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.