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7 October 2020updated 09 Oct 2020 8:31am

Why the rise and decline of the AfD party in Germany is a parable for our times

The international media has often given the nationalist-nativist AfD too much credit and almost never too little.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a-wobble. In May, the nationalist-nativist party expelled its leader in the state of Brandenburg over his past membership of a neo-Nazi group. On 28 September, it had to expel Christian Lüth, a spokesman, over reports that he had talked of shooting and gassing migrants. The party’s cadres are turning against each other. Meanwhile, Germany’s political mainstream has been strengthened over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and by Angela Merkel’s well-received leadership during the crisis. In national polls ahead of next year’s federal election, the AfD is on between 9 and 12 per cent, uniformly below its haul (12.6 per cent) at the last federal election in 2017. Even in its stronghold states in the former communist east, a poll published on 4 October showed it falling from first to third place.

For years now it has been an axiom of the English-language media that the AfD is destined for triumph. Coverage of Germany’s 2017 election and its aftermath obsessed about the idea that the party was becoming the “leader of the German opposition” (no such role exists in German politics, and the opposition also includes sizeable Green and socialist Left Party contingents). A regional or local election in Germany’s former east? For parts of the international commentariat, this was often a chance to generalise patronisingly about the supposed wall-to-wall anger and dislocation in the “new states”. A dramatic news story anywhere in this land of 83 million people and 20 significant European cities? Sure proof that the whole country was on fire and that the AfD would be the ultimate winner.

Except Germany, a rich country with good public services and a capable federal state, is not on fire. It is a complicated and flawed political project, and yet also an essentially successful one. The AfD began its life in 2013 as a group of established western economic conservatives opposed to eurozone bailouts; less a howl of anguish than a self-appointed guardian of the country’s bourgeois prosperity. It has evolved into an awkward coalition: the old right of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) put off by Merkel’s modernising efforts; older Left Party voters in the provincial parts of the eastern states; plus the longstanding couple of percentiles of Germans who remained loyal to the extreme right and had previously voted for more marginal parties.

This broad range of constituencies has made for fractiousness. The AfD has blazed an acrimonious course through German politics, trailing splinter parties in its wake. In 2015, one of its founders quit and founded the Liberal Conservative Reformers party in protest at the leadership of Frauke Petry, who had shifted its emphasis from Eurosceptic positions to Islamophobic ones. Then, in 2017, Petry too quit over the party’s further slide to the right, and set up the Blue Party. (If you have heard of neither the Liberal Conservative Reformers nor the Blue Party it is because nothing came of either.) Since then, the AfD has remained an enduringly unstable arrangement: its leadership dominated by cynical westerners who view its eastern base with a mixture of electoral greed and profound trepidation.

Yet, fundamentally, the party’s struggles have less to do with its inconsistency or internal chaos – not always a fatal problem for nationalist nativists – than the contrast between its doom-mongering and the reality of life in today’s Germany. The AfD has a remarkable knack for alighting on ultimately unconvincing grievances. It started as the harbinger of destitution for German savers ripped off by southern European chancers, but no such destitution came. It remade itself as a herald of the collapse of German society following Merkel’s admission of more than one million refugees during the crisis of 2015-16; five years on, more than half of the newcomers are in work and paying taxes, refugee children are broadly doing well in school, and the predicted soaring crime rates have not materialised. The party’s flirtation with anti-mask positions in recent months has been a non-starter as science-led official precautions have spared Germany the infection and death levels experienced in France, Spain or Britain. The AfD looks pointless – primarily because, as the voice of successively disproven grievances, is has no point. It has been remorselessly mugged by reality.

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The best prospect of an AfD revival comes not from outside German politics – a new refugee crisis or terror attack – but from within it, and the possibility that Merkel’s governing Christian Democrats will in December pick as their next leader a right-wing opportunist such as Friedrich Merz, a former MP who came second in the 2018 CDU leadership contest. His clumsy attempts to play at culture wars would surely only benefit the extremists.

But the international media, with its dogged speculation about a politically transformative surge for the party and love of “what if?” hypotheticals, has often given the AfD too much credit and almost never too little. So let me hereby speculate in a countervailing direction.

What if the party’s cynical incompetence continues to confine it to the ineffectual and disruptive fringes? What if Germany isn’t taken over by the far right? What if the EU doesn’t collapse? What if the AfD merely muddles along and the mainstream continues to dominate German politics? A radical prediction, indeed. But any punter can spy a looming revolution in every political upset and lose interest when it does not materialise. Predicting the limits of such over-hyped moments is a more precise art. 

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid