Even though the refugee crisis has faded, the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will very likely be part of the new Bundestag. Its far-right deputies will add an aggressive new tone to the debate.
The storm began brewing long before members of Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) arrived at the Maritim Hotel in Cologne in late April. For two days, delegates from across the country gathered to settle on a platform for the election campaign and choose their lead candidate for the race. This was meant to be the party’s moment of strength and unity. But an undercurrent of discord spoiled the show. Two factions emerged – one more populist and conservative, the other more nationalist and far-right – and they were both vying for power.
Frauke Petry, the chairwoman and internationally known face of the party, wanted delegates to vote on a motion that would have shifted the AfD into the mainstream. It’s not that Petry was softening her right-wing views; she wanted to make her party a real, viable opposition force in the next Bundestag – and perhaps even a possible coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU.
The delegates chose to go in another direction. Petry’s motion was neither accepted nor denied, but rather completely ignored. Meanwhile, national spokesman Jörg Meuthen delivered a stinging rebuke to the moderates, rejecting any discussion of factions or the possibility of working with the likes of Merkel. “We won’t join any coalition with those people!,” he shouted to jubilant applause.
Petry, blinking and visibly uncomfortable, was sidelined. The delegates chose Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland to represent them in the election campaign, the latter a clear nod to the nationalist wing. This was more than the tempestuous confusion of a young party finding its identity – it revealed the struggle the party is facing to forge a common vision.
The AfD shocked the establishment in 2016 with a series of successes in regional votes, winning 14 percent in Berlin’s election last September. Since then, however, it has seen its poll numbers fall steadily to around eight percent in recent surveys. Now, some analysts believe the AfD has reached an impasse; its future as a unified movement may be at stake.
“I think that in the long run the divide between the civically-minded, conservative branch and the ethnically-minded, nationalist branch is too deep, I don’t think it’s sustainable,” says Melanie Amann, a journalist for Der Spiegel magazine and author of the book AfD: Angst für Deutschland (or “Fear for Germany”). “I think the party is heading for a split.”
To see where the AfD is going, it is important to understand where it began. The party was founded in 2013 on a starkly euroskeptic, populist platform. As debt-laden Greece teetered toward bankruptcy, the European Union organized a large-scale bailout. The AfD cried foul over profligate Greeks squandering hard-earned German taxpayer money. The eurozone debt crisis began to stabilize in 2014, and public indignation subsided.
Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to Syrian refugees came as a stroke of luck for the AfD. With nearly a million asylum-seekers and migrants entering Germany that year, the party seized on a rising tide of anger and fear to shift to an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform. At the same time, the anti-Islam Pegida movement (“Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”) was drawing tens of thousands to the streets.
“The discussion back then was so polarized, it was very emotional – it drove a wedge through entire families, where you had supporters and opponents of the government’s policy,” says Oskar Niedermayer, political scientist and professor at Berlin’s Free University. “The AfD received more protest voters than any other party then. These were people who were not necessarily supporters of the AfD, they just wanted to send the mainstream parties a message.”
Part of the problem is that to some voters, Germany’s mainstream parties share more or less the same view on immigration, says Niedermayer. Even Merkel’s opponents, the Greens and the SPD, have stood behind the chancellor’s original decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors. The only substantial criticism of that policy has come from the AfD.
“The belief is that the CDU left too much space on the right, and the AfD just slid in. But that is not the core of what truly happened,” said Marc Jongen, the AfD’s spokesperson for the southwestern state of Baden-Württemburg. “Over the last few years and decades, all of our main parties, with the exception of the Left Party, have moved closer and closer together, and they’ve become a cartel. It’s simply one big party.”
Throughout 2016, it seemed a rising number of German voters agreed. But a series of key factors has begun to erode the AfD’s popularity.
Too Right, Too Soon?
First, the refugee crisis faded. Merkel, watching her popularity plummet, rapidly began working to ensure there would be no repeat. She signed key agreements with governments in transit or origin countries like Egypt and Morocco to stem the flow of migrants; she pushed a landmark (and highly controversial) deal with Ankara to stop illegal migration through Turkey into Europe; and the government passed legislation to increase deportations and make family reunification more difficult. Together, Berlin’s package of measures has slowed the flow of migration considerably. According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the agency received 13,685 new asylum applications in June of this year, an 81 percent drop year-on-year.
Second, and more significantly, the party’s rising far-right nationalist faction bubbled to the surface. The AfD’s leader in the state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke, delivered an inflammatory speech to young party members in Dresden in January, demanding a break with what he called Germany’s culture of guilt. Germans, he added in a reference to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital.”
Höcke was blasted by politicians from across the spectrum, and some members of his party launched a petition to revoke his membership. It appeared he had crossed a line in disparaging Germany’s Holocaust remembrance culture. Yet now, months later, he is still a leading member of the party. He was reprimanded with regulatory measures, but not more.
“That really was a turning point for the AfD,” says Amann. “It was a moment where Höcke’s thoughts were revealed, unfiltered and crude, and it was clear that if the party tolerated it – which it did – it would become too much for the moderate conservative wing.”
Marc Jongen, often referred to as the party’s intellectual leader, insists the AfD has taken a clear stance on Germany’s past. “Within the scene of the intellectual right there have always be quarrels over how to deal with radicalism – where to draw a line, or if a line should even be drawn. But everyone we have involved is very clear that we categorically reject anti-Semitism, or dreams of another German Reich and similar ‘old right’-stuff. That is all gone,” he says.
Anti-foreigner sentiment is not, however. Alexander Gauland, one of the party’s two main candidates, came under fire in May 2016 for targeting football star Jerome Boateng, a German of Ghanaian descent: “People like him as a footballer. But they don’t want Boateng as a neighbor.” Now Gauland has once again drawn ire after lashing out at Turkish-German SPD politician and state minister Aydan Özoguz, who said in a speech that there is no specific German culture aside from the language. At a campaign rally in Thuringia, Gauland taunted Özoguz, saying they would be able to “dispose of her in Anatolia, thank God.”
In the east of the country, the AfD’s regional and state chapters are visibly far-right. There, the lines between the AfD and the Identitarian Movement (a right-wing populist youth movement), the intellectual Neue Rechte (New Right), and even radical extremist elements are blurred, say analysts. In early May, the AfD held its first joint rally with Pegida as well.
“They have stuck to their strategy of trying to reach as many voters as possible, from the moderate conservative to the right-wing extreme,” said Niedermayer. “I think the moderate conservative voters see a red line has been crossed – they say ‘I can’t vote for a party that has these people in its ranks.’”
“The tone will become rougher”
Despite declining numbers and internal turmoil, the AfD is a remarkable success story. In just four years, it has won seats in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, the most ever for such a young party. Barring an upset, the AfD will win seats in the Bundestag at the end of September. Melanie Amann believes the current poll numbers, placing the AfD around 8 percent, are likely too conservative, especially as many voters are still undecided.
The question remains just how the party plans to wield its new power in the federal parliament – as opposition or a force of disruption. The AfD’s record in state parliaments so far have been mixed. But analysts point to the party’s list of candidates to fill seats in the Bundestag. There, the far-right nationalist wing is in the majority.
“I think we are going to have to brace ourselves for a much sharper tone, a more aggressive opposition position,” said Amann. “If you want to give it a positive spin, we will see sharper debates, but if you want to look at the negative outcome, the tone will become rougher, more uncivilized.”