The elections in three German federal states 16 March 2016 have led to a political shakeup demonstrating the final breakthrough of the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). These elections constitute a great victory for the AfD, as they made it into every second state parliament. Moreover, the party was able to enter on a strong note, winning double digit portions of the vote (five per cent is the election threshold for entering parliament). The question that arises is why this is interpreted as a political upset in Germany when right wing populist parties in other parts of Europe, such as the Front National in France, for example, notably win almost thirty per cent of the national vote.

Image courtesy of Kürschner © 2016, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Kürschner © 2016, some rights reserved.

In the last decades, Germany was (understandably) vigilant towards extremism on the far right. The Supreme Court, for example, is currently discussing the prohibition of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), a party that appears much like a neo-Nazi party.[1] Germany also has a sub-culture of violent and explicitly neo-Nazi networks. When it comes to less extreme populism on the right, however, Germany is an exception in Europe: it has no far-right party as firmly established as the National Front in France or Austria’s Freedom Party.

Germany’s political mainstream long seemed to have been inoculated by the Nazi past. A survey of right-wing attitudes in Germany in 2014 found that xenophobia, chauvinism, anti-Semitism and authoritarian leanings were declining. Overall, only 2.4 per cent of the population held rightist worldviews. Yet, even at that time, the political middle was fragile and xenophobic attitudes were particularly vulnerable to crisis[2]. As a matter of fact, this is exactly what the AfD could capitalize on. The AfD was initially established to provide an alternative for the German fiscal policy in the Euro crisis but, after an internal battle in summer of 2015, reportedly transformed into a more right-wing nationalist party. This internal battle for leadership correlated with the heightening of the refugee crisis, which the AfD vice-leader called ‘a present for the AfD.’ Since then the AfD accommodates itself with Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) and reaches out for other xenophobic actors in Europe. Pegida and AfD have similar supporters, adherents tend to be older middle-class men anxious about social decline and cultural alienation. However, in contrast to the depiction of the AfD as a party of old white men, the recent voting patterns were able to refute this thesis and show that the AfD was elected by voters of all ages. Overall, however, the party evolved into a shelter for EU enemies, Islamophobes, conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists.

However, this article shall not discuss how the AfD is a radical right wing party similar to the NPD or whether it is ‘simply’ a conservative party right to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), rather the question is how the AfD was able to win so many votes and what that means for Germany in the future. First of all, Germany seems at last to be like the rest of Europe in having an entrenched populist party on the right. But there is more to that: collected data suggests that the ‘middle’ of the society is becoming radicalized[3]. This is most evident in the rise of verbal aggression depicted in the suggestion of an AfD leader that border guards should make us of their firearms to keep refugees out or more generally, that Facebook and Twitter are increasingly abuzz with hate speech. This radicalization of the rhetoric is harmful in the long run because it starts blurring the boundaries between physical and verbal violence[4]. As a result, xenophobic violence in Germany is increasing.

However, coming back to voting matters, most Germans, are apparently unwilling to vote for the AfD. Most importantly, in the last elections the AfD got the majority of their votes out of the mass of former non-voters who did not vote in previous elections out of protest. They see the AfD as their mouthpiece in voicing displeasure over the handling of the refugee crisis in Germany. In this manner, it is possible to view the momentum of protest voting as most influential in these latest German elections that greatly benefited the AfD. As a result of these elections a shift towards the right in the whole German party system is most likely.

However, this does not mean that German democracy is doomed in general, because it is strong enough to counter forces that undermine the German system as a tolerant democracy. Furthermore, a glimpse towards other European countries might help to calm some nerves as Germany can be seen as basically catching up with a development a right wing populist parties that other European states long since have established. On the other hand, sensitivity and not laxity should be on top of the national agenda now because clearly there are parts of the German people who are unsatisfied and frustrated with the current political system. This, however, is not something new (the ‘permanently unsatisfied population’ is continuously thought of to be around twenty per cent) but in the last elections, the AfD profited from this and voiced many grievances of the unsatisfied since it was able to bring together criticism of perceived social injustices with perceived cultural threats such as Islam. The AfD is mostly a protest party and seventy per cent of their voters declare to be disappointed with the established parties and the social, cultural and economic situation in Germany in general. As such, the AfD is able to concentrate certain prejudices, disapprovals and vague fears.

In distinction to other protest parties, the AfD was able to gather a big pool of supporters of whom some are previous party members of the CDU or the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), people who are situated in the middle of society and cannot be easily labeled right wing extremists. In the end, it is a combination of right wing populism and pragmatism that defines the attractiveness of the AfD today and, as refugees continue to arrive, Germany’s tolerance and moderation are being tested as never before in its post-war history. The firewall it has built between respectable conservatism and the extreme right may be breaking down. Therefore, society has to be vigilant and show that the answers the AfD provides for today’s problems do not positively influence the social and economic capacity of Germany. However, history remains to be written and depends on the ability to reach the German people and communicate and show that the populist of the AfD is not right for Germany. The race is not lost since it has just begun. But in general, the AfD is likely to make it into the national German Parliament in 2017, mainly due to the fact that the refugee crisis will not be removed from the political agenda anytime soon.

[1] The Economist Vol. 418, Number 8978

[2] The Economist Vol. 418, Number 8978

[3] Andreas Zick, from the University of Bielefeld

[4] The Economist Vol. 418, Number 8978

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