The Last Domino: Germany and the Alternative für Deutschland

BY MICHAEL ZELLER

Contemporary European politics, from the Atlantic to the Urals, are conspicuous for the nearly widespread presence of major far-right political parties and movements. The recent British referendum on the EU (‘Brexit’) is the most impressive example yet of the impact of far-right socio-political mobilization. The creation of the referendum, and partially the result itself, was achieved by pressure from the UK’s far right. Yet the country most notoriously associated with the far right, Germany, has not produced a substantial far-right party. The success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in regional elections this year, combined with the continuing pressures of immigration, may foreshadow the rise of the far right in the heart of Europe. What is the character of the AfD and its young leader, Frauke Petry? What are the prospects of an AfD breakthrough in Germany’s 2017 parliamentary elections? How does it fit within the family of European far-right parties? These questions are best answered by parsing the AfD’s policies and rhetoric, examining the role of Petry compared to other far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria, and evaluating the susceptibility of Germany’s electoral system to far-right insurgence.

Policies and Rhetorical Posture

Officially founded just over three years ago, in 2013, the AfD originated in opposition to German government policies on the Eurozone crisis. According to the founders of the AfD, the Euro (not necessarily the European Union) was proving inappropriate for the whole of Europe, perpetuating economic difficulties in southern member states; thus, the AfD emerged almost solely from a fringe—though that is not to say unconsidered—economic stance. But the party has steadily transformed into a vessel for broader right-wing views. While economic policies once represented the core concern of the party, the election of Frauke Petry as leader in July 2015 cemented sponsorship of many common populist far-right policies: opposition to an ‘ever closer’ European Union, support for more limits on and oversight of the ‘political establishment,’ endorsement of stronger criminal justice measures, commitment to ‘traditional family’ models, ‘more children instead of mass immigration,’ openness to cooperating with Russia, and sponsorship of German language and culture alongside explicit rejection of Islam.[1]

The AfD’s campaign for the Berlin state parliament—elections are set for 18 September—encapsulates the rhetorical posture of the party. Campaign placards in Russian (including one supporting the cancellation of sanction against Russia) and in Polish are designed to draw votes from those sizable groups of immigrants in Berlin.[2] Conspicuously, on the other hand, no poster caters to the language of Berlin’s largest immigrant group, Turks. Instead, one poster shows a gay couple and the text: ‘My partner and I don’t care for acquaintance with Muslim immigrants, because our love is a mortal sin.’[3] Similarly, the AfD asserts its support for German cultural preservation with a poster featuring a dark-skinned woman and text saying that her son should ‘learn to speak proper German’, because it is ‘the condition to get a good job.’[4] And one leading AfD candidate, Georg Pazderski, reaffirmed the AfD’s anti-establishment stance, referring to the other major parties as ‘cartel parties’ (“Kartellparteien”) and stating that the AfD could enter into a coalition. In Berlin, quite liberal compared to other cities and to rural areas, one might expect the AfD to moderate its rhetoric, but the party appears resolute and firmly united around a broad set of typically far-right stances.

Petry—another charismatic far-right leader?

Frauke Petry’s ascent to party leadership solidified intra-party consensus on far-right policies. More concerned with ethnic politics, Petry has been compared to other European far-right leaders, particularly Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National. While the comparison is superficially appealing as both are fairly charismatic female leaders, Petry and Le Pen are more notable for their differences. While Petry is the key figure in the AfD’s evolution from a single-issue movement to a true far-right party, Le Pen has had the opposite effect, moderating the rhetorical posture, if not the policy stances, of Front National in an effort to win broader electoral support. Petry’s role is more comparable to Jörg Haider, who as leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) from 1986 to 2000 shifted the party’s ideological position from classical liberalism to right-wing populism.

Unlike the FPÖ under Haider, however, Petry and the AfD are highly unlikely to work in coalition with the mainstream parties. AfD gains have been fueled by criticism of policies devised or enacted by Angela Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—Eurozone bailouts, open-door immigration, cooperation with Turkey’s President Erdogan. Similar to France, Germany is dominated by a centrist coalition with a center-right component that is far more likely to work with the political left than the far-right. In France’s 2015 regional elections—many touted it as the moment the Front National would win a plurality of seats, especially after garnering the most votes in the first round—the Socialist Party withdrew its candidates in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie regions, effectively ceding its votes to the center-right rather than divide the moderate vote. Similarly, Merkel and the CDU have worked in coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party, and would undoubtedly continue to do so rather than collaborate with the AfD.[5] Recently responding to questions and criticisms about her immigration policy, Chancellor Merkel acknowledged the rise of the AfD and committed her party to ‘winning back people who don’t feel sufficiently understood by the parties currently represented in the Bundestag.’[6]

The AfD, like the Front National and the current FPÖ under Heinz-Christian Strache, claims a broad political platform, principally springing from deep wells of ethno-culturalist and of anti-elitist concerns. Just as Le Pen and Strache may leverage their party’s position to secure policy concessions or extract an EU referendum commitment from the political mainstream, Petry will rely on the AfD’s socio-political weight to urge its policies and ideology on the public authority sphere. If her party makes significant gains next year, she may induce, for example, a parliamentary initiative or referendum on German border control.

Electoral Prospects

After marginal gains in other state elections the AfD won significant victories in three state elections in March 2016. In Baden-Württemberg, the party won 15.1% of the vote; in Rhineland-Palatinate, 12.6%; and 24.2% in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, garnering only 5.6% less than the leading CDU party.[7] The results suggest mounting opposition to the CDU and SPD (Social Democratic Party) coalition that has predominated contemporary German politics, and may herald electoral volatility and gains for the AfD in the autumn 2017 national elections.

