All of a sudden the Loch Ness Monster of German politics has raised its ugly head. The eurocrisis, which so far had not been a theme in the campaign for the September 22nd general elections, has become its central issue. At the same time, the campaign has turned nasty and violent.
Last week, a rally of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a conservative party established in February by a group of conservative economists, was attacked by a gang of thugs. Some 25 masked individuals stormed onto the stage, knocked down AfD leader Bernd Lucke behind his lectern and pepper-sprayed the public. 16 people attending the rally were injured, including two children. The attackers also stabbed an AfD sympathizer with a knife.
There were violent incidents, too, against the AfD in Berlin, Goettingen, Muenster, Giessen and Nuremberg. Following the Goettingen incident, where AfD campaign staff was physically assaulted, an AfD spokesperson said that the incident reminded her "of the worst time of the Weimar Republic," when Nazi gangs beat up rallies of political opponents.
Why is there such an outburst of hatred against the AfD, a party polled to get only about 1% of the total vote -- far below the electoral threshhold of 5% needed to enter Germany's parliament, the Bundestag?
The AfD differs from the other German parties in that it aims to dismantle the euro, the common currency of 17 European Union member states. The party advocates breaking up the Eurozone by forcing the debt burdened Southern European countries out of the monetary union.
Though a poll in April found a quarter of all Germans saying that they could imagine voting for the AfD, many consider the party too much of a one-issue-party to do so. There is a feeling among conservatives that a vote for the AfD is wasted when the elections are likely to become a contest between the current Christian-Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social-Democrat challenger Peer Steinbrueck. For Merkel to be able to serve another term as Chancellor, her junior coalition partner, the center-right Liberal FDP, will need to take the 5% hurdle. This becomes difficult if the AfD draws too many votes away from the FDP.
As AfD leader Lucke, a 51-year old economist, recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, heavily indebted countries including Greece, Italy, and Portugal, should be kicked out of the euro zone before Germany goes broke trying to save the common currency. This would be the best option for everyone. The euro exit would help the Southern countries to regain economic competitiveness, while the economically healthier countries to the north, including France and Germany, could retain their currency union.
The AfD's critics claim that the party is catering to nationalist prejudices. The Green Party, which hopes to be able to form a coalition with the Social-Democrats after the elections, called on its members "not to allow the campaign of the AfD any room!" The Green activists who assaulted an AfD rally in Goettingen said that they were "fighting against right-wing populists and Nazis."
The Green Party is currently polling 12% in the surveys. Its hate-filled propaganda directed against the AfD might, however, be doing the latter a service. The more outrageously its opponents treat the AfD, the more people might be inclined to support it in the ballot box.
Ironically, Chancellor Merkel's current popularity is to some extent also derived from the sympathy of voters who are indignant about the unfair way in which she is treated. In countries such as Greece, Ms. Merkel is being depicted in Nazi uniforms and compared to Hitler, because she insists on governments in Southern Europe imposing austerity policies in exchange for German financial aid.
Nevertheless, even without winning a single seat, the AfD has already achieved the biggest political breakthrough in decades. It has overcome the most important political taboo in Germany, namely that there is no alternative to the policy advocated by both Merkel, Steinbrueck and the entire European political elite, who, to save the euro in its present form, all want to bail out Greece and other troubled Southern European countries.
The AfD has shattered the illusion that there are no other options for Germany than saving the euro. Voters have begun to wonder: Why are there no mainstream politicians who dare to suggest this alternative, especially as the financial risks of the huge bailout operations are mostly at the German taxpayers' expense?
The AfD has even managed to influence people at the top of Merkel's party. Kai Konrad, the chief economic advisor of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, told the newspaper Die Welt recently that Germany cannot save the eurozone. Saving the euro, he said, would cost Germany so much money that it would bankrupt itself. "Germany is simply too small in comparison to the rest of Europe. Germany cannot save the eurozone. Those who believe that [it can] are denying reality." Rather than an exit of the Southern countries from the eurozone, as the AfD suggests, Konrad advocates a German exit from the euro. That, he says, is the only way to save the European Union.
No matter who wins the German elections later this month, the crisis engulfing the euro and the EU is far from over,