Old Alternatives: The Return of Nationalism to German Politics

By Marc Camanag
Staff Writer

Six years after a seemingly innocuous entrance into the political sphere, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has grown into a nationalist powerhouse that holds the third-largest share in the country’s federal parliament. Echoing similar movements across Europe, the AfD’s platform has tapped into deep-rooted, populist fears to launch itself on a trajectory that no party has ever pulled off in such short time. As the first far-right party to set foot in the Bundestag in nearly sixty years, the AfD raises the question: Why has nationalism returned to German politics, and why now? 

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By Brian Cox
Staff Writer

Labour politician Sadiq Khan was officially sworn in as Mayor of London on May 8. Replacing the memorable Conservative Boris Johnson, Khan is now the UK politician with the greatest individual mandate. His election was widely hailed by the press as the first election of a Muslim to be a mayor of a major european city. That being said, his election has not been without controversy. Come election day, his victory was considered the most likely outcome, and ultimately he collected 56.9 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, Khan’s election was notably one of the bright spots for the May 5 elections, in which Labour lost a substantial number of seats in the Scottish Parliament.

As background, going into the election there was widespread concern among Labour supporters that the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a democratic socialist, as leader of Labour would lead to the loss of local council seats, Scottish Parliamentary seats and the seat of Mayor of London. Compared to former Labour Leader Ed Miliband, Corbyn is significantly more socialist and trade unionist. His unexpected win made him Labour leader, but recently there has been talk of rebellion from within the party, as he has pushed them further to the left than they have been since their opposition in the 1980s.

That being said, Khan’s convincing win was caused in part by a substantial political miscalculation on the part of his Tory rival’s campaign. Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative party candidate, pursued a strategy which many thought was based upon Islamophobia. From implying that Khan wanted a wealth tax on jewelry, to accusing him of using Islamophobia as a tool to suppress valid criticism, Goldsmith’s campaign was implicated in invoking religion negatively during the campaign. As the campaign wore on, attacks became highly personal, and their policies were broadly similar. Both candidates put a heavy emphasis on the environment, and ultimately much of the election seems to have been decided by style. Though in polling Goldsmith never held the lead, as elections approached he fell further and further behind, which many have attributed to the personal nature of the campaign, and his campaign’s potentially islamophobic message. In a campaign where race and religion were prime topics, some likened Goldsmith’s tactics to those of Donald Trump.
Following the defeat, many Conservatives local to London politics characterized Goldsmith’s message as out of character, but nonetheless sharply criticized the campaign for its tactics, some going as far as to say it was racist. Notably, most of them thought it was out of character for Goldsmith, implying that it must have been somebody else in the campaign.

Though Khan was expected to win throughout the process, and was backed by former London Mayor Ed Livingstone, late in the campaign allegations of anti-semitism hit the Labour party.

During an interview defending the expelled Labour MP Naz Shah (who was expelled following the discovery of a social media post suggesting Israel be relocated), Livingstone stated “It’s completely over the top but it’s not anti semitism. Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” This statement prompted immediate condemnation from party leadership, and Khan was quick to jettison from his campaign. Nonetheless this ongoing situation certainly didn’t help Khan’s bid.

Furthermore, upon the results being released, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn neglected to attend Khan’s swearing into office. Khan rebutted Corbyn’s message that the Labour party must move to the left to win, stating that they needed a “broader reach” in order to win elections. In implying that Labour should be aiming for crossover voters, Khan embraced something similar to “Blairism,” the centrist philosophy which saw Tony Blair elected as Prime Minister. Why Corbyn didn’t attend is unknown, but considering the ongoing anti-semitism dispute, and the difference in message, it seems that a rift has developed between the two men. This led some commentators to suggest that following his four year term as mayor, Khan could aim to become Labour leader. That being said, current betting markets, as well have pundits predict that Corbyn won’t last that long. Embroiled in the anti-semitism scandal, and facing internal criticism, it appears he may be vulnerable well before the next parliamentary elections. His repeated calls for unity may fall upon deaf ears, as although he’s popular with his base he’s struggled to manage the party.

Nonetheless, Corbyn’s lukewarm support for Khan upon his election pales in comparison to some of the global reactions. The New York Post ran an article which brought up a quote in which Khan previously implied that moderate muslims were “Uncle Toms” which he had since retracted. Drudge Report, run by American blogger Matt Drudge, ran the downright offensive headline “the first Muslim mayor of Londinistan.” The far-right Britain First candidate Paul Golding turned his back on Khan while he gave his victory speech.

These specific incidents aside, global feedback to Khan’s election has been broadly positive. Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton both congratulated Khan on his groundbreaking achievement. Even Donald Trump ceded that Khan, a muslim, would be subject to “exceptions” in his no Muslim policy, though Khan rebuked this, citing the general absurdity of the proposed policy. Pakistanis praised his election on twitter, and tweets stating that “London Has Fallen” in a reference both to an upcoming film and Khan’s election were widely panned. However, a Pakistani activist, who said that London had “set a great example” by electing the relatively secular Khan was murdered, following his comments.

Ultimately, Khan’s first act as London Mayor was to attend a holocaust memorial, which was widely seen as a conciliatory action. Perhaps Khan’s election shows that although there may be substantial backlash, ultimately most people are reasonable and open when it comes to issues of race and religion. Although the Conservatives resorted to what were characterized as dog whistle tactics, the campaign against Khan was universally panned as being both a poor strategic choice, and as being non-substantive.

