Ireland’s election and Germany’s political crisis show the center is not holding


In Germany last week, the far-right Alternative for Germany cooperated with a local branch of the ruling Christian Democrats and a smaller pro-free market, liberal party to help form a government in the eastern state of Thuringia. The AfD, a vehemently anti-immigrant party brimming with both neofascist rhetoric and members, has surged into prominence in recent regional and national elections and commands the third-largest bloc of seats in the Bundestag, or parliament. Establishment parties have sought to keep them at arm’s length, aware of the taboo of associating with Nazi-adjacent politics.

But no longer. “The alignment shook German politics, breaking a pledge from mainstream parties that they would not cooperate with the far right,” my colleagues reported. “Spontaneous street demonstrations took place in German cities after the move, which was seen as a break in the post-World War II political consensus.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European embodiment of centrist, consensus-driven politics, branded the maneuver by members of her own party to collaborate with the AfD in Thuringia as “unforgivable.” But the political tremors unleashed there shook the center, instead: On Monday, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s designated successor, said she would step aside as leader of the Christian Democrats — a consequence in part of divisions with Merkel’s own party, where many want to pivot their politics in the direction of the AfD.

“The move opens up the party leadership to more conservative strains within the Christian Democrats that want to steer it back to the right as it jettisons voters,” my colleagues reported.

“We are currently feeling strong centrifugal forces within our society and party,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a news conference. “We have to be stronger, stronger than today.”

To some commentators, the developments are a worrying sign of the new political head winds. “Germany in 2020 is not Germany in 1933. But German politics have shifted in recent years in a disturbing way,” journalist Lukas Hermsmeier wrote in the New York Times. “Centrists and the far right share talking points on immigration. They share what they perceive as a common enemy in the left. And now, for the first time in decades, they even share a governor.”

In Ireland, the picture is similar in one key way: The country’s rival center-right establishment parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, had in the past ruled out cooperation with a faction as supposedly dangerous as Sinn Fein. But now they may be compelled to mend fences and even form some sort of coalition with the resurgent left-wing nationalists.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Gerard Howlin, once an adviser to former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, said that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s refusals to enter talks with Sinn Fein wouldn’t last.

“At the end of the day there will be only two choices. One is to bring Sinn Fein into government or else for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to form some arrangement again, but that will have the inevitable result of diminishing them further,” he said. “In a 100-year trajectory since the foundation of the state, this is the final end of a political system and architecture that was intact since the late 1920s.”

It’s a stunning development — and startling for onlookers abroad. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of the center-right Fine Gael had become something of a liberal poster child, given his gay identity and mixed-race heritage (his father was born in India). “The trained doctor backed grass-roots campaigns that pushed through the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortions, navigated difficult Brexit negotiations with the European Union and Britain and oversaw a phase of economic recovery,” my colleagues explained.

Now, Varadkar could be a political lame duck. Irish voters who flocked to Sinn Fein’s banner weren’t just animated by the party’s calls for unification with Northern Ireland. They were driven by social disquiet over housing prices and health care, and mobilized by Sinn Fein’s promises of rent freezes and a vast public housing construction program.

“We have a cohort of younger voters who vote on issues rather than parties … They have obviously identified Sinn Fein’s message on that issue as something to rally behind,” Jonathan Evershed, a researcher at University College Cork and Queen’s University Belfast, told Politico.

Similar concerns have influenced the German political scene, as well, with widening inequity fueling populist discontent. “Deregulation and neoliberal policies have done as much damage to people’s sense of shared responsibility as to their sense of economic security,” Peter Kuras wrote in Foreign Affairs last December. “The ‘new center’ is too thin to bind an increasingly diverse German society, and, as a result, political consensus around centrist policies is crumbling.”


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