The rise and fall of the AfD

German politicians’ complacency fuelled the rise of the right-wing party.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

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‘The success of the Alternative für Deutschland will fade’, said German chancellor Angela Merkel in March 2016. A year later, her prediction appears prescient. On Sunday, Germany’s anti-immigrant party won just 5.9 per cent of the vote in a regional election in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. A few weeks earlier, it barely made the five per cent threshold in Saarland, another federal state. This is bad news for the AfD, which sent shockwaves through the country at regional elections last year, winning over 20 per cent in one region. These more recent results have been seen as a barometer of public opinion four months ahead of the national elections. They follow recent opinion polls that have also suggested the party is slumping in popularity. But is the far right in Germany finished, as some have tentatively claimed?

This is the wrong question to ask. The truth is that the German far right has not been surging in support in recent years. The AfD drew its support mainly from disgruntled former CDU, SPD or Die Linke voters (the conservative, labour and left parties respectively). Only a part of the AfD’s base came from a far right background: its shortlived success was a result of the failure of the more established parties to address the concerns of many people.

Now, the AfD leadership has certainly pandered to the far right. In January, for example, Björn Höcke, the speaker of the party in the state of Thuringia, caused outrage with his comments about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. He said Germany was the only country in the world to build a monument of shame in the heart of its capital city, and that Germany should finally stop atoning for its past. But this led the AfD’s poll ratings to fall. While the party appealed to voters on issues such as immigration and the Euro, voters don’t want to be associated with this revisionist rhetoric.

AfD leader Frauke Petry, who has also pandered to the far right at times, recently tried to expel Höcke. She argued, from a tactical point of view, that the AfD’s image was being compromised by the provocations of a few of its members. Petry failed and stepped down as leader, becoming the latest person to lose the power struggle within the party, which has always tried to balance the interests of its right-wing faction with the need to appear open and respectable.

This struggle led the AfD to elect, at its congress in Cologne, two joint leaders for the election campaign to replace Petry: one is Alexander Gauland, a 76-year-old right-wing hack and supporter of Höcke; the other is Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old lesbian and former Goldman Sachs investment banker. While Gauland is there to appease the right-wing camp, Weidel’s role is to signal virtue.

Whether this two-fold strategy will work and bring the party back to its former heights is far from clear. The election programme, adopted at the Cologne congress, shows that the AfD is still far from a forward-looking force. It talks about encouraging Germans (but not immigrants) to have more children. It demands a compulsory abortion registry with punishments for anyone who fails to register. It also wants to ban headscarves in public institutions and calls for ‘negative immigration’ (based on a rising number of deportations). All this sounds chillingly authoritarian.

The immigration issue is losing its urgency in Germany, and the tide of refugees coming over has ebbed. The only thing the AfD remains potent on is the Euro. It wants to take Germany out of the Eurozone, while all other parties support ongoing membership. But it is unclear whether this will be enough to shore up its support among voters.

But even if the AfD is on the wane, the political class is doing nothing to address the problems which led to its rise in the first place. The main reason the AfD rose to prominence is because it was the only party willing to speak to concerns about immigration and the Euro. And when the AfD began attracting voters, all the mainstream parties could do was talk about defeating the far right. Rather than having a real debate about the issues the party raises, there have been a string of anti-AfD protests.

Thus, thousands of police in riot gear were required to protect the AfD’s party congress. Debates at universities involving AfD speakers have been disrupted and called off. In some cases, the protests got so out of hand that AfD speakers required police escorts. In Schleswig-Holstein, where the latest elections took place, an alliance of trade unionists, SPD politicians and members of the Green Party got together to prevent the AfD from holding its election rally.

There is a lot to dislike about the AfD, but at least it talks about politics. Many of its critics would rather stifle debate. At one of the anti-AfD rallies, Hannelore Kraft, the SPD minister president of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, gave a speech, saying: ‘Here are thousands of upright democrats who are making a clear statement: we want our country to stay as it is – colourful, open and tolerant.’ But what’s so tolerant about preventing an opposition party from holding a congress? And does the SPD not have anything more to say to the country than it should ‘stay as it is’?

Rather than taking on the AfD politically, the other parties are engaging in their own illiberal tactics. It’s a shallow spectacle presented as a valiant fight against fascism. In Schleswig-Holstein, only 65 per cent of voters took part in the recent local elections. This makes non-voters the strongest group in the region. That’s a much bigger worry than the theatrics of a fringe right-wing party.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is head of the board of the liberal think-tank Freiblickinstitut e.V., which has published the Freedom Manifesto. She is also the organiser of the Berlin Salon.

Picture by: Getty

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