The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party sees every reason to celebrate: It has been in the Bundestag since 2017 and is represented in 15 of 16 state parliaments. Opinion polls currently put it at 13% voter support overall. In the east of the country, it is well above that.
The AfD has evolved from its early days, when it was dismissed as a party catering to economics professors, into a “far-right party that is extremist, antisemitic and racist,” according to political scientist Ursula Münch in an interview with DW.
At the time of its founding, the AfD was critical of the euro currency and the EU bailout program for Greece. In September 2012, the “Election Alternative 2013” was formed — the precursor to the AfD. Economics professor Bernd Lucke, journalist Konrad Adam and former CDU member Alexander Gauland then turned it into the “Alternative for Germany.”
The party was officially founded on February 6, 2013. Since then, “the AfD has become a permanent fixture in the German party system, where a decidedly liberal-conservative force had previously been sorely lacking,” writes AfD co-chair Alice Weidel in response to a DW query.
The party fast became a rallying point for people with right-wing attitudes for whom existing far-right extremist splinter groups seemed too extreme, but who had become disenchanted with the liberal tendencies of the center-right Christian Democrats under Angela Merkel.
From the beginning, the AfD comprised three different movements: the liberal economists, the national conservatives and right-wing populists.
Two of the three founding members have long since turned their backs on the party. And that, too, has become a distinctive feature of the AfD: the frequent change of leadership. It is a “divided party that often sees battles erupt between its leadership and its grassroots,” political scientist Münch says.
From economic liberal to right-wing to far-right
The party’s radicalization began when hundreds of thousands of people fled to Germany in 2015, seeking protection from the war in Syria. Xenophobic anti-refugee street protests began to grow, especially in eastern Germany, the former communist GDR, which had known little immigration until 1989.
AfD founding member Alexander Gauland once referred to this development as “a gift” for his party, whose anti-government rhetoric turned increasingly aggressive. In 2016, then-AfD leader Frauke Petry said refugees should be prevented from crossing the border into Germany by force of arms if necessary.
In early June 2018, Gauland, who was the party’s parliamentary group leader, triggered outrage across the country when he trivialized the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust. Speaking at a party event, he said that “Hitler and the Nazis were no more than a speck of bird’s shit in over 1,000 years of successful history.”
Political scientist Münch explains that the AfD’s success also comes from the fact that “such radical statements go down quite well with parts of the population: those who applaud AfD politicians for daring to speak out and ruffle the feathers of the political establishment.”
AfD politicians’ radical statements put the German security authorities on alert. In March 2021, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) — the domestic intelligence service — classified the entire party as a “suspected right-wing extremist case.”
“Der Flügel” (the wing), an extremist faction of the AfD, has been determined in court to be right-wing extremist, which means its members can be put under state surveillance. This may include the employment of undercover investigators and the tapping of telephone conversations.
Alice Weidel believes this is “a blatant party-political instrumentalization of the domestic intelligence service.” Political scientist Ursula Münch, on the other hand, says the AfD has indeed “by and large, become an extreme right-wing party.”
Only this week, the pollster infratest dimap asked voters how they see the AfD. Seventy-five percent of respondents feel the AfD does not sufficiently distance itself from extreme-right positions.
A party of men
The AfD has just under 80,000 members. That is roughly the same as the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest party in the current three-way coalition government. The largest party is the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has around 380,000 members.
More than 80% of all AfD members are men. A representative online survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation in the summer of 2020 found that 29% of AfD voters hold far-right beliefs. Among AfD voters, xenophobia, antisemitism and a penchant for authoritarian regimes are much more widespread than among supporters of other parties.
Most recently, the AfD has come out in support of Russia, which has been waging a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine for a year and with which party leaders have long had friendly relations. Weidel has spoken out against the idea of putting Vladimir Putin before a war crimes tribunal or imposing sanctions on Russia. From the start, AfD lawmakers have categorically opposed arms deliveries to Ukraine. Weidel has, for instance, criticized the fact that Germany will now supply Leopard tanks to Ukraine as a “disastrous decision.”
Infratest dimap pollsters found that this goes down well only with some voters: Only 13% of respondents in western Germany think it is good that the AfD shows understanding for Russian positions in the Ukraine war. In the eastern regions, the figure is almost twice as high, at 25%.
Next goal: Government participation
After 10 years in opposition, the AfD has its sights set firmly on government participation. It may not be within reach on the federal level, but AfD leaders believe they have a chance in the eastern German states. There, the AfD regularly wins over 20% of the vote, especially in rural, remote regions.
According to the latest polls, it is even the strongest party in the eastern German states of Saxony and Thuringia. Elections will be held there next year. “Participating in government will be the next logical step,” Weidel told DW.
The AfD sees the CDU as a possible coalition partner. The conservatives, however, have ruled out such coalitions, even passing resolutions to that effect at party conferences.
But that resistance may be waning. In Thuringia, the CDU, AfD and FDP have just teamed up to force through legislation in defiance of the left-wing minority government of the post-communist Left Party, environmentalist Greens and center-left SPD.
According to political scientist Münch, many regional CDU representatives are already asking “quietly and not so quietly” what is actually “so bad” about the AfD. Should an AfD-CDU alliance actually come about, however, it “would be a very big conflict for the CDU,” she predicts.
The AfD has lavish plans for its birthday celebrations in Königstein im Taunus, not far from Frankfurt. But protesters are set to turn out in numbers there, too. The “Stand up against racism” alliance has announced its intention to demonstrate at the venue. “The AfD is a serious threat to democracy and to everyone who does not fit into its right-wing worldview,” the alliance’s executive director, Irmgard Wurdack, told the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Thursday.
Political scientist Ursula Münch begs to differ. She says the existence of the AfD proves the stability of German democracy and the parliamentary system. She is of the opinion that the AfD’s 10 years of existence show how strong and flexible the German party system is and that the entire spectrum of political opinion can be and is represented in Germany’s parliament.