Ever since the Alternative for Germany (AfD) made its triumphant march into the parliaments of three eastern German states this summer, the country’s political establishment has been unsure what to do.
Can the upstart party and its leader, Bernd Lucke, be taken seriously despite their populist leanings? Are the AfD politicians simply a new breed of German conservatives? Or are they just members of a protest party with one foot in the cesspool of the far right?
Manfred Güllner, head of the pollster Forsa, says that the research is clear: “The social profile of today’s AfD supporters corresponds to the profile of all radical right-wing groups in (German) history, that of the Nazis in their early stages or that of the Republikaner in the 1980s and 90s.”
According to Mr. Güllner, AfD sympathizers are primarily male, usually unaffiliated with any religion and very worried about economic decline – not unlike U.S. Tea Party supporters. The difference between them and backers of Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), says Mr. Güllner, is level of education, with NPD supporters mainly coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds while AfD voters tend to be members of the middle and upper class.
Horst and Kriemhild Malende, both 75, are a case in point. He was a career officer in the German military and she was a TV journalist. They say that a “decline in society’s values” drove them to the AfD, which they say advocates conservative mores like good manners. They believe that politicians in Brussels are only interested in securing plum jobs, and that the European Union should have much less power.
“If we didn’t have the AfD, we wouldn’t have voted for any party in the last federal election,” says Horst Malende. “We used to vote for the (center-right) Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and then we voted for the (pro-business) Free Democratic Party (FDP),” says his wife.
They encounter like-minded people at a gathering in Siegburg, a city in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where 11 AfD supporters are sitting around a large wooden table in the local pub “Zum Fass.” Everyone at the meeting agrees that established politicians only represent mainstream views. On the subject of education, for example, everyone in the group thinks that there are too many immigrants in German schools, and they are also opposed to having disabled children attending regular schools. “Being a member of the elite is frowned upon,” says Mr. Malende. He points out that problems are only addressed from the standpoint of minorities, while “normal people” are forced to wait in line. Of course, he adds, this isn’t the sort of thing one would “say out loud.”
Norbert Schäuble, a social scientist with the Sinus Institute, calls AfD supporters “Prosperity chauvinists.” They are proud of Germany’s economic stability, which makes them feel superior, and yet they also live in deep fear of being on the losing end of modern life. “The AfD cleverly capitalizes on vague fears of decline in society, a basic mistrust of the E.U. and an antipathy to foreigners,” says Mr. Schäuble.
“Some people have simply had enough, and I believe that this benefits the AfD.”
At the get-together in Siegburg, the group also discusses its right-wing problem, although these AfD supporters don’t actually see any problem. They support the head of the AfD in North Rhine-Westphalia who forced two city council members in Duisburg who had voted with the neo-Nazi NPD to resign from the party. Nevertheless, says one member of the group, “if the NPD has a reasonable proposal, I won’t vote against it just because it comes from the NPD.” The others nod in agreement.
The phenomenon pervades state party organizations. The party leader in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has been accused of hate speech, and most of the candidates on the list in the February election in the city-state of Hamburg were members of right-wing parties. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, far right-wing sentiments prompted Alexander Gauland, the party’s leader in the state, to oust two members from his parliamentary group before the first session of the state parliament.
There is now a party resolution stating that “far-right views” are incompatible with party membership, but social scientist Schäuble believes this is nothing but a tactical maneuver. “Party leaders Lucke and (Hans-Olaf) Henkel are deliberately distancing themselves from right-wing extremist positions, which appeals to protest voters, but it also appeals to many apolitical voters,” says Mr. Schäuble. This enables the party to garner support among the middle class in many social groups, he explains. “The AfD cannot score points among liberal voters and with the digital avant-garde. The AfD is definitely not the new FDP.”
The only Christian Democrat to date who has had any governing experience with a party to the right of his conservatives, former Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust, agrees with this assessment. Mr. Beust and the CDU were part of a coalition government that included the Law and Order Party, headed by ex-judge Ronald Schill.
Mr. Beust, now out of office and without political ambitions, has observed a deep-seated anxiety among many voters when it comes to public order and questions of domestic security. “Many people find it troubling to be accosted by beggars on the street or in public transportation, or to see minors loitering in certain public squares. Some have simply had enough, and I believe that all of this benefits the AfD.”
But how does the CDU cope with a party like the AfD? Ignore it? Come to terms with it? “It would be wrong to assume the AfD’s positions,” says Mr. Beust. “People accept unpleasant decisions, as long as they can understand them. So we have to argue why, in times of globalization and from the standpoint of a tradition of values, a strong Europe and a common currency are important.” For these reasons, he explains, cooperating with the AfD makes little sense at this point. “As long as the AfD hasn’t fully articulated its positions and hasn’t resolved the problems with its radical right-wing members, alliances are pointless.”
“We want a much stronger police presence. Otherwise, it might make sense to close the border with Poland temporarily”
Even the AfD would agree that it is currently incapable of being part of any coalition government. “Our members’ positions haven’t been broad enough yet that we could put all of them in front of a camera,” says Mr. Gauland. This, he explains, is why he, a 73-year-old politician and member of the CDU for decades, had to step in. In fact, Mr. Gauland is the one who appears before the cameras to inspire people and take their fears seriously, as he puts it.
When asked about concerns over high levels of crime in border regions, Mr. Gauland says things like: “We want a much stronger police presence. Otherwise, it might make sense to close the border with Poland temporarily.” But what is right-wing populism, after all, he asks? “I want voters who support our agenda,” he says. “I don’t care who they used to vote for.”
The AfD also encountered goodwill in parts of the German business community at first. Mr. Lucke was a welcome guest at panel discussions on the euro hosted by the Foundation for Family Business, and the Association of Family-Owned Businesses was also sympathetic to the party. But now both organizations have distanced themselves from the AfD. Large business groups, such as the Federation of German Industry (BDI), the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) and the German Federation of Skilled Crafts (ZDH), refuse to even comment on the AfD.
“Whether the AfD succeeds will depend on whether it manages to position itself so that it can maintain its support among middle-class conservatives,” says pollster Richard Hilmar of Infratest Dimap. “So far, the AfD has garnered its successes by appealing in part to right-wing extremists. That kind of success can turn sour,” he says.
The Sinus Institute’s Mr. Schäuble is convinced that the AfD will establish itself, “precisely because it is not expected to show any real ability to solve problems and takes a populist approach to fears of decline.” These fears are widespread in the population, he says, providing ammunition for the AfD.
“We know that all of our proposals will be rejected in the future. People don’t vote for us because we solve problems, but because we appeal to them,” says Mr. Gauland.