Students Investigate German Politics

Kaizad Irani ’22 and EJ Canny ’19

Staff writers 

While most politically conscious Americans have shifted their attentions toward the results of this past week’s midterm elections, many are unaware of the massive changes occurring in German politics. Late this past October, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that she would step down as leader of her political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This comes as no surprise for those following the political events happening in Germany. She has announced her plan to retire by 2021, and political experts anticipate that a new coalition government will replace the CDU’s majority. With the rising popularity of far-right political parties, such as the anti-immigrant Alternatives for Germany (AfD) party, Germany is undergoing a major political transition in ideology that has not occurred since before the start of the century.

On October 24, the German studies department held a “political salon” to discuss some of these issues. It consisted of upper class German Studies students, along with the James K. Batten Visiting Professor of Public Policy, Dr. Timo Lochocki, and Wake Forest University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Dr. Helga Welsh. Both Lochocki and Welsh are considered top international experts on German politics.

Izman Suhail ‘19 was one of the students who participated in the event.

“As someone who is currently in Dr. Lochocki’s German politics class, I felt incredibly fortunate to meet another expert on German politics in person,” said Suhail. “The atmosphere helped spark conversations between the professors, guests, and students, and I appreciated how Dr. Welsh structured the evening to encourage a friendly debate about the topics at hand.”

The event was advertised as an open political discourse between the students and professors. Welsh began by asking a simple question: What are the top three challenges facing Germany in the next decade? This led to a discussion about the rise of populist parties, the economic disparity between East and West Germany, and the future of the European Union. Additionally, participants talked about the proclaimed “refugee crisis” in Germany and the ideologies behind treatment of immigrants.

“I was personally curious about Dr. Welsh’s perspective on the future of the European Union in light of rising nationalist sentiment across western Europe,” expressed Suhail. “I left the conversation on a positive note knowing that Dr. Welsh believes that, although the EU will probably undergo significant changes in the next decade, the rising tide of nationalism is not enough to drown out supranational institutions of such magnitude.

The Davidsonian had the opportunity to interview Welsh and learn more about her thoughts on the changing German political scene.

(Note: this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Davidsonian: The AfD (Alternative for Germany) seems to have leveled out in terms of polling numbers since the last election. Have they hit their ceiling?

Helga Walsh: That depends on what happens in the next two or three years. One has to look at who votes for the AfD, and it is a relatively broad spectrum … We should not get too excited about the AfD. It is true that this is a party of many factions, and there is a lot of infighting going on. Often, or most cases in Germany, right-leaning parties will self-destruct themselves. Quite a bit of their support from people who have not previously voted, particularly in the eastern part of the country. They thought that for the first time they might have a voice … [In 2017, it] was a different ball game. People were ready for a change and then it didn’t happen.  And so we are now kind of stuck, and we have all this infighting within the [grand] coalition, the weakening of the SPD. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s time for a change. This was a long introduction to say that this would have an impact on how people vote for the AfD, because if they see stagnation and the same old stuff, then the AfD will do well. If people feel hate, there are new ideas, and if they listen to us a little bit, then I think the AfD will no longer be able to siphon off disgruntled voters from the SPD and CDU.

Davidsonian: Outside of Germany there have also been gains in the Green parties. Is their success sustainable in the upcoming European elections?

Helga Walsh: They might still do well because climate change is still a big issue. People will still be dissatisfied with established parties, but I wouldn’t call for a ‘Green Wave.’ They’ll do well, but the European Greens are divided. The Scandinavian Greens for example, and I don’t know where they stand now, are traditionally Eurosceptic.

Davidsonian: Do you believe there will be another election before 2021?

Helga Walsh: As long as the AfD rides relatively high at a national level, the established parties will avoid [a snap election] as much as possible.

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