Politics

After Elections, Germany’s Far-Right Remains on the Fringes

BERLIN—As the results of the German federal election rolled in on Sept. 26, it became clear the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had a disappointing night. It failed to capitalize on the huge gains it made in 2017, when it won 12.6 percent of the vote and became the first far-right party to enter the German parliament for the first time in six decades. Last week, the AfD’s vote share dropped to 10.1 percent, and it lost its status as the main opposition party, coming behind the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

In 2017, international observers expressed shock that a far-right party could gain so much support in Germany, given its history. They may now be looking to the country for lessons that could be applied to quell far-right populism elsewhere. There are many reasons why the AfD didn’t manage to build on the groundswell of support it enjoyed four years ago, including public satisfaction with the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and the party’s lack of a boogeyman. But this year’s results show the AfD still attracts strong support in some regions—and that it can’t be ruled out as political force.

Much of the AfD’s performance at the polls this time was self-inflicted. The party is embroiled in a power struggle between its so-called moderate wing and its more radical factions. The top AfD candidates, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, were backed by hard-liners, while party chair Jörg Meuthen had pushed for less extremist candidates. “[Meuthen and Chrupalla] don’t even communicate with each other,” said Axel Salheiser, a researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in the state of Thuringia, an AfD stronghold. “It gives the impression the party is not unified, which isn’t appealing to those who want a strong opposition.”

BERLIN—As the results of the German federal election rolled in on Sept. 26, it became clear the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party had a disappointing night. It failed to capitalize on the huge gains it made in 2017, when it won 12.6 percent of the vote and became the first far-right party to enter the German parliament for the first time in six decades. Last week, the AfD’s vote share dropped to 10.1 percent, and it lost its status as the main opposition party, coming behind the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

In 2017, international observers expressed shock that a far-right party could gain so much support in Germany, given its history. They may now be looking to the country for lessons that could be applied to quell far-right populism elsewhere. There are many reasons why the AfD didn’t manage to build on the groundswell of support it enjoyed four years ago, including public satisfaction with the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and the party’s lack of a boogeyman. But this year’s results show the AfD still attracts strong support in some regions—and that it can’t be ruled out as political force.

Much of the AfD’s performance at the polls this time was self-inflicted. The party is embroiled in a power struggle between its so-called moderate wing and its more radical factions. The top AfD candidates, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, were backed by hard-liners, while party chair Jörg Meuthen had pushed for less extremist candidates. “[Meuthen and Chrupalla] don’t even communicate with each other,” said Axel Salheiser, a researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in the state of Thuringia, an AfD stronghold. “It gives the impression the party is not unified, which isn’t appealing to those who want a strong opposition.”

Because of the internal conflict, the AfD has struggled to find a purpose, and it lacks a clear party line on most issues. Immigration didn’t play much of a role in this year’s election compared to 2017, when it contributed to the AfD’s surge. The party’s attempts to capitalize on opposition to pandemic lockdowns largely failed: Most Germans reported satisfaction with the government’s measures in an October 2020 poll. Generous state support also left the AfD with less public bitterness to exploit, as with other European populists, according to Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow and the Fritz Stern chair on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution. “It seems to me that far-right populist parties and their figureheads have generally not had a good pandemic,” she said.

Furthermore, the decision by German intelligence services to monitor parts of the AfD—including its furthest-right faction, Der Flügel—as a security threat sent a clear message to many German voters that the party’s anti-democratic views are potentially dangerous, undermining its legitimacy. As a result, Der Flügel was officially disbanded last year. Several corruption scandals, including one over illegal campaign donations, have also damaged the AfD’s anti-establishment image. “I think some voters might be finding reality collides with the populist framing that the AfD tries to draw legitimacy and support from,” Salheiser said.

Germany’s last government seemed to successfully undermine the AfD: Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s main democratic parties’ refusal to cooperate with it within parliament helped hold it back from exerting much national influence. But the far-right party nonetheless retained a base to keep building on, and Stelzenmüller said the AfD has become more radical as a result.

Moreover, the root causes of the AfD’s support may still be unresolved. “Whether [Merkel] and her four successive governments were capable of addressing the issues that that made voters gravitate towards the AfD is a more complicated question,” Stelzenmüller said. Those issues—a sense of abandonment by the state after the fall of communism, distrust in democratic institutions, and economic insecurity—resonate most strongly in former East Germany. Despite its poor overall results, the AfD still came first in some parts of the state of Thuringia and in Saxony, where it collected 25.7 percent of the vote.

Research by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which works against the far-right, found that immigration remains a significant issue for around 40 percent of AfD voters. It’s not a topic much discussed at the national level. “It’s something they can build on now to become a strong regional party that spreads right-wing extremist narratives,” said Lorenz Blumenthaler, a spokesperson for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.

Some of the areas where the AfD performed well this year are also home to the party’s most radical figures, such as Chrupalla and Björn Höcke, a former leader of Der Flügel. (A German court ruled in 2019 that Höcke could legally be described as a fascist due to his racist, nationalist views.) Blumenthaler predicts that the party may become even more radicalized in the wake of the general elections. “Their whole election campaign has been a big mess of backstabbing and fights between different parts of the party,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything from the last election it’s that the more radical forces come out successfully from these fights.”

The rise of the AfD in the past six years has sparked civil society movements pushing back against far-right extremism across Germany. Street-level campaigns are common sights in many cities, such as cafes declaring “Nazi-free zones” and volunteer groups monitoring far-right activities in their neighborhoods. Such efforts, which tend to emphasize multiculturalism and pluralism, may fail to reach likely AfD voters. “[P]eople cannot necessarily identify with these values,” Salheiser, the Thuringia-based researcher, said. “They consider these problems rather unimportant compared to what’s going on in their bank account or with their job security.”

One outcome of the AfD’s election performance may be that civil society sees the party as a less immediate threat to democracy, especially if it continues to receive only between 10 and 11 percent of the nationwide vote. But that attitude overlooks that the party could still be hugely influential in the regions it considers to be strongholds.

Halle, a city in Saxony-Anhalt, was the site of a far-right terrorist attack two years ago, when a gunman attempted to enter a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Valentin Hacken, an anti-far-right activist in the city, said he had noticed smaller and less organized anti-AfD protests there ahead of this year’s elections compared to 2017. “One reason is probably COVID. But secondly, we have known the AfD for a few years now, and even though every activist is aware of the problem, it’s also now become the status quo,” Hacken said.

The strong support for the AfD in the east raises the question of what will happen if it ever proves the largest party in state elections. Saxony and Thuringia are both set to hold elections in 2024. The Brookings Institution’s Stelzenmüller points out that three out of the five eastern states already have three-way governing coalitions, and that the rise of the AfD could make governing even more complicated. “I wouldn’t exclude four-way coalitions in the future. Ultimately, the democratic parties there do need to ask themselves what environment they created for this to happen,” she said, alluding to politicians’ failures to address disillusionment and discontent in the east.

For now, the AfD hasn’t managed to secure power at state level. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union came out on top in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt in June after initial polls predicted an AfD victory. Hacken said he gets the impression the party still hasn’t set out a vision for what it would achieve in government, instead positioning itself as a protest vote. “Of course they’re provoking, but it’s unclear what their mission is,” he said.

Federal coalition talks are currently ongoing among the winning Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats. Whoever forms the next German government will have a full agenda, from post-pandemic public finances to climate change. Each party has made clear that it will not work with the AfD. Although they have successfully kept the far-right out of government, whether they can tackle its influence in certain states and address the issues driving its base remains a challenge.

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