The Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or, in short, AfD) is ‘the only vehicle with which I can express my protest,’ said 85 per cent of the party’s supporters, according to pollster Infratest dimap. On 24 September 2017, Election Day in Germany, the expectation that the first far-right force since 1961 could sit in the Bundestag (the national parliament of Germany) turned into reality. The AfD, founded in 2013, not only jumped above the five per cent electoral threshold, but it also became the third biggest faction in the parliament by winning 12.6 per cent of the votes.
Back in 2013, when economics professor Bernd Lucke led the AfD as its first chairman, the party mainly focused on a political fight against the European Union and the currency union. Mr Lucke mostly gathered wealthy conservatives around him, primarily males older than 50, and started firing shots towards Berlin and Brussels. But the AfD’s focus slowly changed when Germany began to face a high influx of asylum seekers. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to open the gates for many refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere in the summer of 2015, AfD’s shift to an anti-immigration party became more and more evident.
Mr Lucke himself was forced out of power because those in the second and third row believed his rather neo-liberal worldview and focus on economic matters showed he was out of touch with the pressing issues of the time. Mr Lucke was replaced by Frauke Petry, a chemist and businesswoman who represented the national conservative wing within the party. The fact that in the past few months another wing has been gaining power and Ms Petry decided to leave the party shows how it is still difficult to point out the political position of the AfD. Just by looking at the leading figures, the range of ideologies goes from classic conservatism to nationalistic populism to völkisch nationalism connected with the New Right.
While a certain portion of the 5.9 million AfD voters did support the party out of sheer protest against the establishment in Berlin, another reason certainly played an immense factor. Many Germans are not necessarily anti-immigration, but there is a deep fear of radical Islamism and the cultural clash with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. More than two-thirds of Germans reside outside of cities with a population above 100,000. And, unless they have lived near a home for asylum seekers, many of them have not come in touch with thousands of refugees on a regular basis. But the scenarios of Islamification and the decline of German culture, reports of terror attacks and women being raped, and the feeling that Ms Merkel decided to let strangers in without listening to her people, have lit a fire.
At its core, Germany is one of the most liberal countries in the world. Even those who would describe themselves as conservatives are often more liberal than open-minded people in other parts of the globe. But there are limits and red lines. AfD’s success in the incredibly wealthy south of the country came down to its opposition against Berlin’s asylum policy. When the aversion to Muslims was coupled with an overall disappointment in the ruling forces and figures in Berlin, support for the AfD vaulted the party to even higher heights, as was the case in the east.
The territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the part of Germany that was separated from the flourishing west by the Iron Curtain for four decades, was most receptive to the demands and rhetoric of the AfD. The party received the most votes of all the competitors in the state of Saxony, where the anti-Islam movement Pegida is located and organises weekly protests in Dresden, the Saxon capital. Stefan Locke, a reporter from the conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, visited the region shortly after the election in an attempt to learn more about the voters’ motives. ‘It was a warning and that hit home,’ shop assistant Peter Hempel said when he talked to the reporter in the small town of Oppach near the Czech border. While he does not believe that the AfD could sort things out, he wishes the established parties would ‘finally wake up.’
Mr Hempel himself is a fitting example of why some people in the east of Germany are disappointed. He is 66 years old and could be enjoying retirement. But things have not always worked in his favour. Because of loan debts and a small pension, he has been forced to continue working. He studied engineering in the GDR and later took over the petrol station his father owned. After Germany’s unification in 1990, his business flourished for years. But the big companies started to drive down petrol prices, the governing coalition between social democrats and greens introduced a new environment tax bill, and the EU opened the borders to countries like the Czech Republic, where gas was significantly cheaper, and Mr Hempel went out of business.
