A decisive day for Germany’s potential ‘grand coalition’

Today in Bonn, 600 delegates from Germany’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are about to vote on whether or not to continue negotiations toward another “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

It’s of course tough to predict exactly how the vote will turn out — but spending some time in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia last week showed me just how strong and visceral some SPD members’ opposition is to a so-called “GroKo.” Many of them felt their party didn’t get enough concessions from the conservative CDU/CSU bloc — like on their desire to create a citizens’ insurance, or Bürgerversicherung, another topic I reported on this month — and don’t necessarily trust their would-be governing partners to keep their promises. Many also worried that another grand coalition would further damage the SPD’s electoral prospects in the future.

Reporting out that story was a reminder of why I love being a political journalist: while it’s fine to be based in a big capital city like D.C. or Berlin, getting out into the rest of the country and talking to local-level politicians and voters is such a better way to take the temperature of a country or a party.  The piece was my last for Politico Europe, where I finished up my three-month placement last Friday.

Apart from heading to NRW, I’ve spent the majority of these last few months paying attention to the day-to-day progress of talks — starting with the first days of the Jamaica coalition negotiations (between Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens), then the breakdown of those talks, then the slow process the SPD has taken toward another grand coalition. It gave me a chance to delve into the key leaders in each of the parties and the roles they’re playing as these negotiations have unfolded.

Now that I’ve finished up with Politico, I’ll spend a few weeks traveling — including to Italy, for some reporting ahead of their March 4 elections — and then head back to Berlin for a second work placement.

Downtown Detmold, Germany, one of the towns in NRW I visited for my story.
The city center in Detmold, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia I visited as part of my reporting

Stumbling blocks in Germany’s coalition negotiations

In these last seven months I’ve been reporting around Europe, I’ve focused pretty exclusively on elections: the characters involved, how they and their parties fare, and the larger trends they speak to.

But without any other big elections on the horizon for a while — and because I’ve started my first fellowship-related work placement, with POLITICO Europe in Berlin — I’m now spending some time reporting on what happens after a country’s election. Here in Berlin, I’ve been tracking the efforts to form a governing coalition in Germany’s parliament.

More than a month after German elections, four parties—Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens—are more than two weeks into talks to form a so-called “Jamaica coalition” (named for the parties’ colors, black, yellow and green).

This week, I looked at how refugee issues could be the biggest stumbling block in actually coming to an agreement: the Greens hold vastly different views on the issue than the other three parties at the negotiating table, and it’s unclear as of now how they’ll bridge that divide. I focused in particular on the politics of refugee deportations, an issue the Greens have been vocal about as there’s been more pressure on Merkel’s conservatives to speed up the practice.

Read the piece here, on POLITICO Europe’s site — and I’ll have more on this front in the coming weeks, as pressure intensifies on the would-be coalition partners to make significant progress.

The Czech Republic’s “fake news” scene

After 18 total days on the road, 10 of which were election-related, I’m finally back in Berlin and staying put for a bit. My most recent stop: Prague for five days, to write about the Czech elections held last Friday and Saturday.

It’s hard to talk about Czech politics and the Czech political scene without looking at the vibrant “fake news” and disinformation scene. That was the focus of my piece from Prague, looking at the landscape of such sites — one of which, the Breitbart-esque Parlamentní listy, gets an estimated 8 million monthly visitors — as well as their potential impact on the political scene. While most people I talked to didn’t believe “fake news” actually persuaded voters to vote a certain way, these sites certainly do help reinforce anti-establishment views in people who are already prone to them. And given that anti-establishment parties got almost 60 percent of the vote in this weekend’s elections — including nearly 30 percent for populist-leaning businessman Andrej Babiš and his ANO (“YES”) party — anything that helped reinforce people’s beliefs on this front seems significant.

Prague was my last stop on the European campaign trail for a while — apart from elections in Iceland next weekend, which I’m sadly not planning to cover in person, there’s a bit of an election lull coming up. Stay tuned for some overall thoughts on trends and themes from Europe this year; and in the meantime, you can read my story from Prague here.

A view of Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge at sunset

The 31-year-old next chancellor of Austria

If there’s any overarching trend that spans all the European elections I’ve covered this year, it’s this: traditional, centrist political parties are struggling, and their losses are in large part far-right populists’ gain.

