Another Grand Coalition for German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a bitter pill to swallow -- but not for the firebrand AfD

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's new coalition could boost far-right groups in GermanyBERLIN – After the failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a four-party coalition, she's turning to an old flame to salvage stability: Germany's Social Democrats.

After many meetings and handwringing, the Social Democrats announced Friday that they'll enter into exploratory coalition talks with Merkel's Christian Democrats come January, a process expected to last two weeks that must pass the muster of the party's some 440,000 members.

The prospect of another four years tied to Merkel and her Christian Democrats is a bitter pill to swallow for many Social Democrats, who viewed the results of Germany's Sept. 24 poll – their worst-ever showing in a national election – as a referendum on the catch-all constellation that governed Germany for 8 of the last 12 years.

But for Germany's right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD – now the nation's third-largest faction in parliament – a renewed Grand Coalition isn't the most welcome development, either.

Although the party gained traction in recent years by criticizing the political stagnation of the Grand Coalition, a revival of that constellation in one form or another leaves the party in direct competition for voters' hearts and minds with another conservative faction in parliament arguably more apt at criticizing the government: The pro-business Free Democrats.

A four-party coalition with the Free Democrats "would have been better for the AfD because the differences between those parties involved would have made for impassioned and gruesome discussions, above all else on the topic of migration, that would have been better for their anti-establishment strategy," said Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist specializing in European populism and right-wing extremism.

"Now their achievements can be measured against those of the Free Democrats, who will probably be more constructive in the parliamentary opposition than the AfD," he added.

Germany's Sept. 24 parliamentary election resulted in a fractured political landscape that left Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats flailing to piece together a majority coalition. After receiving only 20.5 percent of the vote – their worst ever showing – the Social Democrats, Merkel's go-to partner for most of her tenure, proclaimed on election night that they wouldn't be entering into another coalition arrangement with Merkel.

The tables turned, however, when last month, the pro-business, conservative Free Democrats, normally a paramour of Merkel's, abandoned the experimental coalition talks that would have wed the two conservative parties with the environmentalist Green Party, citing irreconcilable differences.

"It’s better not to govern, than to govern badly," the Free Democrats' leader, Christian Lindner, proclaimed last month in his announcement that his party would be exiting coalition talks.

The move sent Merkel into a political crisis never-before-seen in Germany's post-war history. Faced with either the prospect of new elections or an unprecedented and unstable minority coalition, Merkel and other high-powered political elites dragged the Social Democrats back to the table to talk out a Grand Coalition 3.0.

"Whether or not the talks will result in the formation of a government is open," the Social Democrats' party head Martin Schulz said Friday after his party's leadership unanimously voted to begin exploratory talks with Merkel – albeit under different circumstances than previous marriages.

"We want a different culture of governance," Schulz added.

While the AfD celebrated the collapse of coalition talks between Merkel, the Free Democrats and the Greens as a sign of the end of Merkel's reign, the party's spokesman, Jörg Meuthen, told reporters in October that the motely constellation would ring in "golden times" for the AfD.

"It would have probably been better for the AfD under a Jamaica Coalition for the party to launch fundamentally oppositional attacks against all parties involved because this alliance would have been extremely difficult," said Hartleb.

By contrast, a Grand Coalition leaves more room for the pro-business Free Democrats, who reentered parliament this year after a four-year hiatus, to continue to reinvent themselves as a no-nonsense oppositional party – much to the disadvantage of the AfD, Hartleb added.

"The Free Democrats are in an interesting position because they've spent the past four years out of parliament and tried very hard to criticize the government in the meantime," he said. "It could be the case that the Free Democrats better position themselves as a bourgeois, democratic oppositional party and become perceived as a better alternative for protest voters unsatisfied with the performance of the government."

Even so, the AfD – which grew in prominence by utilizing an anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist platform after Merkel's decision to open Germany's borders to some 1 million asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere – could still benefit under a Grand Coalition, said Tyson Barker, a program director and senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan policy think tank in Berlin.

