Far-right AfD in German election: Less fuss but still a force
The AfD could have a successful election but it's been getting far less attention than it's used to commanding.
BURGSTÄDT, Germany — Four years ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) sent shockwaves through Berlin by becoming the first far-right party to win seats in the Bundestag since the end of World War II.
On Sunday, they’re expected to almost match that result, and could even come first in parts of Germany’s East. But this time around, the outcry is likely to be muted.
Running on a slogan of “Germany. But Normal,” AfD politicians contended that the country’s traditional political parties have made Germany unrecognizable to most of its “normal” citizens. They’ve been scathing of the government’s handling of the pandemic, calling for an end to all coronavirus-related restrictions, and have sought to parlay the botched, U.S.-led Afghanistan exit into a broader anxiety about refugees like the one that fuelled their initial rise.
The AfD itself, of course, is anything but normal. The party has grown increasingly radical over the years, and its leaders have consistently failed to erect a firewall between official party structures and the loose network of right-wing extremist groups that exist in Germany. In the fog of these murky ties, the country’s domestic intelligence service drew up plans to put the entire party under surveillance.
Nevertheless, while the party is unlikely to make gains on the national level — according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls it’s currently at around 11 percent, slightly below the 12.6 percent it won in 2017 — it has reversed some of the losses it sustained during the pandemic and solidified its support in eastern Germany, where it averages more than 20 percent of the vote.
“The AfD did not disappear, as some of its opponents had hoped,” said Manès Weisskircher, a Dresden-based political scientist with the University of Oslo who focuses on far-right parties. “At the same time, the AfD clearly failed to develop a broader appeal in the last couple of years.”
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With the coronavirus pandemic and climate issues eclipsing immigration in voters’ minds, not to mention an unusually volatile race between the three chancellor candidates, the far-right party has been getting far less attention than it’s used to commanding.
But among the AfD’s core supporters, that’s not a problem. The party’s enduring appeal to its base was on display one recent Saturday evening in Burgstädt, a city of around 12,000 just outside Chemnitz in central Saxony. Shortly after sunset, Thuringia AfD leader Björn Höcke took the stage before a few hundred supporters chanting his name.
In a 45-minute speech, Höcke served up the kind of red meat his party’s voters know to expect and come to hear. Castigating the traditional political parties as “cartel parties” bent on destroying Germany, he lamented what he saw as a lack of freedom of expression in Germany. He also gave voice to conspiracy narratives, saying he believes the coronavirus vaccines are “not safe” and that postal voting will lead to widespread voter fraud.
“We want to keep Germany as the homeland for us, for our children and our grandchildren,” he said. “We want our democracy back — we want to live in freedom and peace … that’s what the AfD stands for.”
From Euroskeptic party to anti-immigration force
The AfD was originally founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party: Its name tags a quote from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had said there was “no alternative” to bailing out other European countries during the eurozone crisis.
In that year’s general election, the party failed to gain the 5 percent support necessary to win seats in the Bundestag. But after more than a million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015 and 2016, the party found its new cultural grievance: refugee politics and immigration. Mining a small but potent seam of anti-immigrant sentiment, the AfD staked a claim in the German political landscape and took 94 seats in the Bundestag in 2017. This feat placed it third behind the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the center-left Social Democrats, and made the AfD the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
In the years that followed, the party displayed a talent for leveraging resentment to shape public debate. Fear of losing voters to the AfD among Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, for example, led to a spat over migration policy that nearly brought down the governing coalition in 2018.
Since then, the AfD has won seats in all 16 state-level parliaments. The five eastern German states, where the AfD has won more than 20 percent of the vote, have been particularly fertile ground: Saxony, the AfD’s stronghold, produced a harvest of 27.5 percent in 2019 state-level elections.
And then came the pandemic. The AfD, long used to playing on voters’ fears of violent refugees, struggled to deliver a coherent message in the early days of the pandemic, and found itself superfluous to the political conversation, and diving in the polls.
At length, near the end of the first round of restrictions in spring 2020, the AfD discovered their new niche: doubling down on opposition to the government’s anti-coronavirus measures. The tactic brought them into the same sphere as anti-lockdown protest movements like the Querdenker, which held mass rallies in Berlin and elsewhere across the country.
But while the anti-lockdown tack might have appealed to the party’s base, it’s done little to win over new voters.
Other factors have contributed to that dynamic. Earlier this year, German media reported that the domestic intelligence service was putting the party under surveillance for extremist activities and ties to right-wing extremist groups; parts of the AfD, including Höcke’s radical right “Wing” and the youth organization, were already being watched. The AfD fought the decision, saying it would unfairly disadvantage their candidates in a crucial election year; the case is still ongoing.
The party has also suffered at both the state and national levels from bitter infighting. At least one of its members has defected in each of Germany’s 16 state-level parliaments and the Bundestag, according to statistics compiled by Süddeutsche Zeitung.
These reverses, and the party’s slide in the polls, have led to losses in recent state-level elections and to a widening of the party’s East-West gap in support. In March, the party lost 5.4 percentage points in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, going from 15.1 percent in 2016 to 9.7 percent this year; in Rhineland-Palatinate, AfD lost 4.3 points, plunging to 8.3 percent from 12.6 percent.
Meanwhile, in June’s state-level elections in Saxony-Anhalt, which is one of the AfD’s strongholds in eastern Germany, the party won 21.8 percent, leaving it still a force but still slightly less popular than the 23.1 percent it won five years ago.
“They are stable, they have now established themselves on the national level, but I don’t see any major potential for them to win over many more votes,” said Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the German polling firm Forsa. “What they are lacking this time is a real issue like they had four years ago.”
That lack of a political incendiary, like migration, has made it difficult for the party to expand beyond its existing voter redoubts to the new territory they need to conquer.
“I think it’s mixed: We’ll do well in Saxony, our chances are good here, we’ve always done well here,” Matthias Hofmann, head of the AfD in Burgstädt, told POLITICO when asked about his party’s prospects this month. “But the overwhelming majority of the voters are in the West … and in the West, there are lots of voters for the Greens and the left-leaning parties.”
Regardless of what happens to the party nationally, the AfD has established itself as a significant player in eastern Germany, winning over 20 percent in all five eastern states in regional elections over the last few years.
It’s especially strong in Saxony and Thuringia — so much so that some recent polls have even shown the AfD in first place in both states in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a function of older voters. In state-level elections in 2019, the party came in first among 18- to 29-year-olds in Thuringia, and tied for first among that age group in Saxony. Moreover, future voters there back the AfD as well: The party won a mock election of under-18-year-olds in both states.
Weisskircher, the Dresden-based expert, said a first-place finish in Saxony or Thuringia would be an important “symbolic” victory for the AfD, even if it wouldn’t mean anything for their governing prospects, as none of the other parties were willing to form a coalition with them.
But coming in first in either state would bolster their argument that, at least in the East, they’ve become part of the political mainstream — a true Volkspartei (“people’s party”), the term used to refer to big-tent centrist parties like the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. And that, in party leaders’ eyes, could eventually bring them what they want down the line: a role in government.
Höcke invoked that vision during his speech in Burgstädt. “We are the force of the future,” he said. “We’re already a people’s party in Saxony and Thuringia, and in just a few years we’ll be one all across eastern Germany, and also in the west.”