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Germany: Analysis From Washington: Right, Left, Far Right

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The strong showing of an extreme right party in the elections in a former East German region calls attention to the volatility in voter loyalties in post-communist countries, the role of money in determining electoral outcomes there, and the propensity of some voters suffering from the consequences of transition toward free markets to cast their votes for extremist groups.

Last Sunday, voters in the German state of Brandenburg turned away from the Social Democrats in favor of the Christian Democrats and the Party of Democratic Socialism, as the former East German communist party is now known. But the most dramatic feature of the election was the vote the far-right Deutsche Volksunion party received.

Running on an openly xenophobic campaign which blamed foreigners and other outsiders for the economic difficulties many former Eastern Germans are experiencing and funded by a wealthy Bavarian publisher, the Deutsche Volksunion captured 5.3 percent of the vote, more than the 5 percent needed to have representatives in the local parliament.

That is the second such victory for the Deutsche Volksunion in what was the communist portion of Germany. Last year, it garnered 13 percent of the vote in the neighboring state of Saxon-Anhalt. But analysts had not expected this small extremist party to do as well this time around.

On the one hand, it may be a mistake to make too much of the results of either of these elections: In both cases, more than 85 percent of the electorate voted for parties that most observers have classed as mainstream, and undoubtedly many of those who voted for the Deutsche Volksunion did so precisely as a protest rather than as a declaration of loyalty to that extremist group.

Indeed, studies of the electorate in many countries show that groups on the far left and the far right are likely to gain a certain small percentage of the vote but no more than that most of the time. That is because some of those who support them as a form of protest against the existing government are not willing to give such groups their vote when they appear to be contenders for real power.

But on the other hand, there are three reasons why the Deutsche Volksunion vote should be taken seriously not only in Eastern Germany and other post-communist countries but among people everywhere concerned about democracy and human rights.

First, as a result of the lack of stable political institutions and long-standing party loyalties, volatility among voters in post-communist countries is far higher than elsewhere. Voters in these states are far more likely to shift from one party to another, a pattern that not only reduces predictability but also means that a small party which does well may quickly attract a following than would be the case elsewhere.

And while none of the extremist parties in the region appears set to win anything approaching a majority of the vote, their garnering of even 25 or 30 percent of the electorate could give them a major voice in the formation of future governments. After all, Adolf Hitler gained office after his party received only 33 percent of the vote.

Second, this election highlights the role of money and especially outside funders in driving the electoral process. Across the democratic world, many people are concerned about the impact of money on elections. But in places like the former East Germany and other post-communist countries, slick and well-funded campaigns can play an even greater role than elsewhere.

Moreover, when the funding comes from outsiders as in this case from Bavaria, that pattern further skews the outcome and probably feeds the notion, widespread in this region, that "international conspiracies" of one kind or another are seeking to dominate the lives of people there. Such feelings in turn will only provide another basis for extremist parties there.

And third, even if the support the Deutsche Volksunion is receiving is only a protest vote, that in itself calls attention to the very real suffering that many people undergoing the transition from communism are currently suffering and to the failure of more moderate groups or their foreign supporters to seek to ameliorate this suffering.

In such circumstances, those groups which offer easy answers and blame outsider groups of various kinds will always find at least some support for their noxious views, a reminder of the fundamental truth of the observation that "all that is necessary for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing."