Germany’s newest party, the euroskeptic Alternative für Deutschland, is routinely dismissed as the German Tea Party. The AfD balks at the comparison, but its “party of reason” approach is not convincing pundits.
New political parties never have it easy. Still less than a year old, Germany’s newest political party, hoping to win its first elected representatives at the European elections in May and with a party conference looming this weekend, is contending with all kinds of bad press. According to the media, the Alternative für Deutschland, routinely described as Germany’s “anti-euro” party, is far-right, nationalist, paralyzed with in-fighting, bleeding membership, and unclear on what it really stands for.
In the most recent attack, Germany’s well-respected conservative newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) highlighted remarks made by Beatrix von Storch, a leading candidate in the European election, about home-schooling and referendums about mosques, and claimed that “Bible-loyal Protestants” were taking over. The AfD, the paper said, was becoming “Germany’s Tea Party.”
That comparison has been made often enough before, especially by the English media last April and May, when the party was founded at the height of the euro crisis, fuelled by exasperation at the bailouts Germany was shelling out to ailing economies elsewhere in Europe.
‘Party of professors’
But the similarity seems superficial: while the Tea Party sells itself as an ordinary people’s movement in opposition to detached elites, the AfD could itself be thought of as elite: it’s media-fuelled profile is generally white, male, middle class, middle-aged, and educated (two-thirds of the initial membership held doctorates, with 86 percent of these male). Nigel Farage, leader of the nationalistic UK Independence Party, once described the German upstarts as “a bit academic, but very interesting.”
The party itself certainly does not take kindly to the comparison with the Tea Party, or, for that matter, with UKIP. “It doesn’t fit for many different reasons,” spokesman Christian Lüth told DW. “Firstly, because the Tea Party has fundamental religious roots – that’s not the case with us at all. We’re a party of reason. That’s not mutually exclusive, but it is a very big difference.”
“On top of that, the Tea Party is based on an arch-conservative movement from the 18th century – the AfD has absolutely no historical relation to anything like that,” he added.
Simon Tilford, deputy director of UK think tank the Center for European Reform, is also wary of making easy parallels. “I think it’s a little unfair,” he told DW. “I think there are Tea Party echoes in economic policy, but I think those echoes are actually much stronger in the CSU [Bavarian sister-party to Merkel’s CDU].”
“It’s a one-issue party, they don’t have policies across the political agenda the way the Tea Party do,” said Tilford. “They’ve taken a stance on the euro, so some of the things they say sound similar, but I don’t think it’s fair to characterize them as a populist far-right party in the vein of the National Front in France or UKIP in the UK.”
With so many academics in its ranks, the AfD likes to play its economic expertise as a strong suit. The AfD’s founding argument is that not only is the eurozone crisis being mishandled, the single currency itself is fundamentally flawed. But confusingly, actually scrapping the euro is not in the party’s manifesto. This lack of a clear banner policy on its main issue has somewhat undermined its popular appeal – a bit of a problem for a so-called populist party.
“The AfD never wanted to scrap the euro completely – there were different solutions,” said Lüth. “One was to leave the euro, the other was divide up the euro to the north and south, according to the strength of different economies, the third was to return to national currencies, but that too didn’t necessarily mean scrapping the euro, just that each country would be allowed to decide whether it wanted to leave or not.”
Tilford sums up the positions neatly: “The German government is saying we’re not going to pool risk, we’re going to proceed with a strategy that has very much damaged the European economy, i.e. austerity in the South, and everything will be okay in the end,” he said. “To my mind that sounds more like a Tea Party argument than the AfD one, which says, ‘this cannot work because it involves us pooling risk and transferring power to other European countries.’ ”
But Ulrike Guerot, senior associate for Germany at The Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE), thinks AfD’s economic plans are unrealistic. “Dismantling the euro is simply not possible in an ordered way, as AfD suggest,” she told DW. “Most Germans have made their peace with the euro and do not want go back to Deutschmark. They rather want a different kind of social policy in Europe and a different kind of European democracy, but this is not on offer with the AfD.”
In fact, the AfD’s tone on social issues does seem to have become decidedly more conservative recently – if not downright nationalistic. “Democracy only works nationally, it doesn’t work internationally,” the controversial candidate Beatrix von Storch said in her speech at the European party conference in January. “Democracy means the rule of the people, not the peoples. There is no EU people.”
Von Storch was also quoted in the FAS saying she sees nothing wrong in home education, and that she would be open to referendums on mosque-building, though she and party leader Bernd Lucke both angrily maintained that the quotes had been altered and taken out of context. Since its inception, the AfD has been struggling desperately to shake off associations with the far-right.
But on other issues too, the party is walking an awkward line between trying to appear reasonable, pragmatic, and moderate – and yet finding a populist appeal that sets it off from the centrist parties like Merkel’s CDU. And as every German politician knows, it’s basically impossible to appear more reasonable, pragmatic, and moderate than Angela Merkel.
At the same time the AfD is struggling with the big problem that any new political party faces – herding the cats of all the politically disaffected Germans who have joined over the past year. In-fighting is inevitable, and the bad press doesn’t make things easier: “We need to do what we’re doing the whole time – getting our message across and working against the media reports,” said Lüth. “There are differences between being euro-critical, EU-critical, and Europe-critical – we are critical of the euro and the EU, but we are pro-European.”
And then he insists: “We still have a lot of liberals in the party, and they don’t feel marginalized and frustrated.”