European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies-Germany and Netherlands
Germany’s far-right AfD searching for new momentum ahead of election
DW-The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the country’s most successful far-right party since the war, but its latest election results suggest it has hit a ceiling.
This should be a good time for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), if only because, with Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer a candidate in September’s election, Germany has no choice but to choose an alternative. The built-in uncertainty of Germany’s political future has been exacerbated in recent months by a series of legacy-scarring crises marking Merkel’s final year in power and eroded trust in the political establishment.
As political analyst and far-right specialist Florian Hartleb noted, the coronavirus pandemic has given the AfD opportunities. “Germany is in a big legitimacy crisis,” Hartleb told DW. “There’s a dramatic decline in support for the government and especially Angela Merkel, because of the lack of vaccines and other issues. This is the perfect opportunity for the AfD, which is the party against the grand coalition.”
Berlin’s AfD spokesman Ronald Gläser says the government’s current struggles could create a new opportunity: “As the dissatisfaction with the coronavirus measures grows, as we’re seeing right now, we have the potential to make greater gains,” he said. “A blind man with a stick could see that the government is making decisions that contradict any common sense.”
But recent elections suggest the AfD has not used this potential. The party lost around a third of its vote-share in the Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate elections in mid-March — ending up at below 10% in both states, down from just 15% five years ago.On April 10-11, the party will re-group in Dresden, one of its eastern German strongholds, to finalize its manifesto, and to come up with a strategy to revive its momentum in Germany’s “super election year,” which will culminate in the general election on September 26.
Hopes will be pinned on the next state election in Saxony-Anhalt in early June, where the AfD took a quarter of the votes in 2016. But observers are expecting to see a major power struggle between more moderate and more right-wing extremist representatives.
Gläser insists the party is in a good place. “Of course a few people are dissatisfied with the loss of votes, but honestly, it wasn’t really surprising,” he told DW.For one thing, he argued, the AfD was never likely to repeat what he called the “phenomenal” successes of 2016 when the new party gathered up to a quarter of the vote in a series of regional elections.
Those successes came on the back of the refugee crisis that dominated that year, when the AfD was able to bend the political debate around its own nationalist and at times openly racist views, going on to become Germany’s main opposition party in the Bundestag in 2017 with 12.6% of the national vote.
That local friction has extended to the national party, because another prominent figure in the Baden-Württemberg AfD happens to be Jörg Meuthen, one of the two co-chairpeople of the national AfD.The upcoming party conference is likely to be the stage for a major power battle.Meuthen is considered one of the AfD’s most high-profile “moderates,” a group that has historically been an endangered species: Previous AfD leaders such as Bernd Lucke and Frauke Petry have been excised from the party for opposing the party’s more extreme factions.
In an attempt to avoid a split Meuthen reached out to the AfD radicals in 2017, assuring them that “the wing is and will remain to be an integral part of our party.” He changed his tune when the Wing was formally disbanded last year because the Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the German domestic intelligence agency, decided to put the group under heightened surveillance.
And this March, a BfV investigation concluded that in fact the entire AfD was “a case of suspected far-right extremism” and could be put under strict surveillance. The AfD has so far successfully challenged the decision in court.Meuthen has attempted to install a firewall against the far-right extremists in the party, sometimes initiating expulsion proceedings against politicians who openly expressed racist views: Most prominent amongst these is the notorious Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD in Thuringia, whose statements have exposed an overtly racist world-view.
Höcke has gathered a group around him known as “The Wing,” the AfD’s hardcore group, which, according to Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, is essentially a right-wing extremist party within a party. It happens to enjoy the support of up to 40% of AfD members.Meuthen failed to remove either Höcke or the Wing — partly because the rest of the AfD’s national leaders, including the two parliamentary leaders Weidel and Alexander Gauland, and Meuthen’s co-chairman Tino Chrupalla, believe the “wing” is vital for the party to maintain its far-right voter base. Gauland once famously even described Höcke as “the center of the party.”
“Basically, Jörg Meuthen is clearly under fire within the party, and he’s not powerful enough to kick the Wing out, which he wanted to do,” said Hartleb. “But if I was advising the AfD — which I’m not, of course — I would say: Keep silent because the more they keep silent the more votes they’re getting. They lost a lot of energy with these internal struggles.”
So while the upcoming party gathering formally is about the election manifesto, 100 party members have announced that they want Meuthen to be removed as party leader at the gathering in Dresden. And there is pressure to decide now on the top candidate for the September general election — something Meuthen would like to delay.
Despite the stain of extremism and the insistence of all other parties that they will never cooperate with the AfD, the party is far from struggling, according to Hartleb.The party has shown no sign of backing down from extremist rhetoric.
In the latest draft of the AfD election manifesto, unpublished but sent to delegates of the upcoming party conference, the party has intensified anti-immigrant rhetoric since the last manifesto in 2017: The emphasis is on plans to deport more immigrants and introduce schemes to send refugees back to countries of origin as quickly as possible.
For his part, Gläser insists that the AfD maintains a solid presence in Germany’s political debate, despite no longer having an all-consuming immigration crisis to build popularity on.”Our basic criticisms of European bailouts, of illegal mass immigration, of gender politics, of the abolition of fuel-burning cars, still hold,” he said. “There are plenty of issues. The point will come when they return to the daily agenda.”
The AfD also claims that it has expanded its voter base in the past few years. It started out in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party dominated by academics, and went on to capitalize on anti-immigration sentiment in 2015 making gains with the economically disadvantaged. “The AfD is much more than just the party of the losers of modernization,” Hartleb said. “Many middle-class people vote for the AfD too.”
“The classic AfD voter is an older working man with a mid-level education qualification,” said Gläser. “But we also see ourselves as having a program for everyone, just as all parties do. We’re not fixed on certain issues or groups.”But voter analysis by pollster infratest dimap following the recent state elections suggests that the AfD may have lost the crucial weapon it had in 2016-2017: Its polarizing presence caused a boost in turnout, which it benefitted from — more non-voters went for the AfD than other parties.
But this time around, the Greens appear to have won the battle to attract the most non-voters in the first elections of the year.While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.