They were the big political winners of the “refugee crisis” of 2015. In the German federal election of 2017, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s version of radical right-wing populism, garnered more than 12 percent of the vote, making it Germany’s third largest party. In the months that followed, the AfD successfully contested regional elections, particularly in the eastern part of the country (i.e., the territory of the former GDR), giving rise to growing concern. And for good reasons.
Among other things, the AfD fundamentally questioned one of the foundations of Germany’s postwar consensus – the centrality of Germany’s Nazi past for the self-understanding of the Federal Republic. As a prominent leader of the AfD put it, Hitler and National Socialism were nothing more than “bird shit” compared to Germany’s “long and successful history”.
To be sure, the AfD’s take on the dark sides of Germany was hardly a major reason for the party’s dramatic gains. What counted much more was a general disenchantment with the coalition government headed by Angela Merkel and, in the eastern part of the country, a strong sense that after almost three decades since German unification, eastern Germans were still being treated as if they were “second-class citizens.” Symptomatically, in eastern regions, such as Saxony and Thuringia, the party scored more than 20 percent of the vote.
Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the AfD’s fortunes. In recent polls, the party has continually slipped. By mid-April, the Afd was down to 9 percent, its worst showing since fall 2017. And it is bound to continue to fall. In fact, there is little reason to suggest that the party’s fortunes are likely to turn around in the near future. Unless there is a miraculous cure for Covid-19 and voters can go back to nurture their pre-crisis resentments targeting migrants, Islam, LBGTQ, and gender.
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At least three reasons explain the AfD’s decline in the poll. One is directly related to the Covid-19 crisis. As is well known, in times of crisis, voters tend to rally around the flag. In a crisis, any government is better than none – which explains, for instance, the rise in support for the Italian government, despite its horrific initial response to the crisis. In Germany, Angela Merkel has shown – and the German public appears to agree – that she is up to the challenge. At the beginning of April more than 70 percent of those polled thought the German government was doing a good job in handling the crisis. This was significantly higher than, for instance, in Italy, France or the United States. In fact, a growing minority of Germans wished that Angela Merkel reconsidered her decision to give up her position as Germany’s head of government before the next general election.
In the past, the AfD has profited from widespread disenchantment with the governing coalition. With Covid-19, the public’s mood has turned, leaving the AfD desperately looking for something they could use to attack the government without appearing disloyal. As it is, this has been a futile endeavor – not least because the party has largely been advocating the very same measures, such as a rigorous lockdown set in place by the federal government.
The AfD is largely associated with xenophobia directed against migrants and refugees and Islamophobia directed against Germany’s Muslim minority
As a result, for many of its erstwhile supporters, the AfD is no longer seen as a radical enough alternative to the political establishment. These, as a recent article in the center-right Die Welt noted, have moved on to embrace the conspiracy theories that circulate on social media. One of their main claims is that the threat by the virus has been exaggerated, that the lockdown was unnecessary, that the panic had intentionally been created by a government intent on installing emergency rule. Under the circumstances, the AfD appears to have lost what in German is called “Deutungshoheit,” i.e. the ability to impose its interpretation of reality.
Today, the AfD is largely associated with xenophobia directed against migrants and refugees and Islamophobia directed against Germany’s Muslim minority. This marks a fundamental departure from the party’s original aims. The AfD was founded in 2013 as a conservative party voicing a strong protest against the bailout of Greece and other countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 as well as against the Euro and the EU in general. In fact, at the time, the party was united in pleading for allowing Greece to leave the Euro-zone, in exchange for debt relief.
“Grexit” never happened. Instead, the eurozone countries established the European Stability Mechanism, a permanent agency in charge of providing loans to eurozone countries and capital to banks in difficulty. In the years that followed, the AfD, citing moral hazard concerns, repeatedly called for the “winding down” of the ESM in order “to stop losses from bank insolvencies being passed on to European, and German taxpayers, in particular”.
In the current crisis, the ESM has once again become a point of contention. The issue resurfaced during the controversy over the question of “coronabonds” demanded by a number of countries, most prominently Italy, to raise funds to counter the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. The AfD was quick to reject the idea, arguing that it would lead to a “Schuldenvergemeinschaftung” (mutualization of debt) largely at the expense and to the detriment of the German taxpayer.
This time, however, the AfD could not benefit from the issue. Angela Merkel, together with her Dutch counterpart, vigorously rejected the Italian demands, at the risk of a major rift between the two sides. Instead, the Germans agreed to a compromise, which, among other measures, allows countries to borrow, unconditionally, from the ESM for up to 2 percent of their GDP, as long as they are used for health-related expenses. The Italian government, however, largely rejected the deal – with the way Greece had been treated a decade or so earlier still seared in Italy’s collective memory. So did the two major opposition parties, the nativist Lega and the nationalist Fratelli d’Italia, both united in their visceral hatred of the European Union (at the end of March, the Lega leader Matteo Salvini characterized the EU as a “lair of vipers and jackals”).
