European election tests an unpopular government and a scandal-hit far-right party in Germany

By AP News


An unpopular government with a reputation for constant infighting

Germany European Election

BERLIN (AP) — An unpopular government with a reputation for constant infighting. An economy stuck in a rut. A strong far-right party that has been embarrassed by its leading candidate and alienated its European allies. And a mainstream opposition still working on its recovery.

German politics are in a disgruntled, volatile state as the country's voters prepare to fill 96 of the 720 seats at the European Parliament on June 9, the biggest single national contingent in the 27-nation European Union.

It's the first nationwide vote since center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz took power in late 2021, ending the 16-year reign of center-right predecessor Angela Merkel. Her era was marked by often-consensual politics and a string of “grand coalition” governments between the traditional major parties of right and left.

That coziness, already tested during Merkel's time by a series of crises and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, is well and truly over.

“This European election is taking place in the context of an economic crisis, but also a government crisis, because the government ... really has very low popularity ratings,” said Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant. Voters are likely to use the vote to signal their discontent, he added.


Scholz says that “confidence is ... the best remedy against extremism" in turbulent times. But his government hasn't generated much confidence.

The Social Democrat's coalition with the environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats has achievements to its name. Those include preventing an energy crunch after Russia cut off its gas supplies to Germany, extensive aid for Ukraine — though details of that have caused friction — and a series of socially liberal reforms.

But the overwhelming impression of a government that set out to modernize Germany has been one of constant discord, as the economy, Europe's biggest, struggles to generate growth.

The coalition infighting hasn't taken a break for the election. The partners are arguing about how to put together a 2025 budget while adhering to Germany's tight self-imposed rules on running up debt. That quandary already forced a hasty, court-mandated rehash of the 2024 budget, complete with subsidy cuts that prompted protests by farmers.


Opposition leader Friedrich Merz told parliament earlier this year that the government is “governing against the majority of voters and the population in Germany.” He lamented that the mood was “full of doubt and uncertainty.”

Merz has sought to give his party, once led by the centrist Merkel, a sharper conservative profile since he took over after its 2021 election defeat.

His Union bloc has benefited only partly from the unpopularity of Scholz and his coalition; while surveys have given it a clear lead, it's struggling to get its support above an unspectacular 30% of the vote. There are questions over how much the 68-year-old Merz, a one-time rival of Merkel with no government experience, appeals to voters.

It's not yet clear who will challenge Scholz in a national election expected in the fall of 2025. The Union plans to decide after three state elections in September in Germany's former communist east.


The European Parliament vote and those state votes in three strongholds will test AfD, which fed on widespread discontent to garner support of more than 20% for a while.

A series of recent setbacks appears to have pushed it down somewhat. First came a media report in January that extremists met to discuss the deportation of millions of immigrants, including some with German citizenship, and that some figures from the party attended. The report triggered mass protests against the rise of the far-right.

Last month, an assistant to Maximilian Krah, AfD's top candidate in the European election, was arrested on suspicion of spying for China. Its No. 2 candidate, Petr Bystron, faces an investigation after denying allegations he may have received money from a pro-Russia network. The party already faced criticism for having Russia-friendly positions.

AfD then banned Krah from making campaign appearances after he told an Italian newspaper that not all members of the Nazis’ elite SS unit were war criminals. That wasn't enough to prevent the party being kicked out of the hard-right Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament.

Separately, a court ruled that one of AfD's best-known figures, Björn Höcke, knowingly used a Nazi slogan in a 2021 speech and fined him.

“Instead of being able to speak about its own position, it has to comment on scandals and allegations in the media every week,” Hillje said. AfD's solid core of voters won't be put off, but “those who aren't entirely sure whether they should vote AfD could rethink as a result of these scandals and allegations.”

AfD still looks set to make gains from the 11% of the vote it took in the 2019 European Parliament election, though perhaps not as many as it hoped.

Some observers believe a new party founded by prominent opposition politician Sahra Wagenknecht, which combines left-wing economic policy with a restrictive approach to migration and other positions with potential appeal to some AfD voters, might dent its support.

Around 60.9 million German citizens are eligible to vote, along with 4.1 million residents from other EU countries who can decide whether to vote in Germany or their country of origin.


Kerstin Sopke contributed to this report.


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