Tomorrow, Germans all across our country – from the shores of the East Frisian islands to the Alps in Bavaria – will elect 598 Members of Parliament. Tomorrow, I will wake up and exercise the right I presently cherish as much as I did the first time I voted in a federal parliamentary election in 2009. This is personal for me – and there is one topic I want to address tonight. For all the debates, all the carefully crafted manifestoes and passionate arguments, it will all come down to this. When all is said and done, we, the people still decide.
So, to all of my fellow Germans who are reading this: Go to vote, and vote your conscience. Vote for what you believe in, and make sure that our country rejects those forces that want to paint the picture of a Germany that has its best days behind it and is somehow in terminal decline. It’s not. Yes, we can do better. Yes, this was a stunningly uninspiring campaign from all parties. Just coasting by isn’t enough, but neither is sounding like the other major party. I can understand those voters who are fed up with poll-tested, focus-grouped phrasing, who yearn for a style of politics more spontaneous and authentic, and who feel that our political culture has remained stuck in second gear. Everything seems so predictable. Our two major parties have been in coalition twice over the past decade – something that should be a democratic exception, not the norm – and yes, I sincerely hope that we will not end up with yet another “Grand” Coalition after the election. We need a strong government, yes. But we also need, nay, require a strong opposition party. We need clear contrasts between the two parties, something that has been sorely missing in recent decades. I hear you.
But the far right has no answers. They are not interested in your problems, for all their pretenses to speaking for the common man or the “forgotten men and women” – except for wanting to do two things, and two things only: Telling you who’s to blame for it, and making you afraid of it. Fear is never a good guide for choosing our leaders. We did that once, and we all know how that story ended. Is everything perfect in Germany? Contrary to what international observers believe, it isn’t. But is it better than most other places on this planet? You bet it is, and we should be damn proud of it. Whether it’s the fourth-largest economy worldwide, record-low unemployment, being a major destination for science and technology, tution-free university education and efficient infrastructure, we have plenty to be proud of. That does not mean that we should not want to improve what needs improving, like the issue of greater social mobility or the quality of our schools. But that’s radically different than whining and offering no alternative solutions. Interestingly, the ones being the most destructive, negative and pessimistic about our future are the souffleurs from the far right. I’m all for “telling it like it is” and not being politically correct about any topic, including having an honest debate about who we are as a country and where we want to go in the future. But just screaming down your opponents and accusing them of wanting to sell your country down the river is as desperate, empty and meaningless an argument as anyone staking a claim to elected office can make. It was as false coming from Nigel Farage or Geert Wilders, as it is from Donald Trump when he tags any criticism of his shambolic presidency with the inspid term “fake news”. These types of provocations and deliberate innuendos will be as wrong coming from Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel or Frauke Petry. They are not leaders, but merchants of fear.
Another thing: When I cast my vote tomorrow, I, the child of immigrants and proud citizen of my country, Germany, will reclaim our national flag and the very idea of patriotism from those extremists who constantly shout about being patriots and don’t have the slightest clue about the very idea of being a citizen. For it’s not just about flashing your passport, singing the national anthem or waving your flag around. Patriotism isn’t about looking down on other countries and accusing others who do not share your opinions of not loving our country. Being a citizen is about fighting your corner and, if necessary, disagreeing – but without being disagreeable. It’s about being an active part of a wider community of citizens, being involved, taking an interest in the city and small town around you, and being curious about the wider world as well. The far right’s claim to speak for “die schweigende Mehrheit” (the silent majority) is not just factually wrong, they are insulting and offensive to the vast majority of Germans.
We can all disagree about the right level of taxes, the way future schoolkids should be educated, the numbers of police officers required or even the right approach to immigration. But being a citizen and being a patriot is an idea too valuable to be cheapened by the tall claims of a populist party claiming to be on the side of the silent majority – for last I checked, elections are decided by plain arithmetic, not feelings. No matter what the result tomorrow, this is a simple matter of reality. Trump and Brexit should have taught us that the loudest mouths also have the shallowest minds – and no answers to any of the major issues today. No amount of shouting by the far right in our country can alter that fact.
Even in the face of an uncertain result and a possibly more aggressive political climate generated by the parliamentary entry of the country’s first far-right party since the end of the war, I am still looking forward to tomorrow. It will be a new day. So tomorrow, I will vote against the extreme right. I will vote to keep our country on the right track. For I believe that our best days are still ahead of us.