BERLIN – They promised to “drive out” the elites. They questioned the need for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin and described Muslim immigrants as “girls with a headscarf” and “men with a knife”.
Four years ago, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, came to the German Parliament as a wrecking ball, the first far-right party to carve out a place for itself at the heart of German democracy since WWII. global. It was a political earthquake in a country that once saw Hitler’s Nazi Party break out of the margins to win power in free elections.
As another election looms on Sunday, the worst fears of many Germans have not come true: support for the party has plummeted. But there is also no hope that the AfD will disappear from the political scene as suddenly as it appeared. If Germany’s fate in this election is not resolved by the far right, political analysts say, Germany’s future will be shaped in part.
“The AfD is here to stay,” said Matthias Quent, professor of sociology at the Magdeburg University of Applied Sciences and an expert on the far right. âThere was the widespread and naive hope that this was a short-lived protest phenomenon. The reality is that the far right has taken root in the German political landscape.
The AfD is around 11% of the polls, just below its 2017 result of 12.6%, and is virtually guaranteed to retain its presence in parliament. (Parties with less than 5% of the vote get no seats.) But with all the other parties refusing to include the AfD in talks on forming the next governing coalition, it is effectively excluded from power.
“The AfD is isolated,” said Uwe Jun, professor of political science at the University of Trier.
Yet with Germany’s two main parties slipping well below the 30% mark, the AfD remains a disruptive force, a force that complicates efforts to build a government coalition with a majority of votes and parliamentary seats. Tino Chrupalla, one of the two main AfD contenders for the election, believes that eventually the firewall that other parties have erected against his party will collapse – likely starting in one states of the former Communist East which is currently its power base. .
âIt’s not sustainable,â he said. “I am convinced that sooner or later there is no way without the AfD,” he told reporters last week. âIt will definitely start at the state level. “
Founded eight years ago as a nationalist liberal protest party against Greece’s bailout and the euro, the AfD has turned strongly to the right.
The party seized on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome more than one million migrants to Germany in 2015 and 2016, actively stoking fears of Islamization and migrant criminality. Its loud nationalism and anti-immigrant stance first catapulted it into parliament and instantly turned it into the main opposition party in Germany.
But the party has struggled to expand its early gains over the past 18 months, as the pandemic and, more recently, climate change have reached the top of voters’ list of concerns – as its central issue of l immigration barely featured in this year’s election campaign.
The AfD has tried to leap into chaos in Afghanistan to stoke fears of a new migrant crisis. “Cologne, Kassel or Constance can no longer support Kabul,” said one of the party’s campaign posters. “Save the world? Sure. But Germany first! Another read.
At a recent electoral rally north of Frankfurt, Mr Chrupalla demanded that lawmakers “abolish” the constitutional right to asylum. He also told public broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Germany should be prepared to protect its borders, “if necessary by armed force.”
None of that rhetoric has changed the race, especially as voters seem to have more fundamental concerns about the party’s aura of extremism. Some AfD leaders marched with extremists in the streets, while among the party’s supporters are an eclectic array of conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazi sympathizers.
The AfD has not been directly linked to political violence, but its verbal transgressions have helped normalize violent language and have coincided with a series of deadly far-right terrorist attacks.
In June 2019, a regional politician who had championed Merkel’s refugee policy was gunned down on his porch by a well-known neo-Nazi. The killer later told court he had attended a high-profile AfD protest a year earlier.
Since then, a far-right extremist has attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle during a Yom Kippur service, killing two and narrowly failing to commit a massacre. Another extremist shot dead 9 people, mostly young people of immigrant origin, in the western town of Hanau.
The AfD’s earlier rise in the polls came to a halt almost instantly after the Hanau attack.
“After these three attacks, the German general public and the media realized for the first time that the AfD’s rhetoric led to real violence,” said Hajo Funke of the Free University of Berlin, who has written extensively on the party and follows its development. .
“It was a turning point,” he said. âThey came to personify the idea that words lead to action.
Shortly after the Hanau attack, Thomas Haldenwang, head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, placed elements of the AfD under surveillance for far-right extremism – even then. that party lawmakers continued to work in Parliament.
“We know from German history that far-right extremism not only destroyed human lives, it destroyed democracy,” Haldenwang warned after announcing his decision in March last year. . “Right-wing extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the greatest danger to democracy in Germany.”
Today, the agency has classified around a third of all AfD members as extremists, including Mr Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, the party’s other main candidate. A court examines whether the whole party can soon be placed under formal observation.
“The AfD is irrelevant in terms of political power,” Funke said. “But it’s dangerous.”
Mr Chrupalla, a decorator who occasionally takes the stage in his overalls, and Ms Weidel, a costumed former Goldman Sachs analyst and gay mother of two, sought to counter that impression. As if to hammer the point, the party’s main electoral slogan this year is: “Germany – but normal.”
A glance at the party’s 207-page electoral program shows what ânormalâ means: the AfD demands Germany’s exit from the European Union. He calls for the removal of any mandate to fight the coronavirus. He wants to go back to the traditional German definition of citizenship based on blood ancestry. And it’s the only party in parliament that denies man-made climate change, while calling for investments in coal and a waiver of the Paris climate agreement.
The fact that the AfD poll numbers have barely budged over the past 18 months suggests that its supporters are not protesting voters but Germans who subscribe to its ideas and ideology.
“The AfD has exposed a small but very radical electorate that many believe we do not have in this country,” said Mr. Quent, the sociologist. âFour years ago people were asking, ‘Where did this come from?’ In fact, he was still there. It just needed a trigger.
Quent and other experts estimate the national party support cap at around 14%. But in parts of the former Communist East, where the AfD has grown into a broad-based political force rooted at the local level, it is often double – enough to make it the region’s second-largest political force.
Among the under-60s, Mr Quent said, he became No.1.
“It is only a matter of time before the AfD is the most powerful party in the East,” Quent said.
This is why Mr Chrupalla, whose constituency is in the eastern state of Saxony, the only state where the AfD has already arrived first in 2017, predicts that he will eventually become too important to be. bypassed.
âIn the East, we are a popular party, we are well established at local, municipal, regional and state level,â Chrupalla said. âIn the East, the middle class votes for the AfD. In the West, they vote for the Greens.
Christopher F. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy contributed reports.