AfD: Is Germany witnessing a right turn?

Mark Bergfeld
Mark Bergfeld is a writer and activist based in Cologne, Germany and London, UK. He was a leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010. He holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a MA in Sociology from the University of Essex, as well as a MRes in Business and Management from Queen Mary College, London. He regularly writes for magazines and websites such as AJE, The Nation, Jacobin Magazine and others. He is the editor of the e-book “Portugal, 40 years after the Revolution”. His writings can be found at Twitter @mdbergfeld
AfD: Is Germany witnessing a right turn?
People are sick of the status quo. But is the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) the alternative it claims to be, or just a German Tea Party movement?

Back in September 2013, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) missed entry to the German federal parliament by only a few thousand votes. But their time was not far off. Only a couple of months later they won 7.1 percent of the vote in the European elections.

Two weeks ago, they won more than 10 percent of the popular vote in the federal state of Thuringia and 12 percent in Brandenburg. Now opinion polls see them soaring at 10 percent at the federal level.

During the last federal ballot, the AfD only had a two-page party program. It called for the dissolution of the European Monetary Union, the strengthening of national parliaments against the dictates of the European Union, the refusal of tax-financed bailout programs, the simplification of the tax system and the maintenance of the Growth and Stability Pact. Since then, it has moved on to issues such as immigration, taxes, the euro, the family and crime. A typical popular-conservative party, one would think.

Anatomy of the AfD

You cannot understand the AfD without a looking at its main, mostly male, leaders. Their chairman, Bernhard Lucke, is a no-name economist and self-declared finance expert. But he has never published on the questions of the euro or budget consolidation, which his party claims expertise in. He has been far more successful in assembling a couple of his friends, including right-wing newspaper journalists from the Handelsblatt, FAZ, and Junge Freiheit into a political party. Initially, middle class entrepreneurs and former secretaries of state formed the leadership.

Bernd Lucke (C), leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD) reacts to exit polls at the party post election venue in Potsdam September 14, 2014.(Reuters / Hannibal Hanschke)

However more recently, the 73-year-old Alexander Gaulander has become the prominent face of the party after the elections in Brandenburg. The former member of the CDU, FDP and - wait for the drum roll - the Left Party has made news headlines by demonizing asylum seekers and demanding the introduction of people’s nationality into crime statistics.

Founding member Konrad Adam exemplifies the party’s elitism. He has gone where no one has dared to go in German politics. In a newspaper column, he argued that the unemployed and pensioners should not be allowed to vote. But it did not stop there. Adam also declared that “education cannot be redistributed”. In other words, education must remain the privilege of small elite.

The picture of the AfD would be incomplete without mentioning Beatrix von Storch, an MEP for the party. Of aristocratic descent, she runs half a dozen right-wing foundations and lobby groups which predominantly advocate against same-sex marriage, the right to abortion and so-called “sexualization of society”. With her at the helm, the AfD seeks to attract the Christian right, right-to-lifers and ultra-conservative circles - a German Tea Party so to speak.

It appears that the AfD youth took Von Storch’s message to heart. In March, they launched a campaign against feminism and so-called ‘gender ideologues’. Teenagers from the party ranks held up paper signs which read, “I am not a feminist because gender equality has been achieved,” for example. Through the use of Facebook and other social media, AfD youth sought to posit their right-wing positions as congruent with the prevailing anti-ideological zeitgeist.

Right turn in Germany?

The AfD is a latecomer. In other European countries, right-wing populist parties are common sight in parliaments. In neighboring Belgium, the Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang and its predecessor have been represented in parliament since 1991.

In Italy, Gianfranco Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale was part of all three governments under Silvio Berlusconi. According to recent polls, Marine Le Pen would win the French presidential election against the incumbent Francois Hollande.

Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party have made unprecedented gains in recent council and even won the European elections, unleashing a “political earthquake” according to the Guardian newspaper. Left-wing blogger Richard Seymour writes“[UKIP] provides refuge for the far right, but it doesn’t have any future in becoming a fascist organization. Its object is the transformation of parliamentary politics, above all of the Conservative Party.”

It has been successful so far. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has promised the British electorate a referendum on EU membership should the Conservatives win the 2015 elections.

Can the same be said of the AfD? It is too early to tell. But the CDU’s law and order election campaign in Brandenburg is an indicator that the CDU will have to move to the right if it wants to stop losing votes to the AfD. That could be a difficult task.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.(AFP Photo / Odd Andersen)

A danger for Merkel?

Under Merkel, the CDU has become more social-democratic and liberal than its party base and voters. In the television debate ahead of the federal elections last year one of the moderators insinuated that Merkel would not fit the voter profile of the CDU if she answered the questions of the Wahlomat honestly. Merkel was lost for words.

By being a Volkspartei – a true people’s party - the CDU inadvertently opened up a space for the national-conservatives on its right. After World War II, the CDU always fought hard to suffocate any democratic force to the right of the CDU. Smaller parties were absorbed and integrated. It is unlikely to happen this time round. The CDU’s orientation has changed under Merkel.

Initially, leading CDU politicians demanded a full-scale boycott of the AfD. They simply wanted to prevent CDU voters from moving to the AfD. The recent polls see the AfD and CDU at 47 percent, close enough to form a coalition. While the CDU remains clear that it will not enter any coalitions with the AfD, voices within the party are pushing for a change in course.

Heribert Prantl has argued in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, “The AfD is for the CDU what the Left Party are for the SPD.” This misses the point.

The AfD is a threat to all parliamentary parties, in particular the Left Party. The AfD has been picking up votes from the left. 12,000 SPD voters and 16,000 Linke voters turned to the AfD in the federal elections in Thuringia. In Brandenburg the picture was much the same.

While the SPD have been discredited as a viable alternative to the CDU for a long time, the Left Party are no longer seen as a party of protest and opposition, but part of the political establishment. In part, the AfD’s success is built on the left’s failure to present a viable alternative to Merkel’s Euro-fetishism. This begs the question whether it is time for progressive Euroskepticism? The numbers would suggest so.

‘A crisis of representation’

The Left Party’s leader, Katja Kipping, recognizes the AfD’s success in a prevailing “anti-establishment mood”. This anti-establishment mood is the expression of a crisis of representation. Established political parties and institutions no longer reflect people’s interests, but are perceived to be self-serving elites. This same mood allowed the Pirate Party to capture the imagination of millions of first-time voters, unemployed and workers across Germany in 2011.

The political activist and commentator Pedram Shahyar told me, “We are dealing with a crisis of representation. Left parties and left-wing structures have become bureaucratized and hardened. Meanwhile there is disquiet about the multiple crises – the economy, ecology, and democracy. The organized left cannot connect to this feeling or address this indignation with its language, frames and structures. It is in this context that this indignation creates its own path. At the same time we observe upheavals in conservative circles as certain people realize that conservatism cannot fulfill its promise of justice, prosperity and stability.”

The AfD have understood and acted on it. They are riding a wave which will be hard to stop. It is do-able. The question is whether Merkel and her CDU actually want to.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.