LAWRENCE — During the 2013 parliamentary elections in Germany, the major political parties won comfortably, but groups on the fringe harped on the Greek bailout, the European Union's influence and immigration.
Now, like many European countries with elections scheduled this year, incumbents in Germany are fighting off strong challenges including from far-right and far-left parties, said Robert Rohrschneider, Sir Robert Worcester Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.
"Like across the world with the Brexit vote and the U.S. election, events over the past few months clearly have changed the context in Europe," Rohrschneider said. "A number of elections in Europe this year are really crucial for the future of the continent."
Rohrschneider co-edited a recent special issue of the journal German Politics that examines parties and voters in the 2013 German federal elections. In that election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party had a firm grip on control of parliament, largely because voters approved that the country was doing well economically.
However, under the surface, that election also led to the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD for Alternative für Deutschland, which narrowly missed out winning the 5 percent electoral threshold to hold seats in parliament. The party's leadership during that election criticized Germany shouldering so much of the bailout in Greece and later in 2015 Merkel's decision to have Germany accept roughly 500,000 refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn countries.
"It's almost been like a perfect storm," Rohrschneider said. "The Greek debt crisis has brought economic issues to the forefront through the idea about who pays for Europe and the weaker countries in Europe. The migration crisis raised a similar issue on who can protect the borders and who can regulate the stream of migrants."
All of these issues have made the September federal elections in Germany much more competitive as Merkel's party faces challenges from the left in the mainstream Social Democratic Party of Germany led by Martin Schulz and the AfD on the right.
Like with Britain's surprising Brexit vote to leave the European Union, Rohrschneider said more support from voters for nationalist political ideas is likely a symptom of a response to globalization and other sentiments. This has made Europe an interesting test case to review what occurs when a wedge seems to form between political elites and mass publics, he said.
"The European integration project was very popular among elites and citizens all the way up to the point when it changed its character," he said. "For much of the postwar period, integration meant economic integration, and most everyone was for it. Then when it changed to turn increasingly into a political project, such as when national sovereignty was being transferred from national capitals to Brussels, that's when it became more controversial, especially among citizens. Elites continued to support the project."
Very similar developments are occurring in the Netherlands and France, with more fringe or nationalist parties polling strong as well. However, Merkel and other political allies in Europe earlier this month celebrated results in the Netherlands as the anti-immigration party Geert Wilders failed to win a majority in parliament. Merkel's party last weekend won comfortably a small state election in southwestern Germany.
Rohrschneider said it will still be important to watch all European elections this year. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory in the United States also seem to have strengthened the hand of right-wing populist parties in Europe as well as voters who are concerned about the economic effects of globalization and what it can do to manufacturing and other traditional jobs that might go elsewhere.
Another political lesson of recent developments in Europe could be an illustration of what occurs when people seem to detect detachment from mainstream political parties for not addressing issues the public cares about.
"That is why people," Rohrschneider said, "go to these fringe parties."
Photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses attendees of the Munich Security Conference in this 2015 Department of State photo.