While the AfD and the Free Democrats are both conservative parties, the AfD has gone all-in on their firebrand form of right-wing nationalism, a realm untouched by other conservative parties, including the Free Democrats, he said.

"No other party is positioning themselves there," said Barker. "I don't think anybody will give the full-throated embrace that the AfD can in the same way."

Sticking to such nationalist politicking – a no-man's land in the German political realm – leaves room for the AfD to bolster their base and grow their numbers, regardless of the what constellation a future government under Merkel takes, Barker added.

"The AfD still has room to grow, no matter which one of those constellations would have come together," he said. "It doesn't seem like anyone is going to attempt to undercut the concerns of the AfD."

Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's new coalition could boost far-right groups in Germany
Credit: ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 12/17/2018

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Nationalist European politicians lose steam

NigelFarageLONDON—Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit European Member of Parliament, likes to joke that he’s the turkey who voted for Christmas and now, some speculate that he might actually be right.

He's set to lose his seat in the European Parliament when his dream of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union is realized in 2019.

In fact, his impending exit has some wondering if European elites have seen off the high tide of nationalism, or if there’s another wave yet to hit them: Marine Le Pen failed to win the French presidency and Geert Wilders didn’t unseat the Dutch prime minister.

Like Farage, their star power has lost its shine, some say.

“Farage is still box office as far as the mainstream media goes – he still seems to be a go-to-guy for comments on all things Trump and Brexit,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “He still has the power to irritate the political powers, but whether he has the power to persuade or mobilize large numbers of voters anymore is less certain.”

While the UK did vote to leave the EU in 2016, it’s Boris Johnson – not Farage – who is largely credited with that victory. Additionally, Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party didn’t manage to win a single seat at Westminster in this year’s snap election.

But it was when he ventured across the Atlantic for a string of speaking engagements that Farage’s luck took a turn for the worse. He has since made a career of defending President Trump in the British media, including when the president recently retweeted a far-right, anti-Islamic politician convicted for religiously motivated harassment.

“He gambled on being Trump’s best British friend and it’s blown up in his face," said Bale. "So many people here are shocked by Trump’s behavior or think he’s ridiculous that it’s not a plus to be associated with the president.”

That’s a feeling shared by many British voters. “Farage is a collapsed, one trick pony whose only claim to fame, other than disrupting Britain for generations to come, is a series of desperate photo opportunities with possibly the most despised man in the world at this current time,” said Niall Mason, 39, an accountant from London.

That's more or less the case for Farage's far-right contemporaries on the Continent, too, analysts say.

Leader of France's far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen’s journey to become a genuine contender for the Champs Elysée Palace wasn’t akin to the meteoric rise in nationalism that the UK has experienced with the Brexit referendum. She has enjoyed a gradual, and some might argue more sustainable, progress in France.

Back in 2012 she took home a respectable 17.9 percent of votes in the first round of presidential elections, which grew to 21.3 percent in 2017’s first round and then 33.9 percent in the second round.

“People thought Le Front National was done when Marine Le Pen took over, but the potential is still there. You can never write these politicians off,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Even so, Le Pen's tactic of cozying up to Trump since his election has largely backfired in France just as it has with Farage, said Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist specializing in European populism and right-wing movements.

"It's no longer playing to her advantage to so strongly associate herself with Trump and there's been massive infighting within the Front National," he said. "Marine Le Pen is being hotly contested within her party and there's a big power struggle at play."

But given the disillusionment with the French political establishment that gave rise to both Le Pen and French President Emmanuel Macron, it would be naïve to say she's out for the count, said Oliver.

“She is still there but very much in the shadow of Macron who is in his honeymoon period," he said. "She still has potential, and if there is another euro crisis then she could get a boost again.”

The Netherlands' Geert Wilders and his right-wing, the anti-Islam Party for Freedom have also lost their luster after failing to unseat Prime Minister Mark Rutte back in March – especially considering that Rutte and others have co-opted watered-down versions of Wilders' anti-immigration views for political capital, said Hartleb.

