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

AfD supporters celebrate as exit polls are announced. EPA/Thorsten Wagner

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% of the vote in the 2017 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% then, narrowly missing the 5% 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 argued that there were alternatives and the party was born to try and illustrate just what those alternatives where.

The party’s transformation away from its euro-focused roots has been a radical one. As the eurocrisis 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 euroscpetics founded in April 2013.

Fishing on the right

For one thing, a number of AfD politicians use firebrand rhetoric the type of which modern Germany has not heard before. Frauke Petry, arguably the party’s most well-known figure, claimed in January 2016 that there were situations where German border officials could legitimately shoot refugees trying to get over the border.

There are also those such as Bjoern Hoecke 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.

AfD top candidates Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel on election night. EPA

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 inside the Bundestag. 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 the 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 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.

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