Crises in Europe, particularly the immigration crisis (for which many apportion blame to Merkel for her ‘open door’ policy) and related incidents, have eroded some support for Merkel and her party. From 41.5% of the vote in 2013, some polls have the CDU as low as 30%. And a poll by the Insa survey group found that only 36% want Angela Merkel to lead government for a fourth term.[8] Were Chancellor Merkel to step aside, however, no consensus candidate appears ready to succeed her. Likely heirs Julia Klöckner and Ursula von der Leyen would both face considerable opposition to their leadership bids.

While support for the SPD is down, too, from 25.7% in 2013 to approximately 20%, the Green party has received a small boost, up a few points to nearly 15%. But no party has comparable momentum to the AfD. After acquiring stable support of 5% for the first two years of its existence, the party under Petry has leaped to upwards of 15%, competing with the longstanding Green Party for third position.

By its electoral performance in 2017, the AfD may acquire what Giovanni Sartori called ‘blackmail potential.’ That is, a party can leverage its current and future, possibly increased support to enter into coalition government (again, not likely for the AfD) or to compel another party or parties to adopt some of its policies or ideology.[9] If Petry’s party wins 15% of the vote, it could apply significant pressure on the government

Germany’s national electoral system is more likely than those of other European countries to facilitate a far-right surge. The Bundestag consists of 598 members. Of that number, half are elected from single member districts, which tend to favor well established parties and has typically been a high hurdle for the far right to clear, and half are elected by proportional representation. Thus, even if AfD failed to win any directly elected constituency seats in 2017, it could still gain upwards of 50 parliamentary seats. Taken together, polling trends and Germany’s electoral system indicate that the AfD will enter into parliament next autumn, and may in fact do so with a hefty minority of MPs.

Frauke Petry and the Alternative für Deutschland conform to the trend of European far-right parties. Often limited to ascendancy at local and regional levels, right-wing populists nonetheless affect an imposing political presence. Whereas other parties more narrowly represent political entities, the far right are often products or affiliated arms of movements that capture the zeitgeist for large masses of the populace. Their power is distinctly more social, derived from a pervasive capability to identify and resist perceived economic, political, and above all socio-cultural threats. By obtaining a potent mixture of social support and significant, even if not decisive, political clout, far-right parties are able to exercise outsized influence. This is the prospect before Germany and the AfD.

The AfD’s gains in regional elections demonstrate Germany’s susceptibility to an emergent far right, despite its history and active attempts to suppress far-right politics. Overlapping support with the PEGIDA movement—that is, the ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West’—conforms to the pattern of social movements buttressing populist far-right parties. And the vulnerability of both major German centrist parties, so closely linked by coalition government, to anti-establishment sentiments offers significant prospects to the AfD. Germany will vote in a new parliament next year. Expect the AfD to be part of it. Expect continued and compounded pressure from the AfD on Germany’s political sphere.

Endnotes

[1] From the AfD’s 2016 manifesto: https://www.alternativefuer.de/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2016/03/Leitantrag-Grundsatzprogramm-AfD.pdf

[2] Kamann, M., & Mumme, T. (2016, July 28). Wie die Berliner AfD um Stimmen von Migranten kämpft. Die Welt. Retrieved July 29, 2016, from http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157371413/Wie-die-Berliner-AfD-um-Stimmen-von-Migranten-kaempft.html

[3] Ibid. Translated by author, emphasis in original: “Mein Partner und ich legen keinen Wert auf die Bekanntschaft mit muslimischen Einwanderern für die unsere Liebe eine Todsünde ist.”

[4] Ibid. Translated by author, emphasis in original: “Ich möchte, dass mein Sohn richtig deutsch sprechen lernt, weil das die Voraussetzung ist, zu einem guten Beruf. Die AfD nimmt das Schulwesen ernst und deshalb wähle ich sie.”

[5] In Sweden also, there is a comparable situation—the far-right Sweden Democrats party, despite a considerable share of parliamentary members, is isolated by a firm refusal to cooperate by all other parties.

[6] Reuters. (2016, July 28). So will die Kanzlerin AfD-Sympathisanten zurückgewinnen. Die Welt. Retrieved July 29, 2016, from http://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article157366586/So-will-die-Kanzlerin-AfD-Sympathisanten-zurueckgewinnen.html. Translated by author, quote in full: “Natürlich haben die Entscheidungen, die wir getroffen haben, auch im Blick auf die Frage unser humanitären Verantwortung, Gegenreaktionen hervorgerufen, und Menschen, die das nicht mittragen… Deshalb werden wir durch Taten alles daran setzen, Menschen, die heute sich vielleicht nicht ausreichend verstanden fühlen, wieder zurückzugewinnen in die Wählerschaft der Parteien, die zum Beispiel heute im Deutschen Bundestag vertreten sind.”

[7] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-8

[8] http://www.dw.com/en/two-thirds-of-germans-oppose-fourth-term-for-merkel-poll/a-19250905

[9] See: Sartori, G. (2005). Parties and Party Systems: A framework for analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 108-109, 306-307.

Image source: Flickr.com

About the Author 

Michael Zeller holds Master of Arts degree in Political Science from Corvinus University of Budapest. His bachelor’s degree is in Political Science from the University of Louisville.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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