But while Wilders, Le Pen and their contemporaries may have influenced political discourse, their five-minutes of fame may have come and gone, he added.

"It's true that they've had a lasting impact on politics and they've brought their agenda into the political discourse," said Hartleb. "But I believe here – similar to Marine Le Pen – they've exceeded their peak and are increasingly experiencing vulnerability."

Be that as it may, populist parties in Germany and Austria were still able to make major electoral victories over the past year.

Germany's right-wing Alternative for Germany secured almost 13 percent of the vote in the nation's Sept. 24 elections – the first time since the 1950's that a right-wing party has sat in parliament. Meanwhile, the electoral gains of Austria's far-right Freedom Party have resulted in a conservative coalition government that'll be sworn in later this month.

But analysts say the wherewithal of these parties and their figureheads to continue to dominate the political mood in the U.K. and on the Continent depends on their ability to stay relevant in the absence of any major referendums or elections on the horizon.

“Anyone who thinks the media won’t find someone else and move on is fooling themselves," said Bale. "Producers get bored. Audiences get bored.”

Photo: Nov. 14, 2017 - Strasbourg, France - Screenshot of Member of European Parliament Nigel Farage during a debate about the "Paradise Papers" at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, France on November 14, 2017. Farage tweeted: "George Soros has spent billions in the EU to undermine the nation state. This is where the real international political collusion is."
Credit: Courtesy of Nigel Farage's Twitter page (11/14/2017)
Story/photo publish date: 12/13/2017
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Trump retweets shine spotlight on fringe British far-right figure

    LONDON — Jayda Fransen couldn’t be more pleased with her newfound fame. “I’m delighted that the leader of the Free World has taken the time to retweet three of my tweets in support of me,” she told The Washington Times.

Few Britons knew much about the 31-year-old deputy leader of Britain First, an anti-Islam, anti-immigration and ultranationalist group with an estimated 1,000 members, before President Trump on Wednesday posted three anti-Muslim videos that originally appeared on Ms. Fransen’s Twitter feed.   

Read more at The Washington Times

In France, there is no minimum age of consent for sex — that may change soon

    PARIS — As a campaign to crack down on sexual harassment intensifies, France is considering doing something long ago adopted in other Western nations: setting a minimum age of consent for having sex.

In recent court cases, judges refused to prosecute men for having sex with minor children because there was no proof of coercion.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Uber-like app for motorcycles eases traffic woes in one of world's most congested cities

    ISTANBUL — The narrow waterway separating the European and Asian sides of this metropolis has inspired classical myths and frustrated invading armies for centuries.

But today drivers traveling over the three bridges spanning the picturesque Bosporus are more likely to experience road rage than nostalgia in a city known as one of the world's most congested for traffic.  

Read more at USA Today

The Dutch learn to welcome refugee students

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands–When Wassim Mahmoud needs help navigating student life in Amsterdam, he turns to Rosa Rietkerk, a Dutch political-science student.

Mahmoud, a 29-year-old Palestinian from Syria, and Rietkerk, 20, met through the Foundation for Refugee Students (known by its Dutch acronym, UAF), a charity that supports refugees in higher education.

Read more at Al Fanar

French women go after sexual abusers with 'out your pig' campaign

    PARIS — In the wake of a growing scandal over sexual harassment in the United States, women in France have increased their complaints about sexual abuse to police, on social media, in street protests and through petitions.

The French Interior Ministry said it has seen a spike in women reporting rape, sexual assault and harassment by almost a third in October compared to October 2016.  

Read more at USA Today

Germany's political crisis: What's next for Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful nation

    BERLIN — The breakdown of talks to form a government in Germany — Europe's most powerful nation — means that the continent's pillar of economic and political stability is not so stable at the moment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel faced the biggest setback during her 12-year tenure Monday when the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) walked out of talks aimed at forming a governing coalition.    

