Germany's AfD: how to understand the rise of the right-wing populists

The party's entry into the Bundestag is a shock for Germany, but bigger challenges lie ahead.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing upstart of German politics, will enter the national parliament for the first time after taking 12.6 per cent of the vote in Sunday's election.

The party is barely five years old and was but a newborn when the last election took place in 2013. It polled 4.7 per cent then, narrowly missing the 5 per cent vote share needed to gain representation in the federal parliament.

In the four years since, the AfD has transformed itself. It was once led predominantly by professors who were deeply worried about the future of the euro, but is now a broad church of right-wing naysayers. Indeed, the party’s name stems from Angela Merkel’s now famous observation that there was no alternative to the policies her government put in place in a bid to save the euro at the height of the financial crisis.

The AfD was born to try to illustrate just what it claimed those alternatives were.

The party’s transformation away from its euro-focused roots has been a radical one. As the euro crisis dropped in salience, the AfD’s popularity fell and it was in all probability destined to drift into insignificance. Then came the refugee influx of 2015 and 2016. The party’s response to Merkel’s open door policy has rendered it almost unrecognisable from the one that Bernd Lucke and his fellow Eurosceptics founded in April 2013.

Fishing on the right

For one thing, some AfD politicians use firebrand rhetoric of the type which modern Germany has not heard before. Frauke Petry, arguably the party’s most well-known figure until she quit to serve as an independent MP hours after the result, claimed in January 2016 that there were situations where German border officials could legitimately shoot refugees trying to get into the country.

There are also those such as Björn Höcke who look to relativise Germany’s past, just as there are many who are strongly anti-Muslim. Opposition to Merkel’s policies towards refugees nonetheless remains the galvanising force that keeps the party together. In that sense, the AfD has echoes of the National Front in France and other hard-right actors across Europe.

The AfD is, however, a rather more complicated beast than that. Although many of the Eurosceptics who founded the party have long since left, their influence has not vanished completely. One of the AfD’s two "leading candidates" for the 2017 election, Alice Weidel, for example, is a 38-year-old lesbian who used to work for Goldman Sachs. She speaks fluent Mandarin and spent six years in China writing a PhD on the Chinese pension system. She is certainly not the archetypal leader of a far-right party.

At the big table

Now that it will sit in the federal parliament, the AfD needs learn how to deal with the challenges of real-world political life. It has plenty of members who have plenty to say. It is not short of chiefs. But in the Bundestag it needs to find what the Germans call “Sachpolitiker” – MPs who can master detailed briefs inside parliamentary committees. It needs to show it can do politics just as well as it can talk about it. For a parliamentary party that will have very little experience of life inside political institutions, that will prove a challenge.

The big question for the AfD now is how it will perform in 2021. Radical parties can find the mundane world of parliamentary politics stultifying. The AfD has no chance of having to actually exercise power – all of Germany’s parties have long since said that they won’t work with it – but its politicians will have to illustrate that they develop a common line on a whole range of policy issues that have up until now played insignificant roles in the party’s development.

The ConversationThe rise of the AfD is a shock to the German system. Many Germans are deeply uneasy at the thought of a party to the right of the CDU sitting in parliament. Yet the AfD’s biggest challenge is still to come.

Daniel Hough is professor of politics at the University of SussexThis article was originally published on The Conversation