As a result of this election, Labour emerged victorious in London, but questions remain about what direction it will take following a disastrous 2015 general election and Corbyn’s leadership. Khan indicates that Labour can win through broad coalitions and moving to the center, at least in London. This could either lead to future success or continued infighting, but nobody has been willing to play their cards just yet.

The other major takeaway from the election is that although religion is still very much a subject of contention in British politics, voters are broadly averse to it being used as a talking point. Whether it be Jews or Muslims, though issues remains, the voters of London have made it known that intolerance against will at very least not be electorally successful.

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By Lauren Lam
Staff Writer

At the Gettysburg Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln famously proclaimed that the United States should enjoy “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Flash forward a century and a half and one will find that this is not at all the reality of today’s political system. Only 58% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2012 American presidential election and a mere 36.3% voted in the 2014 midterm elections. So why is it that in a world where so many countries are still fighting for free elections and universal suffrage, countless citizens in the United States, and other well-established democracies, chose not to exercise their democratic right?

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance ranks the USA 120th for average national voter turnout. Although the United States performs poorly in international rankings of political participation, it is certainly not alone in declining voter turnout. Prior to the most recent federal election on October 19th, Canada’s voter turnout had been steadily declining, reaching an all-time low of 58.8% in 2008. In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose members are largely considered to be high-income developed countries with high Human Development Index (HDI) scores, 29 of its 34 members experienced a percentage decline in voter turnout from 1980 to 2011. Voter turnout declined an average of eleven percentage points during this period for the organisation as a whole.

Poor political participation is problematic for a multitude of reasons. First of all, there is arguably an ethical dimension; citizens should exercise their democratic right that their predecessors worked so hard to achieve. Secondly, when fewer people vote, it undermines the principles of democracy. When citizens are not politically engaged and fail to participate in elections, the government becomes more like an oligarchy than a democracy. Participation is vital to represent what the populace wants, and also works to shape government policy in a positive trajectory. Furthermore, low voter turnout affects political parties disproportionately; traditionally, conservative-leaning parties, including the Republican Party in the US, benefit because young, low-income, and minority potential voters are less likely to cast their ballots. Thus, for better and for worse, choosing not to vote is a vote in itself.

But why are people no longer motivated to go to the polls? There are several factors which contribute to voter turnout including degree of formal education, health, income level, political competition, age demographics, relevant campaign issues, publicity, convenience, and perception of being able to make a tangible difference. Some of these factors involve deeply embedded, systemic issues; for example, in Hawaii, a state with one of the lowest voter turnouts, there is a “vicious cycle of people who are disappointed in the government and politics, and they don’t vote”. While voter apathy and disenchantment with the electoral system are important issues that should be addressed, it is easier to improve democracy by increasing voter turnout in the more immediate future.

One of the easiest ways to increase turnout at the polls is to make voting more convenient. In 49 American states, there is a two-step process to vote: eligible citizens must first register to vote, then actually cast their ballots. In countries such as Germany and France however, voter lists are produced based on population databases and other governmental agencies. Voting thus becomes much simpler, which results in a higher turnout. The electoral system can also be made more convenient through enhanced advance polling and absentee balloting. In the 2015 Canadian federal election, 3.6 million voters cast their ballots in advance voting over four days, up 16% over the three days of advance voting in the 2011 election, though there are several other factors that may have come into play. Bernie Sanders has intriguingly proposed to make Election Day a national holiday entitled “Democracy Day” to encourage political participation. This would effectively give all citizens both the time and the opportunity to vote.

Mail-in ballots have also proved to be very effective in increasing voter turnout. In the 2014 US midterm elections, Oregon, which uses a mail ballot system, had the 5th highest turnout by state, while Colorado had the 4th highest turnout by state after switching to a mail ballot system that year. If more states follow suit, national voter turnout will likely increase. Electronic ballot systems could also make voting much more convenient. Young voters are especially likely to refrain from traditional voting, thus making electronic voting very appealing to the youth demographic. In India, national elections were successfully held via computer technology owned and operated by the government, giving hope to advocates in the USA.

Rather than make voting more convenient however, many Republican state legislatures and governors have passed laws which make it more difficult to vote. This legislation has made it more difficult to register to vote, has reduced the window for early voting, and has even made a picture ID mandatory to vote. Similar legislation was implemented in Canada by outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which many argue was intended to suppress indigenous voters. To have truly democratic elections, all such legislation should be reformed or repealed.

A more drastic measure to increase voter turnout would be to make voting compulsory. Such laws already exist in Australia and Belgium, countries which have the highest percentages of eligible voters who vote of 14 comparable, wealthy countries. In Australia, there are strict laws against refusing to vote which can lead to no-show fines; meanwhile, Belgium disenfranchises voters who continually fail to vote and as a result enjoys a turnout of approximately 93%. Conversely, the implementation of such laws in the United States would likely be met with a great deal of backlash. After all, is this not an undemocratic way of conducting democracy? Many Australians oppose their current electoral system, including Jason Kent, who notes that about 10% of individuals still fail to register, and a further 6% of votes are spoiled, perhaps as a form of protest.

In order to improve voter turnout, political officials in the United States and abroad are best off making minor changes to improve the convenience of voting. Nonetheless, it is equally important to realize that high voter turnout does not equate to high political engagement. While improving voter turnout will make democracy more democratic, policymakers must simultaneously strive to make citizens more politically aware. Campaigns need to move away from negative campaigning, which only serves to make voters apathetic and frustrated. In the meantime, our broken form of democracy prevails.

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