Ever since, he has been frustrated about ‘the big nobs.’ The AfD offered him and others an opportunity to protest. The fact that the right-wing party has also gone up against Ms Merkel’s asylum policy was the final trigger. ‘Politics has forgotten the rural population,’ he says. Instead, the politicians take care of refugees. ‘We work like crazy and, in this way, finance refugees.’ Mr Hempel is not unwilling to help people who flee war and violence, but over one million refugees—approximately the amount of asylum seekers who have come to Germany since mid-2015—are too many in his eyes. ‘Here (in eastern Saxony), we live quiet, but we watch television and see on our mobile phone screens what happens in the cities,‘ he explains. ‘It frightens us.’
Mr Hempel and his motives are not an isolated case. He, in fact, represents a majority of AfD supporters—especially in the east. In the last few decades, these people often voted for the conservative party Christian Democratic Union (CDU), far-left party Die Linke, or did not participate in elections at all. Out of the 5.9 million votes the AfD received, about 1.2 million came from Germans who did not vote in the last general election in 2013, more than one million were former CDU voters, and another million came from the left parties. Just like the AfD consists of a mix of different political wings and positions, its constituents are a mix of people with highly varying worldviews.
That being said, the rise of the AfD is a problem, particularly for Ms Merkel’s party. In the past 12 years, the CDU moved closer to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), so that the distinctions between both parties who formed a coalition for eight out of those 12 years, became blurry, lately almost undetectable. That was one reason Martin Schulz, the social democratic challenger of Ms Merkel, had a hard time explaining the potential differences between the two.
A speciality of the conservative party in Germany is that it does not have a division in the state of Bavaria, one of the biggest and wealthiest states in the country. Instead, the Christian Social Union (CSU) exists independently, yet always collaborates with the CDU. Since World War II and the reinforcement of German democracy, the CSU stood a bit more on the right than the CDU and was usually successful with its strategy in Bavaria, often governing with an overall majority in the state parliament. But even the CSU suffered significant losses due to the rise of the AfD, which could cause more concern among the German conservatives than CDU’s decline. If the CSU cannot defend the right flank, then trouble may be on the horizon for them.
In the aftermath of the election, leading figures from both CDU and CSU tried to react appropriately. While CSU chairman Horst Seehofer simply said they ‘understand’ the message almost six million voters sent, others discussed a potential shift back to the right to ‘shut down the flank.’ Looking closely at this potential strategy, it may be more difficult to beat the AfD at its own game than it appears at first glance. While the party is culturally conservative, many of the faces of the AfD are deliberately politically incorrect. Notably, Alexander Gauland, a former CDU strategist who left the party because of its social democratic turn and is now parliamentary group leader of the AfD faction in the Bundestag, has become famous for his provocative statements and for pushing the boundaries of what can be said in German politics. Beating the AfD at its own game would mean abandoning bourgeois decency, which could ultimately do more damage to the two conservative parties.
Outside of party headquarters, there are two schools of thought in terms of what conclusion can be drawn from the AfD success. One school intends to build a bridge by taking protesting voters’ concerns seriously. The other school directly blames the voters for backing a far-right party. The United States should be a warning to those who prefer the latter. After Donald Trump’s victory, many actors, journalists and intellectuals blatantly insulted Mr Trump’s supporters and were about to deepen the divide within the American society. Eventually, the incompetence of the US President worked against a scenario in which his voters would turn even more against the elites on the coasts.
At this point, only two scenarios or a combination of both could push the AfD into irrelevance: first, the internal split is not fixed anytime soon. The day after the election, Ms Petry, who was still the chairwoman at the time, announced that she would not join AfD’s parliamentary group. One day later, she announced that she was leaving the party. Ms Petry’s departure marks the second time that a faction within the party breaks off after losing an internal power struggle; some members may agree with her criticism and follow her. Ms Petry is convinced that only a conservative force that holds up bourgeois standards could exist in the long run. Second, the voters who used the AfD as a ‘vehicle with which (they) can express (their) protest’ will not be satisfied by what the party offers them going forward and eventually return to the established players or stay away from the polling booths. Any other scenario would mean that the AfD is here to stay, and it will solidify its position in the German political landscape.