Read more at USA Today

Merkel’s failure to form German government puts chancellorship in serious doubt

    BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government fell apart Monday, throwing Europe’s largest economy into a political tailspin and throwing into serious doubt the future of this generation’s most dominant European politician.

Long an anchor of stability in EU affairs, Germany may soon require more national elections just months after the latest vote, as Ms. Merkel’s hopes of cobbling together a new governing coalition collapsed.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Germany Sees Mixed Results in Refugee Education

BERLIN, Germany—Two years after Syrians started coming to Germany by the hundreds of thousands, the nation has had decidedly mixed results in integrating the new arrivals into its educational system. Older children are often shut out of learning anything other than German language and culture during their first year, though younger children who quickly learn the language can join their German peers in the classroom. 

Part of the problem, experts say, stems from the decentralized, ad hoc approach to refugee education in Germany.

Read more at Al Fanar

Italians in shock, tears after stunning loss knocks national soccer team out of World Cup

    ROME — Italians reacted with shock, grief, illness and tears Tuesday, a day after the unthinkable occurred: a loss by the national soccer team that knocked Italy out of the World Cup for the first time in 60 years.

“It feels like the pope died,” lamented Sandro Lucchesi, 68, a retired bank clerk who was just 8 the only other time Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup. “Usually, everyone loves to talk about soccer, whether it’s to complain or brag. But this time, all my friends are just hanging their heads.”   

Read more at USA Today

Berlusconi returns to Italian politics — this time as likely kingmaker

    ROME — Bunga bunga is back. Silvio Berlusconi may be best known around the world for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and convictions for corruption that have regularly undermined a career unlike any other in postwar Italian politics.

The last time he held political office, he was forced to resign with the country on the brink of bankruptcy, and, because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction, he is legally barred from running for office again until 2019. He’s clearly not getting the message.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Former Russian ‘it girl’ launches unlikely presidential campaign against Putin

    MOSCOW — Presidential election campaigns here are normally dry, dull and entirely predictable affairs that end with another resounding victory for Vladimir Putin over a handful of hapless, Kremlin-approved “opponents.” Ksenia Sobchak, a onetime Playboy pinup and reality TV star turned government critic, is out to change all that.

Ms. Sobchak, 36, dubbed the “Russian Paris Hilton,” has shaken up Russia’s staid political scene with an unexpected bid for next year’s presidential elections, when Mr. Putin is widely expected to seek another term in office that would keep him in power until 2024.  

Read more at The Washington Times

The man who drove Malcolm X around and introduced him to Fidel Castro

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_CAS171717aa001.jpegOne September evening in 1960 during a United Nations’ summit in New York City, Cuban leader Fidel Castro moved his delegation into Harlem’s historic Hotel Theresa to stay among African Americans: He felt they would welcome him.

That same evening, Luqman Abdul Hakeem drove to the hotel – up Lenox Avenue in his Volkswagen, with Malcolm X at his side. The Cuban flag hung over the building, where crowds of anti and pro-Castro protesters had gathered.


Germans still soul-searching on 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130402AA1.jpegBERLIN — The world’s 900 million-plus Protestants are preparing to commemorate a major milestone next week: the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the failings of the Catholic Church.

But in Germany, the land of Luther’s birth, the country where his rebellion took root, and a place where divisions over the onetime Augustinian monk’s legacy linger to this day, the quincentennial commemoration has taken on a more complicated significance.  

Read more at The Washington Times

German far-right party finds a rocky road after electoral success

BERLIN — When the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, placed a best-ever third in Germany’s Sept. 24 general election with 12.6 percent of the vote, supporters celebrated how their populist, anti-Islamic rhetoric rang true for many German voters.

But only 24 hours after the AfD’s historic win, the first right-wing party to enter the lower house of the German parliament since the 1950s already seemed headed for disaster.

Read more at The Washington Times

Londoners just got another reason to hate tourists

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_UK171717aa006.jpegLONDON — Commuters on the crowded London Underground are accustomed to the "mind the gap" warnings from overhead speakers as trains pull into station platforms, but they recently got a glimpse of another change that infuriated many.

