The return of the AfD
Germans are exasperated with the establishment parties.
Is populism making a comeback in Germany? ‘I’m worried’, said chancellor Olaf Scholz, after recent opinion polls showed soaring support for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. The latest polls predict the AfD winning between 18 per cent and 19 per cent of a hypothetical vote. That puts the AfD on a par with – or even ahead of – Scholz’s ruling Social Democrats (SPD).
This is quite a turnaround for the AfD. Back in 2021, the party fared poorly in Germany’s federal elections, managing only 10 per cent of the vote and coming fifth. Now support for the AfD is higher even than it was at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.
Most commentators and political pundits have reacted with shock. The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has blamed the chaotic and rudderless government coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals. The CDU’s spokesman, Mario Czaja, has even argued that the coalition is undermining people’s trust in democracy.
The government’s policies have indeed alienated, annoyed and exasperated many Germans – especially when it comes to its energy and climate policies. Survey after survey has shown that the majority of Germans are not happy with the ideologically driven phase-out of nuclear energy, for example. And nearly 80 per cent say they disagree with the government’s plans to ban all new fossil-fuel heaters from 2024.
It’s not just the coalition’s Net Zero agenda that is pushing voters away. A recent survey asked potential AfD voters what their biggest concerns were. Immigration was at the top of the list, with 65 per cent of AfD supporters saying they were concerned about it. Disagreement with the government’s energy and climate policies came second, at 47 per cent. This was followed by social issues (29 per cent) and foreign-policy issues (25 per cent). Other concerns were rising inflation and inequality, and dissatisfaction with the government more broadly.
The coalition government has clearly lost Germans’ trust, but this is only part of the story. The rise of the AfD is also a snub to the centre-right CDU. Polling steadily at 29 per cent, the CDU hasn’t really been able to benefit from the government’s unpopularity. Czaja has conceded as much, noting that, ‘we must also ask ourselves critically why these disenchanted people are turning to the extreme fringes’.
If the AfD is here to stay, it is because it is seen by many Germans as the only plausible opposition to the political establishment. And the establishment only has itself to blame for this. Ever since the AfD was founded in 2013, it has essentially been placed behind a wall of shame. All mainstream parties have pledged never to engage with it. It’s also the only party that has been consistently refused a representative in the Bundestag Presidium (which manages the operations of the German parliament) – something every party elected to parliament is normally entitled to. The AfD has even been placed under surveillance by the German secret service, the Verfassungsschutz.
It’s not just the AfD and its voters that the establishment has tried to quarantine. The issues it campaigns on have also been frozen out of public discussion. The claim that an argument or issue ‘plays into the hands of the AfD’ has become a fashionable way of shutting down debate. Last week, interior minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) said that anyone who questions Germany’s asylum policies is ‘playing the AfD’s dirty game’. And when CDU leader Friedrich Merz said the AfD’s success showed that Germans were growing tired of woke ideology, he was immediately accused of legitimising the AfD. Jacques Schuster from Die Welt has a point when he says that the AfD’s success is a result of other parties trying to exclude certain topics from political debate.
Of course, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticise the AfD. For instance, since the war in Ukraine, several AfD members have actively sided with Russia. One even attempted to travel to Donbass to show his support for Putin’s attempted annexation of the region. (He has since been expelled from the party.) And when party leader Tino Chrupalla attended a reception at the Russian Embassy in Berlin last month, this provoked widespread outrage – including among AfD members.
Indeed, infighting has plagued the AfD ever since its founding. Members disagree bitterly over the party’s political direction and over questions of party management. For instance, there is a great deal of disagreement over whether the AfD should allow people to join the party if they have links to far-right fringe groups. Last year’s party conference came to an abrupt halt after delegates couldn’t agree on a clear line.
Despite its internal rifts, the AfD celebrated its 10th anniversary in February this year in a buoyant mood. Although it has never been in government, it is undoubtedly the most successful new party since the Greens were founded in the 1980s. One commentator referred to it as a ‘zombie that keeps rising from the dead’.
How far the AfD can go will depend less on the party itself than on whether the establishment parties will continue to alienate voters. It seems likely that they will. Scholz, for instance, has tried to dismiss the AfD as a ‘bad-tempered party’, which worships the past and appeals to insecure people.
The CDU’s Friedrich Merz seemed to have a better understanding of the national mood when he wrote that ‘a large majority of the population’ were fed up with the identitarian ideology that has been embraced by the governing elites. But despite Merz’s criticism of the government’s worst excesses, his party has voted for most of the coalition’s policies. And it was under Angela Merkel’s leadership that many of Germany’s destructive green policies took root. The conservatives can often be as green and as woke as their ‘progressive’ rivals.
If the rise of the AfD shows anything, it’s that Germans’ patience with the establishment is growing incredibly thin.
Sabine Beppler-Spahl is spiked’s Germany correspondent.
Picture by: Getty.