countries like Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium there are right-wing parties that are successful on a national level. Germany was the exception so far and this was something that political scientists were a bit puzzled about. The conditions in the federal republic were given for such a movement to exist.

One reason why no right-wing party made it on a national level was the media discourse. You could call it an antifascist media discourse post 1945 that immediately stigmatized right-wing politicians as outsiders.

Another reason is that right-wing parties were disadvantaged by the federal system. They basically had to be on the ticket in all 16 states to succeed. If they weren’t, they risked not making the five-percent threshold.

A final reason is that the right-wing movement was fragmented in Germany for a long time. There were three parties that pooled right-wing to neo-Nazi voters. But you also had the CDU/CSU that did a good job at tapping into this pool. Under Merkel the CDU moved away from this national conservative position. The AfD is benefitting from this move “to the center” because it opened up room for a right-wing populist party. This, indeed, is a novelty in Germany.