AfD founder hopes Syriza will revive euro as a political issue
Alternative für Deutschland hopes to stir up German fury at Greece
Bernd Lucke, chairman of German anti-euro party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD): after months of private squabbles and public denunciations, a party conference this weekend in Bremen will see the start of a battle for the AfD’s soul. Photograph/Fabian Bimmer/Reuters
Few Germans celebrated last weekend’s Syriza victory in Greece more than Bernd Lucke. Two years ago he founded Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) as a protest party against the EU’s euro rescue strategy. Now he urgently needs Syriza to stir up the euro crisis again – and German fury at Greece.
Without a euro crisis II, the Hamburg economics professor could be ousted by AfD rivals who want to drive the party he founded on to the hard-right fringes. After months of private squabbles and public denunciations, a party conference this weekend in Bremen will see the start of a battle for the AfD’s soul.
It is only three years since Lucke spotted a gap in Germany’s political spectrum for a new right-wing party and decided to fill it. The new party, he wrote at the time, should “push the national interest without being nationalistic, [be] euro critical without being euro hostile”.
He can thank chancellor Angela Merkel for giving him his opening. She has pushed her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the political centre, slaughtering a series of sacred cows, from nuclear power to compulsory military service. It was Merkel’s “without alternative” euro crisis strategy however – financial aid for struggling euro members in exchange for reform – that proved the final straw for many CDU conservatives. Lucke picked up on their alarm at the potential final cost to German taxpayers and launched his AfD. The alternative: a demand the EU cut its losses in Greece, to allow it and other laggards to leave the union.
The pitch worked. The AfD fell just short of entering the Bundestag in 2013. Even as the euro crisis ebbed, it won seven of Germany’s 96 seats in the European Parliament. The party attracted support in record time thanks to the AfD image perfected by Lucke: either/or absolutism mixed with euro populism that flirts with the far right – all cloaked in tweedy, professorial sobriety.
Its most recent wins involved entering three eastern state parliaments – Thuringia, Brandenburg and Saxony. The AfD scored big by increasing the populist volume while broadening its political profile as a conservative, law-and-order party.
Saxon AfD leader Frauke Petry (39), a chemist and pastor’s wife, won 10 per cent of the vote by railing against criminal foreigners, mosques and same-sex marriage, while finding warm words for stay-at-home mothers. Other regional AfD leaders followed suit, butLucke is increasingly alarmed. To score quick success, he fears regional leaders have become too extreme and attracted “conspiracy theorists and gold-diggers”.
Petry and her regional allies disagree. They now deride Lucke as a “control freak” and one-trick, euro-crisis pony. “What you founded in the right moment, dear Bernd . . . is no longer ‘your’ party, as you so often insist, but that of many thousands of people,” wrote co-leader Petry and her allies in an email leaked to Der Spiegel. “Our party basis . . . doesn’t just seek alternatives to the euro but also . . . fears an Islamic infiltration.”
Petry believes AfD’s future is on the hard right and hopes to scoop up support from the disintegrating Pegida movement, the grassroots group behind Monday-night marches against the “Islamisation of the West”.
Her ally, Alexander Gauland (73), the AfD head in Brandenburg, has attended Pegida’s marches. He says he could “sign up right now” to Pegida’s demands – tougher asylum, greater police spending – to tackle an “Islamisation” threat in Europe. “People are wary of Islam; it doesn’t belong to Germany,” he told The Irish Times. “Whether it is something normal in our culture is a difficult question we cannot yet answer.” Gauland denies he and his allies court political extremists but struggles to explain their attraction to AfD.
Ahead of this weekend’s Bremen party conference, Lucke has agreed an uneasy truce with his rivals. He will probably be elected sole AfD leader – but only until a December vote on a new party programme. Between now and then, the economics professor hopes Syriza stokes up the euro crisis flames, reviving the AfD core message and rescuing its founder.
“The AfD’s euro critical profile is now playing second fiddle to criticism of Islam and migration,” says Prof Jochen Franzke of the University of Potsdam. The party is “skating on very thin ice”, he adds, direction unknown.
Already many western German AfD members – mainly liberals from the defunct Free Democrats (FDP) – have abandoned Lucke, leaving him to face down the nationalist genie they fear he let out of the bottle. As Der Spiegel put it this week, “Lucke wanted to deal with the devil but not smell of sulphur”.