Kai Arzheimer- Germany’s new AfD party: state of play

Note: This contribution is the second in a series on our ‘state of the parties’ blog posts.

The rise, fall, and rise of the AfD

So far, the short career of the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD)
has been nothing but astounding. Founded only a few months before the
2013 Bundestag election, the AfD polled 4.7 per cent, which made it
the most successful new party since 1953. Eight months later, the AfD
won seven per cent of the vote in the European election. The party did
even better in a string of three Eastern Land elections (Brandenburg,
Saxony, Thuringia) in summer 2014, where it polled between 9.6 and
12.2 per cent. While the AfD was somewhat less successful in two
western Land elections in 2015 (6.1 per cent in Hamburg in February
and 5.5 per cent in Bremen in May), it had amassed more than 50 MPs at
the subnational and supranational level within just two years.

Then, in July, the party effectively split. At the national party
conference, a longstanding conflict over the party’s leadership
structure and public profile came to a head. Bernd Lucke, arguably the
party’s most prominent face, who wanted to become sole party leader,
was ousted in favour of Frauke Petry, until then his co-leader and
head of the Saxonian state party. Lucke subsequently left the AfD,
taking with him some 2,000 rank-and-file members, a couple of (West)
German party leaders, and much of the reputational shield that the
professors, business men and technocrats who had dominated the party’s
image in 2013 had provided. The most prominent casualty was the
faction in the European parliament: Of the seven MPs elected in May
2014, only two have remained loyal to the party. While Lucke’s new
“Allianz für Fortschritt und Aufbruch” (ALFA) party is largely
irrelevant so far, the AfD’s ratings suffered greatly during the power
struggle and in the aftermath of Lucke’s departure.

What does the AfD stand for?

But the AfD’s standing in the polls quickly recovered, no doubt helped
by the large increase in the number of asylum seekers and the
politicisation of the issue. In national opinion surveys, support for
the AfD has risen beyond eight per cent, clearly exceeding that for
the FDP. In the upcoming Land elections in March, the AfD has a
reasonable chance to enter two more Western state parliaments
(Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg). A success in the Eastern
state of Saxony-Anhalt is almost a foregone conclusion. According to
the AfD’s press office, Membership figures have bounced back to
pre-split levels, too.

However, it is still difficult to assess what kind of party the AfD
wants to be, and what they stand for. From its beginnings, the AfD has
brought together a heterogeneous coalition of right-wingers united
chiefly by their despise of the moderate right. While Lucke and his
associates represented a brand of social and economic conservatism
that was not too far removed from the CDU mainstream before Merkel
moved the party to the centre, Christian fundamentalism and the
interests of the formerly landed aristocracy (von Storch) and
UKIP-style euroscepticism (Pretzell) had their place in the party,
too. Moreover, the AfD proved predictably attractive to former members
of the NPD, the Republicans, and other extreme right parties, although
the party tried to enforce a ban on these. State level leaders such as
Höcke (Thuringia), Poggenburg (Saxony-Anhalt), and, more recently,
Gauland (Brandenburg) have re-discovered the rhetoric of the 19th
century Völkische Bewegung that pre-dated the Nazis, and are building
bridges to Germany’s New Right “think-tanks” as well as to Pegida and
other anti-refugee and islamophobic groups. In his stronghold in
Erfurt, Höcke has even adopted Pegida’s weekly night-time rallies in a
central square, where he and thousands of supporters group-chant
demands the government’s immediate resignation.

While Lucke himself realised that this heterogeneity was part of the
AfD’s appeal to potential new members and voters, he became adamant
(after some dithering) that the AfD should not turn into a xenophobic,
populist, “Pegida Party” – in his final defiant stunt, he even
suggested that the party should make an openly gay Muslim their party
manager. His successor has no such inhibitions. Although both Lucke
and Petry agreed that she was probably as much of a moderate (by AfD
standards) as Lucke himself, Petry has so far not tried to reign in
Höcke or other radical elements. At the recent party conference
(November 28/29), a somewhat compromising position paper on asylum
developed by the national executive and backed by Petry was voted down
in favour of a manifesto that would effectively abolish the right to
asylum and force Germany to leave the Geneva convention. No one in the
leadership batted an eyelash over the incident, which could have
caused a resignation in other parties.

Where is the AfD heading?

For the time being, the party looks like a free-for-all, catering to
both radical and more bourgeois discontents. In the medium run,
however, this is not a viable strategy. Before the split, conservative
outlets such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Welt, or Handelsblatt
would run the occasional friendly editorial. Now, coverage by the
mainstream media is universally negative. The CDU has ruled out any
sort of co-operation with the AfD, and the trade unions and even the
churches have come out against them. For the time being, the AfD has
no social or political partners besides the ever more radical
Pegida/anti-refugee movement. Against this backdrop, a radicalisation
and marginalisation of the party along the lines of what happened to
the Republikaner looks like the most likely scenario.

Kai Arzheimer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Mainz and Visiting Fellow, Department of Government, University of Essex


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