Germany’s refugee debate is likely to benefit right-wing party
Alternative für Deutschland adapts: populist xenophobia in east, conservatism in west
Alice Weidel, co-lead candidate of the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (Afd). Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Two women are set to win big when Germany votes on September 24th. One is chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a good chance of securing a fourth term. The other is Alice Weidel, the campaign co-leader of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Formed in the euro crisis and forged in the refugee crisis, the AfD is polling 10 per cent in polls with its demands for border closures, controlled immigration, mass deportations and Germany’s departure from the euro.
And after just three years in politics, Weidel, a 38-year-old management consultant, hopes to head the Bundestag’s newest parliamentary party – steadying an organisation of contrasting camps and sizeable egos.
Her first priority, she says: a Bundestag inquiry into Angela Merkel’s “repeated breaches of the law” in the euro and refugee crises. “And after she leaves politics, she should go before a court to justify all of her breaches of the law,” says Weidel. “This government is no longer master of what happens in this country, it is mocked by everyone.”
Germany’s refugee and integration debate is likely to be the AfD’s biggest vote-winner next month, particularly if Germany is struck by further attacks by Islamists posing as asylum seekers. In its programme the AfD is pushing for national border controls until the EU can control its “open southern flank”, and mass deportation of failed asylum seekers.
Founded in 2012, the AfD has secured seats in all but three of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, largely by adapting its politics to local tastes: populist xenophobia in the east, conservative concern in the west.
Alice Weidel is the face of the latter camp, a liberal economist and former Goldman Sachs employee. She is an intelligent and charismatic figure with a rhetorical gift. In a occasionally combative meeting with Berlin’s foreign press association on Monday, however, she careened from conspicuous courtesy to snappy dismissals of challenging questions as “absurd”.
Despite regular problematic remarks by eastern German allies, Weidel insists the AfD is not racist or xenophobic. The party’s nationalist and liberal wings are united, she insists, despite epic rows and disagreement over party strategy and election posters. One immigration-themed poster from the party shows a white woman’s pregnant belly and the strapline: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”
“I didn’t want that poster, got very annoyed about that and fought against it,” says Weidel, saying she bowed to the will of the majority on the federal party commission. She concedes such posters contradict her understanding of the AfD’s immigration proposals: choosing new arrivals on their skills and readiness to integrate.
Adopting a more robust tone on immigration is Alexander Gauland, the nationalist head of the AfD and her running mate, who has claimed that Germany’s immigration wave amounts to a “creeping land disappropriation”.
Weidel is more careful of her words but says a “creeping Islamification” looms unless Germany bans headscarves, halts foreign financing of mosques in Germany and ends Islamic influence within the German school system. She predicts the euro crisis will flare up again but insists the AfD does not want weaker euro members to leave the single currency.
“The AfD is demanding Germany leave the euro area,” she says.
As the campaign heats up, the AfD has faced repeated claims of close contacts to Moscow, such as party officials acting as election observers for Russian-backed elections in breakaway former Soviet republics. Weidel says the claims, documented in the Die Zeit weekly, have “no foundation”.
Asked about ideological overlap with US president Donald Trump, in particular his struggles to condemn a recent neo-Nazi protest that left a woman dead, Weidel says her party “condemns extremist currents whether it is from right, left or Islam”.
And what of the AfD’s manifesto demand that schools prevent “children becoming the plaything of a loud minority’s sexual preferences”?
Weidel, a lesbian mother-of-two in a civil partnership, confirms that the “loud minority” in the party programme refers to gay rights groups who have lobbied for alternative family lifestyles such as her own to be discussed in German classrooms.
“This is flowing into the syllabus and doesn’t belong there,” she said. “This is a private matter, it is for parents, in the family home, to explain sexuality.”