It’s been almost two years since I left DC and moved to this side of the Atlantic to write about the rise of the populist far right. More than a dozen elections later, I’ve learned a ton — and, luckily, get to stick around a while longer.
I’m thrilled to have received a two-year fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs, which will help me continue my reporting and research on the far right in Europe. While I’ll still be based in Berlin and will focus primarily on Germany, I expect to be on the road quite a bit: my project also looks at far-right movements in Austria, Hungary and Poland.
After more than 13 years as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel is easily the most visible and powerful woman in the world — but she’s never been one to make her gender a part of her political identity, nor a vocal advocate for women’s issues.
That’s why I found a recent interview she did with Die Zeit, in which she discussed her views on feminism, gender and the challenges female politicians face, so interesting. Though Merkel’s comments are still surely disappointing to anyone hoping for a full-throated embrace of feminism, they are the latest proof that Merkel’s reticence to discuss such issues is changing. And it shows the unique position Merkel has been in since handing off leadership of the Christian Democrats: she retains the bully pulpit of the chancellery without the responsibility for the day-to-day of party politics.
More than just an interesting topic that’s been on my mind for a while, it was also my first chance to write for The New York Times Opinion section (!). Read the piece here:
Last Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced something that was both earth-shattering and also not really a surprise: that she will not seek another term as leader of her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in December and that this is her last term as chancellor.
It’s almost hard to remember a time before Merkel was a dominant figure on the national stage: she’s led the CDU for 18 years and Germany for 13. But her announcement last week set in motion a process that has the potential to reshape Germany: what happens when Merkel isn’t around?
First, for The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan and I looked at how we got here: though Merkel may have survived an extremely politically challenging year in German politics, her downfall truly began last September with her party’s less-than-stellar performance in Germany’s federal elections. Each successive crisis weakened her already waning control over members of her own party, and a state election in Hesse was apparently the final straw. Her departure also sets up what’s sure to be a fierce competition to replace her, one which has already started to take shape; we looked at Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn, the top three contenders for the job.
And second, a few days later, I had a chance to think about what legacy Merkel will leave behind in a piece for NBC News. She’s a paradoxical leader in so many ways, and despite working to cultivate a non-ideological political persona she has become a deeply polarizing figure. Will history remember Merkel for her efforts to combat political chaos and the rise of right-wing populism, or as the leader whose actions helped bring about their success?
I’ll surely be writing on this more on this in the coming weeks and months—stay tuned!
Poland has made headlines for the illiberal reforms of its ruling political party, the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS). Just last week, the European Court of Justice pushed back on PiS’s reforms to the Polish judiciary system, which would have allowed the government to force independent (i.e., not specifically government-friendly) judges into early retirement.
Sunday’s local elections across the country were the first electoral test for PiS since they took office in 2015 — and one race in particular, the campaign for Warsaw’s mayor, felt very much like a metaphor for the two competing visions of Poland’s political future. The race pitted Rafal Trzaskowski, of the center-right Civic Platform, against PiS candidate Patryk Jaki. Trzaskowski is a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages and talks about defending liberal democracy; Jaki is a firebrand who speaks in blunt terms about challenging the elites.
Ultimately, exit polls showed Trzaskowski winning the race outright with 54 percent, meaning he was able to avoid continuing to a runoff election against Jaki. Elsewhere in Poland, PiS increased its vote share over the 2014 local elections but hardly made the kind of electoral gains that would have signaled broad support for the government.
With three other major elections coming up here — European elections next May, parliamentary elections next fall and a presidential election in 2020 — many observers had looked to Sunday’s elections as a signal of what’s to come. Ultimately, even if it gave hope to the opposition, they further underscored the deep divisions within the Polish electorate.
Our piece, for The Atlantic, was published yesterday. (Thanks to the International Alumni Center / the Bosch Alumni Network for the “learning exchange grant” that made this possible!)
Since last fall’s election in Austria, I’ve been fascinated by now-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as a political character. At the time, his two-pronged campaign strategy—a mix of Macron-style “movement” branding and a sharp turn to the right on immigration—was unique among European center-right parties.
Now, a year later, others have tried to follow in his footsteps—without the same kind of success Kurz had. From the Moderates in Sweden last month to most recently, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), it seems that following the Kurz playbook doesn’t really work for anyone besides Kurz.
Last month, I spent some time in Vienna circling back with the people I talked to during the campaign last fall. One year after the election and ten months into his party’s coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Kurz has managed to create a remarkably stable government. Paradoxically, he’s been able to both keep the peace with his far-right coalition partners while also keeping distance from the more unsavory aspects of their rhetoric.
Swedish voters went to the polls Sunday in an election that had been hyped, particularly by English-language media, as a major coming victory for the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats. Apart from the Bavarian election in mid-October, Sweden is perhaps the biggest remaining test for a far-right party in 2018.
Ultimately, the Sweden Democrats underperformed those sky-high expectations: they won 17.6 percent of the vote, still a significant increase over last time but nowhere near the 24 percent some polls suggested they would win. For my first piece in The Los Angeles Times, I broke down the results and put Sweden’s election into the context of broader European political trends.
For The Atlantic, I looked at Swedish social democracy as a beacon of hope for other center-left parties across Europe—and this sense among Social Democrats leaders and staffers that they need to modernize the movement’s aims and messaging for the post-2008 era. I traveled to Enköping, a city about 40 miles outside of Stockholm, to watch Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez campaign with Sweden’s Stefan Löfven.
And while the pre-election hype for the Sweden Democrats was clearly overblown, I wrote for Foreign Policy that in a way, the party still did win the election. It posted the biggest gains of any party, it set the agenda for campaign-trail topics of discussion and its vote share will likely frustrate efforts of either major coalition to build a government.
Now that I’ve finished up in Sweden, I’m spending six days in Bosnia to learn about the (very complicated) system of government ahead of Oct. 7 elections here. After that, I’ll spend a few days in Vienna reporting on the state of Sebastian Kurz’s government nearly a year after the Austrian election. Quite the busy fall here!
What happens when you do a primetime interview with a far-right politician … but don’t actually ask them about refugee issues?
For The Atlantic yesterday, I looked at one such interview: German broadcaster ZDF sat down with Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and asked him about everything but immigration. On retirement, climate change and digitalization, among others, Gauland struggled to explain his party’s positions—often stating that he had no actual answer to give.
That interview, which aired Sunday evening in Germany, is a study in contrasts with the way the American media handled the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Washington the same day: news organizations sent a collective horde of journalists down to cover what ultimately ended up being just a few dozen rally-goers.
We as an industry—on both sides of the Atlantic—have struggled to figure out how to cover the far right. When they get into parliaments or governments, their actions and issues are inherently newsworthy; however, overemphasizing or sensationalizing such news also runs the risk of tacitly helping such parties reinforce their rhetoric.
ZDF’s Gauland interview falls into one school of thought on dealing with the far right: treat them the same as you would any other politician, and if they fail to produce substantive answers it’s on them. “These should be questions that should be easy to answer for any political leader, because they are so important for the future of Germany,” University of Kiel political scientist Marcel Dirsus told me. “The AfD wants to talk about refugees because this is where they can score points, but they clearly don’t have answers on any of the other topics.”