Countering the Radical Right

Is Germany’s AfD using COVID-19 measures to its benefit?

The German party though internally divided about the measures, is united on anti-EU ideology to gain electoral support.

Bernhard Forchtner Özgür Özvatan
17 December 2020, 9.02am
AfD members following a meeting of the AfD Lower Saxony for list compilation for the 2021 federal election, 5 December 2020
Moritz Frankenberg/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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At the end of November 2020, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) held a federal party convention which brought together about 500 delegates, in person, during lockdown measures. Maybe unsurprisingly, the convention criticized “panic-like corona measures taken by the federal government”.

During the convention, one of AfD’s two Federal Spokesmen, Jörg Meuthen, caused internal uproar as he, once again, joined the party’s internal conflict between ‘moderates’ and radicals, by attacking those who showed uncritical sympathy for the Querdenken (lateral thinking) anti-lockdown ‘movement’ (which often features conspiracy theories or extreme-right actors). His criticism furthermore included those who label the government’s reform to the infection protection law (Infektionsschutzgesetz) as “Corona dictatorship” (Corona-Diktatur) and compare it to the Enabling Act of 1933 (Ermächtigungsgesetz).

Whether this attempt to steer the AfD away from the most obscure anti-lockdown manifestations remains to be seen – and similarly, the jury is out to assess whether the party’s COVID-19 performance will ultimately appeal to the electorate. After all, while being the most critical of all parliamentary parties in Germany about COVID-19 response, its stance has not prevented the AfD from sliding in the polls.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the AfD has moved from tolerating the COVID-19 measures (and even criticising the belated response) to a rejection often in line with non-parliamentary protests. In fact, in an interview with Germany’s main TV station on 26 November 2020, AfD co-leader in the German parliament (Bundestag) Alice Weidel supported the aforementioned Querdenken in its opposition to the German government’s reform to the Infektionsschutzgesetz on 18 November 2020, which anti-lockdown protesters view as a return of the Ermächtigungsgesetz.

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Indeed, on the day of the parliamentary vote, two far-right bloggers, who had been invited to the German parliament by AfD members of parliament, harassed parliamentarians of other parties on the corridors of the Bundestag. Recent events indicate that, in the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the AfD, having initially taken a less confrontative stance towards COVID-19 measures, returned to its populist, far-right meta-narrative which promises to bring about ethno-national rebirth for ‘true’ Germans while opposing the allegedly anti-democratic fantasies of ‘the elite’.

Based on an ongoing research project on the AfD’s climate change and COVID-19 communication, we have seen how the AfD has used COVID-19 to legitimize its own agenda and, in turn, delegitimize others. Material published between March and September 2020 by the AfD, in the party’s magazine, press releases and YouTube videos led us to three conclusions.

The populism of the AfD leads the party to disparage an allegedly incompetent establishment, both nationally and at the EU-level

First, the most dominant argument concerns the alleged threat to national sovereignty posed by responses to COVID-19. This is, of course, not surprising given that the AfD is a nationalist party heavily invested in its national territory and sovereignty. Such concerns over national sovereignty were raised by, for example, the AfD’s honorary chairman Alexander Gauland who argued that both migration and COVID-19 illustrate that current problems are most effectively solved within the framework of the nation state. Thus, the COVID-19 crisis offers a window of opportunity to return to the classic idea of a Europe of sovereign member states instead of forging a EUropean “superstate”. Similarly, for Jörg Meuthen, the COVID-19 crisis signalled “the hour of the nation states” .

Second, unsurprisingly, the populism of the AfD leads the party to disparage an allegedly incompetent establishment, both nationally and at the EU-level. That is, ‘the elite’ is once again not working for ‘the people’, but responsible for a “sick” Europe and its “omnipotence fantasies” as AfD MEP Gunnar Beck notes. This is also visible when Weidel states that “it is grotesque that German interests are apparently better represented by European partner states than by the German government”. Pointing to Austria and north-European countries’ veto against the implementation of “Corona bonds” in the EU, she shares her hope for these countries to stop Merkel’s pro-EU “raid on German national wealth”. In other words: the German government is not competent enough to even protect its own people.

Third, are concerns over the economy, which we expected would feature more prominently. Here, both nationalist and populist sensitivities mix as concerns are voiced over both the strength of the German economy at large, but also about effects of COVID-19 legislation on ‘the little guy’. Rejecting the idea of “Corona bonds” as a further burden on German taxpayers already in April 2020, the AfD perceived the European Union recovery fund as a political project against “key principles of law and economics” which introduces “EU debt socialism” (EU-Schuldensozialismus), undermines Germany’s national sovereignty and “expropriates hard-working and thrifty [German] citizens”.

The party’s ideology is reproduced through their use of the COVID-19 crisis, confirming recent research by Jakub Wondreys and Cas Mudde on articulations of the crisis by far-right parties in Europe. Like other European far-right parties, the AfD initially recognized the dangers posed by the virus, but subsequently circulated misinformation about elites whom they accused of undermining national sovereignty and bringing about “EU debt socialism”. This is in line with how far-right groups have used other crises, such as the climate crisis for example. Indeed, the narrative that is presented by the AfD of these two crises foregrounds the threats posed to ‘our’ national sovereignty, economy and ‘the little guy’ by ‘the elite’.

This type of communication illustrates how crucial these story elements are to the AfD and how the party expects to benefit from them electorally. Whether the aforementioned party convention heralds such success, became another super-spreader event, or marks a further occasion at which the ongoing party’s internal fighting between ‘moderates’ and radicals flares up, remains to be seen.

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