Far right AfD enters the German political mainstream

The anti-immigration party, now Germany’s third-largest, is broadening its scope

AfD supporters and party members celebrated their huge win as exit polls named the hard-right party the third largest party in the German parliament. Video: Reuters


The rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is the most remarkable episode in the modern German political era.

The party began life as an angry, bailout-critical movement in 2013, narrowly missing getting into the Bundestag that year. It began to fade, along with the euro crisis, the following year.

Then Germany’s refugee crisis offered a second chance, but only if the party took a radical right turn. Party founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, was toppled and replaced by Frauke Petry, a 42-year-old easterner who sharpened the party’s profile – and its rhetoric.

A series of calculated provocations followed, sparking huge outrage and coverage, and when initial refugee welcome of late summer 2015 began to turn into concern and anger, the AfD was waiting.

Boosting its anti-immigration message was a shocking series of sexual and terrorist attacks: the mass groping of young women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015 and, almost a year later, a truck attack by a failed Tunisian asylum seeker on a Berlin Christmas market that left 12 dead.

For two years the AfD flirted with – and has now embraced – the anti-Islam Pegida street movement in Dresden. But it also challenged the mainstream in Germany by spreading doubt that Islam could be made compatible with German constitutional values.

The foundation of the party’s success is exploiting Germans’ cultural fear of Kontrollverlust – losing control. Building on that, it fashioned a set of policies with parallels to Brexit and to Donald Trump’s “take back control” presidential win in the US.

The party is calling for full checks on German borders, a points-based immigration and refusal to accept asylum applicants without papers.

But, having learned the danger of being a one-issue party when the euro crisis faded, it has become a catch-all party with a broader programme.

As well as demanding Germany leave the euro, the AfD has called for more spending on police, faster deportations, boosts to pensions and dole payments, as well as tax cuts and family-friendly policies to boost the birth rate.

Third-largest party

The party now sits in all but four of Germany’s 16 parliaments and has entered the mainstream as Germany’s third-largest party.

Although this is a watershed for German postwar politics, this is not a premiere for the German parliament. According to a 2011 Bundestag analysis, 189 former members of the National Socialist Party, or its SS/SA organisations, sat in the Bonn parliament in various parties. Despite East Germany’s claims to be an anti-fascist state, some 46 former Nazis sat in the Volkskammer parliament. And in the 1980s three MPs of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union defected to the neo-Nazi Republikaner and sat for that party in the Bundestag.

German chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union Angela Merkel votes in the general election. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
German chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union Angela Merkel votes in the general election. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

On Sunday evening the AfD celebrated its Bundestag premiere in a Berlin disco, with around 300 protestors gathered outside. But the party’s future is anything but certain.

Two-thirds of its support, according to poll analysis, was a protest vote and the trappings of Bundestag membership cannot cover up an inner-party battle for dominance.

The head of its national-conservative wing, Alexander Gauland, attracted protest in the campaign for suggesting Germany had the “right to be proud” of its soldiers’ achievements in two world wars.

And Alice Weidel, heading the more moderate liberal wing, claimed immigration to Germany was a “systematic destruction of civil society” by a “marionette” government.

Their already complicated task, to create a united and functioning parliamentary party among rivals, is complicated by Frauke Petry, the popular party leader.

Absent from the campaign, her increasing attacks on the AfD’s extremist language is seen as a veiled threat to split the party unless she is given a senior position in Berlin.