AfD struggles for populist traction ahead of German election

Merkel’s departure has robbed far-right party of its favourite electoral hate figure

Alice Weidel, AfD co-lead candidate: faced whistles, boos and catcalls from left-wing protesters, who she accused of of ‘absolute Stalinism’, at a rally on Tuesday. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Alice Weidel, AfD co-lead candidate: faced whistles, boos and catcalls from left-wing protesters, who she accused of of ‘absolute Stalinism’, at a rally on Tuesday. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

 

Germans go to the polls later this month amid a fourth pandemic wave, a resurgent migration crisis and huge pressure for Europe’s largest economy to make a leap on climate change.

Despite ample potential for a populist push, Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is struggling to stay at two digits in opinion polls.

The AfD was born in the euro crisis and boomed after the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, taking almost 13 per cent in the 2017 election to become the Bundestag’s largest opposition party.

“Angela Merkel has completely hollowed out our country, that’s why we’re running as an alternative – to sort these things out,” said Alice Weidel, AfD co-lead candidate at a rally on Tuesday in the northeastern city of Neubrandenburg.

Facing whistles, boos and catcalls from nearby that drowned out her speech, she accused the assembled left-wing protesters of “absolute Stalinism that is also the product of [chancellor] Angela Merkel”.

The chancellor’s departure after four terms, though, has robbed the AfD of its favourite electoral hate figure. It also failed to profit from the pandemic, as the liberal Free Democratic Party channelled frustrations with pandemic measures, the AfD was distracted by a still unresolved struggle for the soul of the party between a conservative-liberal camp and an ascendent far-right wing.

Weidel and her campaign co-leader Tino Chrupalla are more closely allied with the far-right camp, though at rallies they present themselves as “bürgernah” – close to the people – with promises to cut rising petrol prices and push back against climate protection measures.

Eastern audience

On foreign policy, Weidel attracts nods from her eastern audience for saying “we need Russia as a partner, we need the People’s Republic of China as a partner just like the USA”.

The AfD took off initially by pulling in far-right voters and conservatives who felt alienated from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

A key element in its rapid rise, confirmed in a leaked AfD communications strategy, were “carefully planned provocations” mixed with far-right dog-whistle politics.

Party officials have attracted attention with suggestions that illegal immigrants should be “gassed” or shot, or that the Nazi era was a regrettable, “birdsh*t” exception in Germany’s otherwise glorious history.

Even Weidel, who highlights her background as a Mandarin-speaking business consultant, once penned a memo attacking Germany’s government as “puppets of the victorious powers in World War II”.

She has struggled to negotiate her party’s own internal contradictions.

Weidel lives in Switzerland with a woman and their two sons but, adjacent to where she is canvassing, an AfD poster promises politics for “traditional families: father, mother, children”.

Trouble

Meanwhile, local AfD state leader Nikolaus Kramer is in trouble for suggesting “women are less suited to politics because they are a bit more emotional than men”.

When Chrupalla went on ZDF children’s television, he called for schools “where more German folk songs are learned, German poems, that we honour our German poets and thinkers”.

Asked by a child reporter for his favourite poem, Chrupalla paused: “I have to think... I can’t think of any at the moment.”

The AfD hopes it will perform better nationally on election day than in current polls, though in some eastern regions, such as Saxony, it already attracts 21 per cent support.

Political scientist Kerstin Völkl of the University of Halle locates this support in the long tail of post-1990 transformation, which saw many young, better-educated easterners move away.

“Who remained? Young men with a lower education and they realise they are on the loser side and are more open to populism with a clear authoritarian accent,” she said, and these feelings amplified in the pandemic.

Another AfD battleground is online. While other parties are lucky to attract a few thousand views for social media videos, an analysis of Weidel clips from mid-June to mid-August logged nearly five million views.

Although the AfD is largely shunned by major media outlets, another analysis of 68,000 articles on 37 “alternative” media sites found a largely pro-AfD spin.

The far-right party has mastered Facebook algorithms: on the social media site, some 14 of the 20 most effective promoters of party content were profiles that linked back to the AfD.

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