Even in Staid Germany, Protest Parties Poised to Gain Ground

Germany's seemingly predictable election campaign may well have a twist in its tail.

If the last opinion polls before Sunday's parliamentary elections are a guide, the crumbling of Europe's old political order is affecting even Germany, the continent's bastion of stability.

Support for Germany's two major parties could fall below 60% combined, while protest parties of the far right and far left could win 20% of the vote between them, a pattern of polls suggests.

Politics in Germany remain rather staid compared with many other European countries. Victory for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats looks inevitable, even if they win fewer votes than four years ago. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, which could win over 10% according to surveys, remains smaller than its far-right peers in neighboring France or Austria.

In swaths of Continental Europe, the established center-right and center-left parties have suffered far more dramatic collapses, while populist movements from the nationalist right to the anticapitalist left have become strong enough to aspire to power.

Germany is unique. Its booming economy barely felt the eurozone's debt crisis. Unemployment is below 4%, compared with around 9% overall in the 19-country eurozone. In an age of international rage against incumbents, around two-thirds of Germans say they're satisfied with Ms. Merkel. More broadly, the country's postwar political culture and institutions strongly favor moderate, mainstream parties over radicals.

Yet even in Germany, the grip of center-right Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats is weakening. When Ms. Merkel retires, or the economic cycle turns, the trend could accelerate.

The deepest reason for the fragmentation of Europe's politics is that societies have become more complex. Old center-left parties were rooted in organized labor, old center-right parties in churches. Both have declined. Catchall policy programs that used to cater to nearly half of the electorate now appeal to only a third or a quarter. Social media have broadened the reach of anti-mainstream messages.

Another factor is that globalization has reduced the ability of national governments to manage some of the most potent electoral issues, from economic crises to migration.

"Voters still expect solutions from their government, but that's no longer always possible," says Peter Filzmaier, political scientist at Austria's Danube University Krems. "All parties, once in government, are doomed to lose the expectations game."

The almost inexorable result is that new parties cater to dissatisfied segments of the electorate -- including populist movements that attack old elites and offer simple fixes. Over time, more small parties have won a place in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag. On Sunday the AfD is set to take its place alongside the Left, the Greens and the tax-cutting Liberals, all of whom are expected to win around 8% to 12%.

The rise of Germany's political fringes also reflects Ms. Merkel's weaknesses, however. Her consensus-seeking style has erased policy differences between her Christian Democrats and other mainstream parties -- to the frustration of many of her conservative colleagues. She could form her next coalition government with any of the other moderate parties, voters know. That means Germans who truly dislike the chancellor have only the radical AfD or the Left to turn to.

Her measured, low-key rhetoric also makes it hard for her to appeal to angry or fearful voters, many observers note.

"In the past, Germany had political leaders who could speak to more radical groups of voters and their concerns, including with strong rhetoric and attacks," says Tilman Mayer, politics professor at Bonn University, naming conservatives Helmut Kohl and Franz-Josef Strauss and the Social Democrat Willy Brandt. "This is temperamentally not Merkel's thing, and that presents an opportunity for the extremes."

The AfD's challenge to German postwar taboos -- it wants Germans to feel less guilt and more pride about the country's history, including the Third Reich -- is likely to prompt much soul-searching in Germany's establishment. The upstart party is less popular than in 2016, when the migration crisis that fueled its rise was more intense. But the major parties' lackluster election campaign, and the lack of disagreements between them, has boosted the AfD in the past month.

Other mainstream leaders in Europe's big year of elections have made more effort than Ms. Merkel to style themselves as outsiders to the establishment, or to reach out to voters tempted by populism.

In Austria, 31-year-old conservative leader Sebastian Kurz is the favorite to win elections in October thanks to a highly personalized campaign, and a tough immigration stance, that are helping to win back voters from far-right populists. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte defeated a far-right challenge this spring by adopting tough language on Muslim immigrants who, he suggested, weren't adapting enough to Dutch values. France's new president, Emmanuel Macron, won by launching his own movement and, while advocating business-friendly economic reforms, also promising a dose of economic protectionism to defuse anxiety about globalization.

The greater flexibility of such leaders in Germany's neighbors reflects the fact that they are under greater pressure from antiestablishment insurgents.

A similar test could face Ms. Merkel's successors.

Write to Marcus Walker at marcus.walker@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 21, 2017 16:39 ET (20:39 GMT)