Rise of AFD party in Germany re-ignites debate on emergence of fringe movements

Politically extreme parties have the potential to shape the political agenda

AfD top candidate Bernd Lucke addressing the media – formed less than six months ago, the Eurosceptic party polled an impressive 4.8 per cent. Phtograph: Reuters

AfD top candidate Bernd Lucke addressing the media – formed less than six months ago, the Eurosceptic party polled an impressive 4.8 per cent. Phtograph: Reuters


All eyes were on Berlin this week as Europe awaited the outcome of what is widely regarded as the most significant European political event this year.

But while attention turns to the composition of the next German government, one of the most interesting outcomes of the German federal election was the strong showing by the Alternative for Deutschland party. Formed less than six months ago, the Eurosceptic party polled an impressive 4.8 per cent, just shy of the 5 per cent parliamentary threshold. It replaced the Christian Democrats’ outgoing junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, as Germany’s third-largest political party.

Self-styled as a middle-class, intellectual and moderate force, the AfD showing is significant, particularly in a country that, for historical reasons, has been wary of political extremism.

The respectable performance by the AfD party has also reignited the debate about the emergence of fringe parties across Europe.

The rise of far-right and far-left movements in Europe has been a feature of the European political landscape since at least the 1980s. But this recession has helped fuel the momentum of parties as diverse as the True Finns in the north to the Jobbik, or Movement for a Better Hungary party in the east.

With European elections eight months away, a drift from mainstream political parties is a distinct concern in Brussels.

A rare outburst by president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso in Strasbourg this month revealed the extent of sensitivity on the issue. He accused Conservative MEPs of being as Eurosceptic as the UK Independence party, warning that Ukip could become the dominant British political force in next year’s European elections.

Political opportunists
Michel Barnier, EU commissioner responsible for financial services, also allowed his annoyance to flare this week at a press conference in Brussels when asked about the performance of the AfD party. Populists, whether of the right or left, “feed off the crisis. They feed off social problems, people’s anger”, said the French commissioner.

Unease in Brussels reflects an underlying concern about the increasing political influence of anti-establishment parties.

The National Front party’s record performance in last year’s French elections may have taken everybody by surprise, but it left Marine Le Pen with 18 per cent of the first-round vote. In the same election Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left party polled 11 per cent.

This rise of fringe parties is replicated in other EU countries. In Greece the far right and far left have taken their place in the national assembly. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which was implicated in last week’s murder of a well-known Greek rap artist, holds 18 seats in the 300-seat parliament. At the other end of the spectrum, the radical left group Syriza, which narrowly lost the 2012 election, is a major political force in a country where the coalition government’s authority is shaky.

The notion that extreme political parties can hold significant political clout is worrying for the EU establishment. To some, the rise of political extremism is overplayed. In many European countries, including Ireland, far-right parties have no parliamentary presence.

Extremist movements
Others believe that, ultimately, extreme political parties will fail to garner significant support above a specific threshold come election day. History, after all, is littered with failed extremist movements from the right and left.

But perhaps the main significance of such parties may be their impact on mainstream political thought. The rise in support of far-right politics – mostly at the expense of mainstream political parties – has forced established groups across the EU to reassess their policies as they attempt to connect with voters. David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, for example, is widely believed to be an attempt to stop the drift in Tory support to Ukip as much as a move to keep the Eurosceptic wing of his own party on side.

Similarly, French socialist president François Hollande’s stance on immigration during the 2012 election campaign was in part a response to the popularity of the anti-immigration National Front.

The rise in extremist support may compel politicians to confront the actual – and sometimes uncomfortable – concerns of the electorate on issues such as immigration and EU membership.

Regardless of whether extremism translates into more seats in next year’s European elections, the real impact may be its importance in driving and shaping mainstream European politics.

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