Flip open the yearbook of 2004’s business and economics class at the University of Bayreuth and there she is: Alice Weidel, today the leading lady of the Alternative for Germany party (known by its German acronym, AfD). Former classmates remember her as a “high-flyer” and “overachiever”: sure-footed, book-smart and good-looking. Destined for success in the corporate world? Definitely. Destined for leadership of a hard-right populist party that is often accused of xenophobia and even Nazi sentiments? Hardly.
Her yearbook photo, like all the others, is accompanied by an interview detailing the highs and lows of student life. The worst moments for most students were test stress and relationship drama. But Ms. Weidel’s nadir, she said, came when “the döner kebab booth Istanbul closed.” Back then, it seems, she saw her compatriots from Muslim Turkey as enriching.
These days she’s become known for a different brand of pithy statements: soundbites about “grabby migrants” and “stone age Sharia populism.” Instead of reminiscing about tasty Turkish snacks, she is now stoking the Islamophobia that motivates her party’s base and has boosted it to third place in the polls – behind only the traditionally dominant Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats. Even though the AfD has zero coalition prospects, it will make history on Sunday by becoming the first far-right party to enter a German parliament since 1960.
“I call myself a classic liberal.”
But does that mean that Ms. Weidel is racist? At a recent mixer with foreign media in Berlin, Ms. Weidel bristled at that insinuation: “I have been together with a Sinhalese [person] for almost 10 years,” she said, hands enthusiastically shaping the air as if every explanation was hanging there.
Ms. Weidel’s common-law partner is indeed a Swiss film producer who is a woman and hails originally from Sri Lanka. Together they are raising two small sons in a village on Lake Constance. The candidate laments how the campaign has floodlit a life she fiercely keeps private. “What I have not liked at all is that suddenly my companion and children have been dragged into the focus with negative implications,” she states.
As a party, the AfD, whose supporters are disproportionately male, is better known for its extolment of the traditional family with an overtone of homophobia. But Ms. Weidel claims that she has never experienced this form of bigotry within her party. She must not have heard the comments made by her colleagues dismissing gay and lesbian issues as “stupid rubbish” and branding homosexuality as an offence deserving prison. “I am portrayed as an infidel because I am engaged in an allegedly homophobic party, but that is not the reality,” she told Handelsblatt’s sister publication Tagesspiegel, adding that she and the AfD had “more important political fields” to pursue than gay marriage before it was legalized in July.
For Ms. Weidel, who is an economist by training, the number one issue is getting Germany out of the euro zone. Euroscepticism is what brought her into the AfD in 2012 when it was just a protest gathering by a group of economics professors. Fluent in English and Mandarin and with a CV boasting stints at Goldman Sachs, Bank of China and Rocket Internet, she came in with a laissez-faire attitude and a loathing for the monetary policy of the European Central Bank.
The 38-year-old thus puts a moderate, almost sensible gloss on a party that has repeatedly gotten into trouble for deliberately provocative comments about Germany’s role in World War II and refugees. “I call myself a classic liberal,” she told Handelsblatt’s sister publication WirtschaftsWoche. “We need less state.”
But now she is one of the last genuine economists left in a populist honeypot. AfD founder Bernd Lucke, a free-market economist who was a known ally of Ms. Weidel’s, left in 2015, stating it had “fallen irretrievably into the wrong hands”. That was just one of several power struggles within the party between economic conservatives and far-right nationalists.
That tension between the party’s wings is awkward for Ms. Weidel. What does she think, for instance, about one of the AfD’s controversial campaign posters, showing an exposed and very pregnant belly with this caption: “New Germans? We can make them ourselves.” (See the photo gallery above). She is “fully against” it, she says. If it were up to her, she would allow skilled immigration according to a points-based system such as Canada’s, in which educated, integrated and well-vetted individuals are welcome. That sounds almost like the position of the classically liberal Free Democrats.
But how is it possible that the AfD’s top publicity runner can’t even veto a poster? “I do not have this alone to decide, it’s the entire board, which has 13 people in total,” she said. “Obviously you can infer that this decision-making body of 13 people decided differently even though I was against it.”
The infighting between moderates and extremists within the AfD is thus far from over. In 2015 it was another woman, Frauke Petry, who ousted Mr. Lucke, and pulled the AfD further to the right. Of late, it is Ms. Petry’s turn to make herself scarce, after she tried and failed to forge a middle road for the party and came up against even harder rightists. The more the AfD drifts to extremism, the worse Ms. Weidel’s future in the party looks.
That need not worry her unduly. The AfD’s lead candidate has a good track record in the private sector. She’s never been afraid of staking out on her own. She already said as much in her yearbook quote: “There is a big difference between knowing your way and going your way.”
Barbara Woolsey writes for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. WirtschaftWoche’s Mark Fehr and Thomas Schmelzer and Tagesspiegel’s Maria Fielder and Jost Müller-Neuhof contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org