The world's oldest subway system unveiled a trial last month to help tourists deal with the congested system: green-painted markings at King's Cross station, a major stop, to show where the doors open.

Read more at USA Today

There are about 400,000 refugee kids in Germany. Educating them is a 'national task.'

    In a modest classroom on the outskirts of Berlin, 10 children, most refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, consider a perplexing question: Can goats swim?

Benjamin, a precocious 12-year-old from Iran, pipes up with a confident smile on his face. "Of course they can," he says in German. "There's a lot of goats in Iran — I've seen them swim with my own eyes!"

Read more at PRI

More than 800 injured in Catalonia when Spanish police crack down on independence vote

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_SPA171717aa005.jpegBARCELONA — Spanish riot police smashed into polling stations Sunday in the Catalonia region and wounded more than 800 people trying to vote on an independence referendum the government had banned as unconstitutional. 

Violence erupted shortly after polls opened in northeastern Spain's autonomous Catalonia region, with video showing Spanish police firing rubber bullets, using batons and roughing up voters.

Read more at USA Today

Germany's 'Trump country:' Why small towns abandoned mainstream parties for far right

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130621aa001.jpegDORFCHEMNITZ, Germany — Retired farmer Gerd Mazanec normally votes for one of Germany's mainstream parties. But in last Sunday's parliamentary elections, he cast his ballot for the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD).

Mazanec's complaint: Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrats and its government partners in Berlin aren't looking out for pensioners like him. Paying more than $3 for a beer on a pension of just $800 a month "simply does not work,” groused Maznec, 62.

Read more at USA Today

How one city plans to steer residents away from driving

    Countries from the UK to China are rolling out extraordinary plans to eliminate fossil-fuel-guzzling automobiles. But one Nordic capital city is mixing tech and urban planning to make sure citizens do not need a car at all.

Finland’s capital Helsinki is growing quickly as it attracts labor from the countryside and overseas. Instead of building more freeways to accommodate the growth, however, officials are trying to make public transit so good that people just give up driving.   

Read more at PRI

Germany's far-right AfD party gains seats in national parliament in major cultural shift

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130827AA001.jpegBERLIN — In a seismic cultural shift, German voters on Sunday elected members of a far-right, nationalist party into parliament for the first time in a half-century.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), In its first federal election, was headed toward winning about 88 seats in the current 630-member Bundestag and making it the third-largest political force in parliament.

Read more at USA Today

Merkel celebrates fourth-term victory; right-wing nationalists win seats in German parliament

    BERLIN — German voters delivered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats a fourth consecutive term and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party a spot in the parliament in Sunday’s federal election, which was widely seen as a referendum on Ms. Merkel’s performance over the past 12 years.

Ms. Merkel’s jubilance over her re-election will be short-lived, as she now must piece together a coalition of widely disparate parties that can propel her Eurocentric, economy-driven mandate — an almost herculean task, given that a far-right nationalist party is entering parliament for the first time since shortly after the end of World War II. 

Read more at The Washington Times

Why is Angela Merkel headed for a fourth term? It's the German economy, stupid!

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU130906aa002.jpegBERLIN – Across western democracies, political turmoil reigns as voters oust incumbents and elect new faces to lead them out of international and economic crises. 

Yet, here in Europe's largest and most powerful nation, a less than charismatic Angela Merkel is poised to cruise to re-election Sunday for a record fourth term as chancellor of a unified Germany. 

Read more at USA Today

For many Germans, this election is about refugees

    Cultures converge on Sonnenallee, the main thoroughfare of Berlin’s southeastern borough of Neukölln.

The German capital’s trademark hipsters, wearing black and sporting tattoos and piercings, duck in and out of craft coffee shops and boutique bistros. A few traditional German pubs are scattered along side streets. But the lion's share of restaurants and shops cater to Arab and Turkish clientele.  

Read more at PRI

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