Over the past dozen years, Germany has earned the title of de facto leader of the European Union, shepherding the bloc through the existential threats of the euro crisis, and showing the way in the face of Russian aggression, the Syrian refugee crisis and the Brexit vote. Those challenges remain, but so too does Angela Merkel, and she looks set to stay on for a record fourth term as Chancellor after Germany’s national elections on 24 September. Decisive wins in three recent regional elections have given Merkel the momentum over her rival Martin Schulz. With the populist challenges in the Dutch and French elections (temporarily) silenced, and noting the tendency among commentators to cast Alternative for Germany (AfD) as part of the same trend, it’s time to consider the fortunes of Germany’s supposedly populist party.
Four months out from the national election, AfD’s campaign has hit a major bump in the road. A mixed bag of Eurosceptics, populists and xenophobic nationalists, the party has been beset by infighting, shaky leadership and the absence of a clear election platform. Its poor showing in the polls underscores AfD’s weaknesses.
At its inception in 2013, the AfD was more protest party than populist. Born during the euro crisis in opposition to the bailouts, it was a centre-right party favouring Swiss-style direct democracy and operating on a mildly Eurosceptic platform. It took a sharp right turn during the 2015 refugee crisis, happily dialling up anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment so long as it seemed to match the mood of the electorate. That rhetoric has stuck, and decisions made at the party conference on 22 April—including a change in leadership—and the news that the Saxony branch appeared alongside the far-right group PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) for the first time, signpost the AfD’s now wholehearted embrace of its right wing.
Just days ahead of the conference, then-leader Frauke Petry cited a desire to end party infighting when she voluntarily stepped down, but perhaps she just saw the writing on the wall. At the conference, Petry failed to gain support from the 600 delegates for her vision, which included writing an anti-racism clause into the party’s charter. Instead, delegates endorsed measures including stopping ‘unrestrained mass immigration’, leaving the Eurozone, and boosting birth rates to ensure the propagation of the Staatsvolk (‘own constitutive people’). That hasn’t pleased all supporters: a poll in late April (in German) revealed that 39% of AfD supporters complained about the party not disassociating itself enough from right-wing extremist members and content. And, while 34% of respondents supported Marine Le Pen in the French election, 31% supported Emmanuel Macron.
The new leadership team is unlikely to be a unifying force—if anything, the election of Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel as co-leaders further exposes the party’s division. Gauland is a 76-year-old former member of the Christian Democratic Union and was one of the most vocal defenders of his colleague Björn Höcke after Höcke made comments challenging Germany’s culture of holocaust remembrance. Weidel, just 38, is a libertarian ex-Goldman Sachs banker. As one commentator put it, ‘one would be pushed to find anyone who could be further down the other end of the party spectrum from Gauland.’ It’s doubtful that the party’s new platform and leaders will bring back the almost 50% of support lost since AfD’s 16% high in September 2016.
The AfD’s rightward trajectory into nationalism and xenophobia is anathema to Germany’s sociopolitical culture. Its history critically differentiates its susceptibility to right-wing populism from its European neighbours and Western relatives. Germany is a nation constantly holding a mirror up to itself, unafraid to acknowledge its history and perpetually afraid of repeating it. Divisive politics, racism and nationalism don’t sit well atop Germany’s national memory. As a member of the Bundestag said, ‘after the strong and bloody ideologies of the 20th century, Germans are fed up. They appreciate pragmatism.’ While there will always be a portion of society harbouring views of the political extreme, a large majority of Germans find such views distasteful.
That’s reflected in the polls. The AfD reached its electoral high point in 2016, winning 12–20% of the vote across five state elections. Since then, support has dropped, and in the three state elections this year it just scraped past the 5% threshold required for a seat in parliament. Recent national polls give the party between 7% and 10% of the national vote—lows not seen since December 2015. But there’s no denying that the AfD has made remarkable gains. In less than four years, its representatives have entered 13 out of 16 state parliaments; in three of those states, the AfD is the largest opposition party. If the party manages to maintain more than 5% support going into the election, it will join the Bundestag for the first time this year.
Elsewhere in Europe, populism is fundamentally challenging political systems and has prompted mainstream parties to adopt messaging and policies more commonly associated with the extremes. But in Germany, for a body politic that considers right-wing extremism and nationalist ideology beyond the pale, Alternative for Germany’s variety of populism isn’t proving very popular at all.