For a country that nurses political stability so carefully, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) is an electoral phenomenon. In its five-year life, this unashamedly populist and often ill-disciplined party has become the third biggest group in the German parliament, the Bundestag, and has put representatives into all state parliaments. And polls suggest it’s not certain that they’ve plateaued.
The AfD is still fundamentally repugnant to all the other mainstream parties, who have ruled out joining coalitions with them, mainly because the AfD still harbours open racists and flirts with revisionism about Germany’s remembrance for the Holocaust.
Several obvious factors have helped the AfD get itself established in the German party system in the past year: weariness with Chancellor Angela Merkel coupled with exasperation that her latest governing coalition with the Social Democrats has done little more than lurch from one crisis to the next, tearing itself apart over the perennial problem of refugee policy. Merkel will step down from her party’s leadership next month, yet it is unclear how that will affect support for the AfD. Still today migration is almost never out of the news, even though the “refugee crisis” is now more than three years old, and Merkel has done all she can within legal limits to close Germany’s borders and deport failed asylum-seekers back to countries deemed “safe”, including Afghanistan.
Florian Hartleb, a political scientist and author of a book on European populism, thinks this last point is crucial. Ever since Merkel’s fateful decision in 2015, the media made things too easy for the AfD, first by relentlessly demonizing them, and then by keeping their most important issue on the front pages.
The media has done some soul-searching recently: a 2017 study by the Hamburg Media School and Leipzig University found that a majority of news outlets had taken on the government’s “slogans” on migration too uncritically. Merkel’s famous line “Wir schaffen das” (“We will manage”) had simply been adopted, rather than scrutinized. “It was easy for the AfD to play the counterpart,” says Hartleb. “And the more we talk about migration, the more the chances are for the AfD.”
But the origins of the AfD pre-date 2015, and, if you believe the party’s strategists, the refugee crisis was simply the moment when fifteen years of frustration with complacent German centrism finally crystallized, and formed a party.
“The refugee crisis broke the trust in established politics,” Rainer Erkens, an AfD member in Berlin, tells me. “For years politicians were doing things that they did not have a mandate for, which were not even remotely an issue in elections.” He goes on to list all the decisions made by successive German governments “over the people’s heads”: creating the euro, launching the so-called “Hartz IV” social welfare reforms in the early 2000s, abandoning nuclear power, abolishing military service, and bailing out Greece in the aftermath of the eurozone debt crisis.
Merkel’s decision to open borders in 2015 was the last straw for many voters, Erkens believes. “People realized that politicians were getting majorities in elections for policies they’re not even pursuing.”
Another feeling that AfD voters share is an all-pervading pessimism. “If you really want to understand why people like the AfD” says Erkens, “then you have to see that people who vote for the AfD have a specific image of Germany. And this image is: Germany is going down the drain”. Then comes another list – images of Germany’s deterioration: the poor state of the Bundeswehr, the botched “energy transition” to renewable sources, the debts of other EU countries, the alleged “Islamization” of German society, and, as Erkens puts it, “what does climate protection even mean, and how much will that cost us?” All these are the weeds creeping underfoot, destabilizing Germany’s economic power.
AfD voters seem unaffected by the scandals that outrage everyone else. One of the more recent ones came in June, when party leader Alexander Gauland triggered a wave of outrage because of a speech describing the Third Reich as “a bird-shit in a thousand years of successful German history.”
The pessimism of AfD voters supersedes all such scrupules. “If you have the feeling that Germany is going down the drain, and if there is one party, the AfD, which is saying exactly that, then you couldn’t care less that Gauland uses the term ‘bird-shit’ when he talks about the Nazi period in German history,” says Erkens. “The AfD is much more important than one politician possibly talking nonsense.”
Ronald Gläser, a spokesperson for the AfD in Berlin, puts it bluntly: “Those outrage issues do accompany us, but they don’t harm us that much. And of course, when the media reports about us so hysterically, that’s useful for us.”
Hartleb, the political analyst, believes deliberately baiting the media is a calculated strategy. “There is this taboo-breaking logic: you make a bald provocation, then you say it was just a misunderstanding, then you go one step further,” he says. “It doesn’t help anymore to just blame the voters of the AfD. It doesn’t help to say that these are neo-Nazis.”
So what strategies are left to counter the far-right? Recent state elections have shown that only those parties that aren’t divided over migration are winning—the AfD and the Greens. Either you’re for a diverse society or you’re against it. This, according to Erkens, is where the political debate in Germany is headed: “In the future there will be two big parties: the Greens and the AfD. Those will be the poles, and between them there will be three other parties crawling around, at 10% or 15%. It’s perfectly feasible that that will be our party system.” If that’s true, journalists and politicians might need to get out of those Hintergrundgespräche once in a while to grasp how Germany’s political scene is being redrawn.