Politics & Society
The Steady Decline of Alternative for Germany
Incitement, Infighting, and Inquiries
Nearly a year ago, the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged victorious from an unprecedented political scandal in Thuringia. The party’s nationwide approval rating hovered around 14 percent, higher than the 12.6 percent it garnered in the most recent federal election more than two years earlier. The event and its aftermath seemed to signal sustained influence in the German political arena for the foreseeable future.
A mere few weeks later, however, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically transformed Germany’s political landscape. Like all other parties, the AfD suffered in the shadow of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the leading force behind the country’s response to the crisis. But the party’s problems were just beginning. Incoherent positions on policies to confront the pandemic, incessant infighting, and the threat of increased state surveillance of the party have all added to its steadily dwindling nationwide support. These developments signal an unraveling of the right-wing populists, and are likely to trigger AfD losses throughout Germany’s 2021 election cycle.
AfD founder and Parliamentary Group Leader Alexander Gauland publicly approved of Berlin’s handling of the crisis in the early days of Germany’s first lockdown. “The government’s policy contains many insights that we believe are correct and that we share,” he said. But the AfD’s subsequent drop in popularity sparked a sudden reversal in the party’s position. In May, as the AfD saw its approval ratings sink to their lowest levels since August 2017, Gauland suggested that citizens should question the government’s authority and not be forced to follow guidelines. By October, he described the government as a “Corona-Diktatur", a “corona dictatorship”. The term subsequently earned the undesirable Non-Word of the Year Award, a dishonorable distinction that aims to highlight violations of human dignity and democratic values.
Despite widespread public approval for Germany’s renewed winter lockdown restrictions, factions in the AfD have cozied up to a small, outspoken minority of anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination, conspiracy theorists known as “Querdenker”, meaning “lateral” or “unorthodox thinkers”. Protesting lockdown measures, the group in August rushed the steps of Germany’s parliament building (Reichstag), attempting to storm the hallowed halls of the country’s foremost democratic institution. The attack sparked severe rebuke of the AfD from the German public and the entire political spectrum, including members within its own ranks.
The former Euroskeptic professors’ party, created in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, rose to national popularity on an anti-immigration, anti-Islamic platform in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis. Disputes over the party manifesto have seen its founding members and senior leadership leave the group. Constant squabbles between the AfD’s mainstream conservatives and far-right wing (formerly known as the Flügel) have threatened a splintering for years.
As if the AfD’s directionless pandemic strategy were not enough, the unity of the party was also jeopardized by the expulsion of Andreas Kalbitz, its leader in the state of Brandenburg, due to his neo-Nazi past. AfD Co-leader Jörg Meuthen, the main proponent of Kalbitz’s removal, censured Gauland at the party’s controversial, in-person conference in November. Meuthen specifically criticized Gauland’s “Corona-Diktatur” rhetoric and connections to the Querdenker movement. The comments sparked a backlash and push to condemn Meuthen for divisive conduct. Party delegates ultimately decided by a razor-thin margin – 53 percent to 47 percent – not to bring the motion up for a vote, a testament to the AfD’s divided nature.
The right-wing faction’s antics have not just divided the party; they have threatened its very existence.
Meuthen’s rebuke is rooted in dueling visions of the party’s platform and direction. But it is also a strategic, practical move. The right-wing faction’s antics have not just divided the party; they have threatened its very existence. Increased state surveillance looms on the horizon due to the party’s questionably constitutional platforms, membership, and connections.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesverfassungsschutz, or BfV) is Germany’s domestic security agency and is tasked with surveilling threats to the country’s constitutional order. The BfV possesses three designations for potential extremist groups it surveils: test cases, suspected cases, and proven cases. In January 2019, the BfV declared the AfD a test case. But it also designated select members of the Flügel and the party’s youth wing, Young Alternative, suspected cases. The state oversight follows years of the AfD’s gradual adoption of anti-immigration and xenophobic platforms, and an evolving membership aligned with those views. Several members even have direct ties or previously belonged to neo-Nazi organizations.
The state oversight follows years of the AfD’s gradual adoption of anti-immigration and xenophobic platforms, and an evolving membership aligned with those views.
The party sued and successfully sidestepped being a test case. However, in March 2020, following a 12-month investigation, the BfV determined that the entire Flügel was a right-wing extremist group. The party subsequently dissolved the group, although its 7,000 adherents, comprising 20 percent of the party, remain in the AfD.
Breaking up the Flügel has shown no signs of halting the gradually increasing state surveillance. The BfV is reportedly preparing to label the entire AfD a suspected case of extremism, a move that would lead to wiretapping phones, reading emails, and even recruiting informants.
Party-wide BfV surveillance would deal a major blow to the AfD ahead of federal elections scheduled for September 26. And that vote comes as Germany finds itself in the midst of a “Superwahljahr”, or “super election year”, with six state elections scheduled over the next eight months. Recognizing the devastating impact the BfV’s potential move would have on its electoral chances, the AfD has filed two lawsuits intended to stop it. If unsuccessful, the party would likely see its support dwindle further and many members, fearing the potential repercussions of associating with a suspected extremist group, exit its ranks.
The party’s support remains strong in the eastern regions of the country, but the electoral success experienced nationwide since 2017 will likely diminish. A precarious and problematic platform, self-destructive infighting, and the threat of greater state surveillance are all signs of a party on the decline, one whose future influence on German politics is, at best, uncertain.