A deadly error


Trying to steal a rival political party’s clothes is not always a good idea. At best it can dilute the guiding vision that allows one set of politicians to differentiate themselves from another. Thus parties can be fighting over the same center ground, wrestling to become “moderates of the extreme center” while voters on either side of the debate do not see their views being represented.

At worst, filching a rival’s policies in an attempt to wrong foot them with the electorate can be downright dangerous, as Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) has just discovered. The CSU has been an immovable force in southern Germany for much of the last 60 years. More importantly, this center-right party has regularly been a key ally for the country’s Christian Democrats (CDU), currently led by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

When, in one of the most remarkable humanitarian gestures in recent history, Merkel opened her country’s arms to the victims of Bashar Assad’s brutality, as well as refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, the CSU leadership muttered but stuck with the program. A key argument for welcoming these migrants was that many of them were among their countries’ brightest and best. Germany’s post-war economic recovery owed much to the presence of Turkish “guest workers” who manned the production lines of its automotive and manufacturing industries. Like most of Western Europe, Germany has a stark demographic. Its people are living longer but in 2015 it overtook Japan to record the world’s lowest birth rate, 8.2 children born for every one thousand inhabitants. In the last four years this figure has begun to recover, to a significant degree thanks to births among refugees who have made their homes in Germany.

Some elements in the media and neo-Nazi politicians have leapt on reports of appalling behavior by a handful of refugees, whose crimes dishonor the majority of largely Muslim newcomers. The success of the openly-Islamophobic AfD in last September’s Federal elections has shaken mainstream politicians. Though Merkel secured her fourth term, she has been undermined by the result. With her authority already weakened, the 10 percent collapse in CSU’s support in Bavaria on Sunday threatens further problems. The CSU, with 37 percent of the vote, is probably able to put together a governing coalition but its leaders will now be worrying that, thanks to their alliance with Merkel, they are on borrowed time.

If they do indeed obsess with this, they will fail to appreciate the biggest lesson that appears to have come from the Bavaria election. In order to head off the AfD threat, CSU politicians tried to steal their anti-immigrant clothes. In doing so they discarded their moderate conservative attire. This produced a serious electoral blowback. Some traditional CSU supporters clearly felt the party’s rightward lurch empowered them to try voting for the AfD. However, it also seems clear that many moderate supporters were disgusted at the leadership’s cynical political maneuver and could no longer bring themselves to vote for it. Europe’s neo-Nazi politicians cannot be defeated by having their opponents take up their hateful bigotry. Merkel’s visionary welcome of over a million refugees needs to be defended robustly, as much on economic as humanitarian grounds. The lily-livered embrace of the lowest possible neo-Nazi political denominator is a deadly error.