Jacinda Ardern gets Labour closer in NZ. Kurds seeking state. Aung San Suu Kyi evasive on Rohingya. By Hamish McDonald.

Far-right surge may spell end for Merkel

Jacinda Ardern, leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party (left) during a visit to Victoria University of Wellington this week.
Jacinda Ardern, leader of New Zealand’s Labour Party (left) during a visit to Victoria University of Wellington this week.
Credit: Marty Melville / AFP / Getty Images

After far-right challengers were held back in the Netherlands and France this year, it is now the test in the very centre of Europe, Germany.

The polls this week were showing the anti-immigration party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with support from about 12 per cent of voters in Sunday’s elections. But 30 to 40 per cent are still undecided, leaving open the possibility of a shock in the manner of Brexit or Trump.

A 12 per cent vote would put AfD far above the 5 per cent threshold to enter the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament – a first for a far-right party in postwar Germany. It would give them 70 to 80 of the Bundestag’s 598 seats.

If Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) again forms a grand coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens to continue in government, this would leave AfD as the largest opposition party. It would gain the right to give the first speech in reply to government, and the right to form commissions of inquiry.

Although AfD has some Holocaust deniers and downplayers, the charge of “Nazis at the door” is not taken all that seriously. The AfD is tapping into widespread fears about the effect of the one million mostly Middle Eastern refugees Merkel allowed into Germany in 2015, including the economic burden and the potential security risks and cultural challenges. The traditional parties skate around these issues.

After 12 years as chancellor, Merkel is facing voter ennui. She’s been booed at election rallies, especially in the north and east where economic conditions are much worse than in the south. She’s also turned off some of the CDU’s traditional supporters in business and finance by a succession of opportunistic policy turns and compromises.

These are notably the continuing crisis of the euro currency and her break with the no-bailout policy for Greece and other southern European member-states, her decision to shut nuclear power stations after the Fukushima disaster, which has given Germans the highest electricity costs in Europe, and the refugee burden.

If the CDU gets the lowest vote in its history, as some analysts predict, Merkel could be dumped within a year or two.

Ardern supporters

Across the Tasman, Jacinda Ardern could emerge from Saturday’s elections as New Zealand’s prime minister, but it seems touch-and-go in an electoral system more complicated than ours.

She was parachuted into the Labour Party leadership only on July 31 after her lacklustre predecessor resigned at one hour’s notice. But her attractive personality and unabashed empathy with the have-nots and socially distressed has brought Labour close in the polls to Bill English’s centre-right National Party, which pursues a 1980s faith in markets and offers the haves more tax cuts and lower public debt.

Labour is promising to build 100,000 new homes and curb the foreign investment that’s contributed to a Sydney/Melbourne type of asset-price boom in Auckland, to sharply cut immigration, apply a tourist tax, abolish university fees for the first three years and raise student allowances, and increase child payments.

How it pays for this is up in the air. Labour is wisely not saying, after the Nationals goaded it to show the numbers. Decisions on things such as a new capital gains tax, water use charges for farmers, and a land tax will now be studied with experts once in government. The Wellington political analyst Colin James suggests this as a tax slogan for Labour: “Let’s do this but not yet and maybe not at all.”

Like Germany, New Zealand has a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in which voters get two votes, one for a local member and one for a party list. It means coalition government, with the Nationals and Labour trying to build alliances with minor parties such as the populist conservative New Zealand First led by Winston Peters, the Māori Party, and, in Labour’s case, the Greens. It will take time, and because voting is not compulsory, Ardern’s strong polling support might not fully translate to the ballot outcome.

New Zealand is meanwhile a test-bed for those who want to rejig the Australian political system. It abolished its upper house in 1951, but MMP effectively brings a “senate” into the house of representatives. Like us, it has a three-year parliamentary term, but consistently makes tough policy decisions in a less rancorous atmosphere. A four-year term may not be our remedy. It’s cultural.

Kurds away?

Another vote happens on Monday, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, in a referendum on independence – which would be unrecognised by the Baghdad government and opposed by all the surrounding powers that have Kurdish minorities of their own, as well as the United States and Australia.

Yet if the spoils should go to the victor, the Kurds should come out of the anti-Daesh fight in both Iraq and Syria with their own country. Their Peshmerga have been the most effective local forces. With 30 million Kurds across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, they are the largest national group without its own state. Saddam Hussein’s use of nerve gas in 1988 against Kurds at Halabja hardly warms them to the Iraqi state, even under its new regime.

Israel, understandably and commendably, has backed the “legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state”, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s words last week. Not that Israel’s support helps much in this region. “We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq,” Iraqi vice president Nouri al-Maliki responded, with his government threatening to sack Kurdish officials who help the poll. 

More intriguingly, Russia is sympathetic to the Kurds, despite its cultivation of diplomatic and military ties with regional governments and  concerns about ethnic separatists in the Caucasus. “The legitimate aspirations of the Kurds, as of other people, should be implemented within international law,” foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said this week.

Canberra’s fight for freedom in the region only goes so far, it seems. Citing “real concerns” about the Kurdish vote, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “Holding a referendum at this time risks causing further instability in Iraq that would weaken both the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.” When, then?

Suu Kyi’s sophistry

Aung San Suu Kyi’s much-awaited formal response on Tuesday to the Rohingya refugee crisis was notable more for its evasions and empty promises than attempts at remedy and responsibility.

With some 410,000 people – about 40 per cent of the Muslim minority – having fled to Bangladesh since a Rohingya insurgent group attacked security posts on August 25, Suu Kyi assured the Myanmar parliament that more than 50 per cent of Muslim villages were “intact”. She did not use the word “Rohingya” once in her speech.

She said security operations had stopped on September 5, that Muslim villages had the same access to health and education as others in Rakhine state, and that human rights violators would be punished: all false. The BBC saw young Buddhists torching Rohingya houses on September 7, with police standing by, and columns of smoke rising from villages on later dates. Authorities have confined many Rohingya in camps for the past five years, denied them citizenship and withheld schooling and medical help. In 70 years of counterinsurgency operations, no Burmese army personnel are known to have been punished for offences against civilians.

Even more sadly, in her televised address and a briefing for diplomats in Naypyidaw, she professed puzzlement at what was taking place. “We want to find out why this exodus is happening,” she said. “We would like to talk to those who have fled.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2017 as "Far-right surge may spell end for Merkel ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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