Radical right-wing populist parties are successful as long as they present a united front
Given these circumstances, the AfD was hardly in a position to profit politically from attacking Angela Merkel over the ESM, particularly given the growing anti-German sentiments on the Italian populist radical right. This was also reflected in Italy’s media, which have increasingly accused Germany of arrogance and worse.
There is a third major reason for the AfD’s decline. Radical right-wing populist parties are successful as long as they present a united front. Internal dissension, power struggles and the defection of prominent leading figures are political poison for parties that promote themselves as the voice of the unified will of the people.
Over the past four decades, almost all major radical right-wing populist parties suffered defections and splits, which left them temporarily weakened. Prominent examples are Austria’s FPÖ in 1993 (defection of the liberal wing around Heide Schmidt); France’s Font National in the late 1990s (expulsion of Bruno Mégret and his followers); and Switzerland’s SVP in 2008 (exclusion of the party’s moderate wing around Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and Samuel Schmid). History also shows, however, that in the long run, radical right-wing populist parties managed to recover, whereas the defectors and “renegades” quickly disappeared into political oblivion.
Despite its relatively short history, the AfD has seen its share of defections and splits. In fact, today’s AfD is the result of a split of the original party, which, as mentioned earlier, fundamentally changed the face of the party. After the AfD’s victory in the 2017 federal election, the party was once again in turmoil. This time the reason was the defection of its most prominent face, Frauke Petry from Saxony – one of three AfD candidates to secure a direct mandate (an almost impossible feat for a new party, given the strong position of the major established parties). The AfD survived Petry’s departure pretty well. The most recent party-internal turmoil is a different story.
Fact is that the AfD has in reality been two parties, one national-conservative, ordo-liberal one encompassing some two thirds of the membership, the other aggressively German nationalist, collectivist, and borderline racist one, what in German is generally known as völkisch. The latter was at the core of Nazi ideology, laying the ideational foundation for the Holocaust. For good reasons, völkisch narratives set off alarm bells in Germany and alerted the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).
Over the past several years, the völkisch wing of the AdD (which is officially known in fact as Flügel [wing]) has been represented by Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader from Thuringia, a state that used to be part of the German Democratic Republic. Sociopolitical studies show that in Thuringia, post-unification resentment has been particularly pronounced. In 2019, almost half of respondents in a representative survey agreed with the statement that Easterners were still treated as if they were “second-class citizens.” At the same time, more than 60 percent agreed that “more should be done for the majority of the people”.
In recent elections, the AfD did particularly well in Thuringia. In the most recent state election last October, the party came in second, garnering more than 23 percent of the vote. This further strengthened Höcke’s position in the party. At the same time, it led the BfV to put pressure on the party leadership to clarify a range of statements its leaders had made over the years which the BfV considered “problematic” (i.e., potentially violated the spirit of the constitution). There was a clear danger that the AfD would become “a case for the Protection of the Constitution” – or so at least the party’s leaders feared. Observation by the BfV on suspicion that it harbors extremist tendencies can have serious personal consequences for individual party members, particularly those in the civil service, who are required to uphold the constitution.
The crisis has also exposed the folly of nationalist egoism
In late March, the internal conflicts came to a head, following Höcke’s claim that he had “dissolved” the Flügel. Diffuse sentiments of resentment against the far right erupted resulting in open mutual recrimination. As an article in a leading right-wing publication put it, the AfD’s moderates were tired of being subjected to “collective punishment” (by the BfV) because of Höcke and his followers. One of the leaders of the party went so far as to suggest that the party split and the two wings go their separate way. In the face of heavy criticism from other party leaders, he backpedaled and went out of his way to insist that the party should demonstrate internal unity. At the same time, there were grave doubts that the influence of the party’s far right, even if its formal organizational structures ceased to exist, would be significantly weakened.
In the end, none of this might matter. The past few weeks have been a lesson in the importance of a strong state capable of swift and decisive action. The crisis has demonstrated the fundamental flaws in the neoliberal credo, which for the past decades informed virtually all government policy in Western Europe. It finally brutally exposed the failure of a model that promoted the stripping down of essential services and sectors, most notably the health sector. The Italian example is a case in point of the folly of cutting funding and privatizing health care, all in the name of austerity and the “free market” - a folly which left Italy short of medical staff and beds and contributed to the country’s death toll.
At the same time, the crisis has also exposed the folly of nationalist egoism and the emptiness of “… first.” Again, the Italian case serves as a case in point. Matteo Salvini’s Lega’s main slogan has been “Prima gli Italiani” (Italians first). The the current situation, where Italy desperately needs the solidarity of EU member states, exposes the inanity and vapidity of the Lega slogan in all of its glory.
For the AfD, this means difficult times ahead. Under the current circumstances, neither the party’s market-oriented, lean-state message nor its völkish nationalist rhetoric are likely to find much political traction. Given Angela Merkel’s strong showing in the polls, widespread confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis, and the AfD’s internal turmoil and disunity, the likelihood that the AfD is going to profit from the Covid-19 crisis is more than slim.