But in Austria, the traditionally center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) bucked that trend in Austria’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, coming in first with more than 31 percent of the vote. The reason? 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the People’s Party leader who is expected to become the next chancellor and the youngest head of government in Europe. Kurz, who took over the People’s Party leadership this summer, worked to remake the party in his own image—both in terms of pitching it as a young, fresh, new “movement” (à la Emmanuel Macron in France) and by shifting its rhetoric sharply to the right on immigration, a move intended to co-opt the political space previously dominated by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

As center-right parties look to figure out how they can regain support and fend off their far-right populist challengers, many will undoubtedly look to Kurz as a model of a new generation of European leaders.

Check out the piece here, for The Atlantic. Next up is the Czech Republic, which votes on Friday and Saturday — stay tuned for my reporting from Prague!

Sebastian Kurz speaks to supporters outside the ÖVP headquarters on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017.


The U.S. digital firm that helped engineer AfD’s historic victory

As readers of this blog well know, I have a handful of main interests as I report from the European campaign trail this year. Primarily, I’m focused on the success or failure of right-wing populist parties across the continent—but I’m also continually fascinated by any and all attempts to bring U.S.-style campaign tactics to Europe. (This was something I was interested in here in Germany in 2013, as well as earlier this year with Emmanuel Macron’s organizing tactics in France.)

Here in Germany, those interests converged for this story about Harris Media, an Austin-based GOP digital firm that helped Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland harness its strong online presence to become the third-strongest party here.

Part of that involved running a U.S.-style attack campaign against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, particularly over her decision to admit more than a million refugees into Germany; part was around the party’s strategy to convince voters that it was socially acceptable to vote for AfD, a particularly complicated issue given German voters’ often visceral reaction to the far right. It was a really interesting piece to report out, particularly in light of how well AfD ultimately performed on Sunday.

I also wrote about the results and what AfD’s performance means for German politics the day after Election Day here, for the GroundTruth Project — a piece you can read here.

“Merkel, the Oathbreaker”: the AfD oppo site from US-based firm Harris Media (screenshot)


What right-wing populism looks like in Norway

Know anything about Norwegian politics?

Yeah, I didn’t either until a few weeks ago, when I decided to book a trip to Oslo ahead of Norway’s national elections on Monday. Compared with high-profile elections in France, Germany and the United Kingdom this year, Norway’s election ran very much under the radar (at least among English-language media). But considering my goal of understanding European populism writ large this year, I figured it was worth a trip up north.

While in Oslo, I sought to answer the following question: how does the right-wing populist Progress Party, led by Siv Jensen, compare to its counterparts further south in Europe? And is Scandinavian right-wing populism writ large different than the kind that’s getting so much attention in western and central Europe?

Ultimately, I found that the Progress Party—while it’s certainly sought to capitalize on the same anti-Islam, anti-immigration sentiment that have strengthened similar parties around the continent—bills itself as a much more moderate alternative, both in terms of its rhetoric and in the issues for which it advocates. The party has been in government with the Conservatives since 2013, and on Monday appeared to win another four years in a coalition government.

You can read my piece, which ran in The Atlantic, here.

The Progress Party booth on Karl Johans Gate in Oslo

A not-so-crazy election season in Germany

The campaign posters have been up around Germany for weeks and the main candidates are traversing the country speaking to voters — but Germany’s 2017 federal elections, expected to be Angela Merkel’s toughest campaign yet, are actually shaping up to be a little bit boring.

Much to the chagrin of journalists and political junkies here, election season has been decidedly devoid of drama: with Merkel’s CDU holding a decisive first place in the polls, it’s hard to imagine an outcome later this month that doesn’t involve her remaining chancellor.

I wrote about that this week for The Atlantic, looking at just how much Merkel’s political position has improved and solidified in the last six months and some of the reasons why.

There are still a few possibilities for late-breaking surprises, of course: an uptick in refugees could raise the fortunes of far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), or hacked Bundestag emails could be released and and reveal something shocking. But otherwise, the fight for Merkel’s political life that some saw possible earlier this year looks like it won’t materialize.

You can read my piece here.

Campaign posters in Berlin, August 2017