Party politics and the rise of the AfD

By Cecilia Wang

Angela Merkel was deprived of a ready coalition when the Alternative für Deutschland entered the Bundestag with a stunning 13.3% of the vote. The party was named as a protest to Merkel’s statement that there was no alternative but to bail out Greece in the Eurozone crisis.

The AfD’s political fortune has ebbed and flowed since 2013. Its founder, Bernd Lucke, an economics professor from Hamburg University, positioned the party as Eurosceptic and economically liberal in a populist move. However, in 2015, Lucke was pushed out by Frauke Petry, a trained chemist and entrepreneur from east Germany, steering the party to the right. At the same time, as the Eurozone crisis eased, the party’s popularity plunged.

Merkel’s decision to welcome more than one million refugees into Germany in 2015-16 gave the AfD a new lease of life. The AfD capitalised on a series of flowing events, such as the mass sexual assaults by men of North African origin in Cologne, and a series of terror attacks. It captured the fear and discontent of the public by demanding closed borders and clamping down on Islam, arguing that Ms Merkel had broken the law and compromised the country’s security.

Support for the AfD has grown steadily and most strongly in the former communist east of Germany. It was able to build upon a series of successes in regional election. Last September, it shocked Merkel’s CDU by beating it into third place in the rural eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the chancellor’s home turf. It now has a presence in 13 out of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments. Many factors contribute to AfD’s paradoxical popularity in an area with very few refugees. Eastern Germany does not share its western counterpart’s long history of the party system, therefore, has long been more susceptible to far-rights groups, whether the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the past, or today’s AfD. The NPD successfully drew on a general mistrust of German political institutions dating back to reunification. Although the West hailed the reunification as a triumph of democracy, many in the east still see it as a “war they had lost”. The thinning out of local infrastructure following reunification only made things worse, making tens of thousands of voters feeling left behind economically, politically and socially. Though the economy is performing better than expected, anti-foreigner sentiments prevail in eastern Germany as they consider many social problems in western German cities are caused by immigration.

At a national level, support for AfD is mostly based on its opposition to other parties. It got more votes from past non-voters than swing ones. In many ways, the party symbolises the division caused by Merkel’s controversial Willkommenspolitik towards refugees, which pushed away her traditional voters while mobilising previous non-voters. Weariness of Merkel’s run for a fourth term may also have contributed.

The heavy vote share of AfD masks its weakenesses. The party has long been haunted by internal division, culminating in the departure of the leader that led it to victory. It has already split between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in several state parliaments. Its prominence is fragile as only 12% of voters are satisfied with the party’s co-leaders. And whilst its 13.3% vote share in the consensus-building Bundestag is tantamount to a political earthquake, it’s unlikely that the AfD will be able to achieve major policy victories that will appeal to the majority of voters. This ‘seismic shock’ in German political history is more likely to be remembered as a cry of discontent than the start of systemic change.

Image by Robert Emmerich via flickr 

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