On March 13, three of Germany’s 16 states held regional elections that were largely seen as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s increasingly controversial refugee policies as well as the waning importance of energy and climate policies. Perhaps the biggest challenger and winner in this election was the far right, those against both the Energiewende and current immigration policies.
Represented by the relatively new Alternative for Deutschland party, nearly two million out of 12.5 million eligible voted marked their “X” for the climate change denying, pro-nuclear, pro-coal, and pro-fracking AfD. In much the same way that Donald Trump has galvanized both the media and either terrified or energized the electorate in the U.S. (depending on one’s position), the AfD has turned what are often sleepy regional contests in Germany into edge-of-your-seat political theater.
A Shift on Green Issues
Ironically, this year’s regional elections fell almost exactly on the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster that, at that time, pushed the anti-nuclear Greens into power as voters roundly voiced their desire for a climate-friendly, renewable energy policy. Opinion among once-divided political movements, represented by Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and the left-wing Green Party, have in the last five years since Fukushima merged on decisive issues such as renewable energy. Chancellor Merkel has since largely moved closer to mainstream Green positions on energy as well.
Following her party’s success, chairwoman of the AfD, Frauke Petry, told RT News that the results were “even better” than anticipated. AfD, which received enough votes to get into each of the three state legislatures, secured 24.4% in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. In Green-dominated Baden-Württemberg, they came in third with 15.1% of the vote. They also came in third in Rhineland-Palatinate with 12.6%. Meanwhile, the CDU suffered significant defeats in all three states.
A glowing Petry promised that AFD would address, “Not only migration, but our energy policies and even the care of our economy . . . as well.” For the AfD, economic, energy and environmental policies are intertwined in a way that funnels money and security away from the middle and working classes in Germany. They rail against the higher retail costs of energy following the Energiewende, stating that “energy must remain affordable and should not be a luxury commodity.”
Claiming that subsidized solar is only affordable for the rich, they also advocate that the EEG, or the law that essentially governs the Energiewende, be “abolished without compensation.” The AfD also wants to do away with the nation’s merit order of energy dispatch as well as the quota and auction models for new generation capacity.
To ensure that the cost of energy remains low, the party is in favor of the continued use of nuclear and coal-generated electricity while the government takes another look at fracking. The AfD seeks to use locally generated natural gas as a wedge against Russian and other imported energies as well as a way to establish energy independence.
AfD’s Direction Unclear
That said, the party’s precise energy policy is hard to identify because there is still no national party program. But on their website, the AFD casts doubts on the reality of man-made climate change, stating that “Scientific studies on the long-term evolution of the climate due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions are very uncertain.” Regionally, in Baden-Württemberg, the AfD came out in opposition of the use of wind power because it disfigures the landscape and is allegedly making residents sick. In coal-producing Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD candidates came out strongly in favor for the continued use of lignite, albeit with modern scrubbed generation technology.
Though it will be interesting to see whether the AfD can overcome internal struggles, the real issue at stake here is the splitting of German society. “There is a new phenomenon in Germany: protest voters,” said Daniela Schwarzer, head of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Something certainly now being seen in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump and, to some extent Bernie Sanders, “voting is a valve for protest voters to release their discontent,” said Schwarzer.
Though the regional legislatures that the AfD scored victories in have quite a bit of sway in the largely de-centralized German system, they cannot overturn immigration or energy policies at that level. However, they can work around the legal edges to weaken both.
But securing seats in the state legislatures gives the AfD a larger platform. Ironically, one of the other winners of the recent elections was the Green party, particularly in Baden-Württemberg where they increased their power. With national elections scheduled for 2017, some pundits are suggesting Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party may be forced into a ruling coalition with the Greens in order to maintain a hold on power in the future.
—Lee Buchsbaum is a freelance writer and photographer with extensive experience covering mining, the coal industry, electrical generation, and transportation.