Shortly before the 2013 Bundestag elections, I produced together with colleagues a first expert report for the Heinrich Böll Foundation in North Rhine-Westphalia on the AfD in the context of wider research on right-wing populism.
The publication of this study provoked not only an unusually wide response but considerable indignation among supporters of the AfD. The forms in which this indignation found expression – via email or in Internet fora – often carried a pronounced tone of the right-leaning angry and exasperated middle classes. The slogan ‘courage for truth’ here turned out to be an empty phrase justifying the public expression of denigrating remarks: the dictum of ‘surely it’s still permissible to say that’ was used to claim the right to express right-wing bar-room clichés and to discriminate against others. Often, the demand for ‘freedom of expression’ turned out to be a demand for licence to articulate right-leaning resentments. In the course of carrying out the study it became clear to us that for some of its members the AfD serves as a kind of party political vehicle for articulating pent-up anger at the growth of pluralism and emancipatory liberalisation tendencies in society.
Some of the findings of our study came as a surprise to us, too. I would like to briefly identify three central points:
- Unlike in many neighbouring European countries, the public debate here over the threat from the right focuses on far-right extremism openly hostile to the constitution. For this reason, many of the disputes over how right-wing the AfD is revolve around the influence of far-right groups like the NPD – but in my view this places too much emphasis on this issue. It may be true that this new party undoubtedly has a problem with neo-Nazis and with the self-declared extreme right in its ranks; but the problem with its fundamental orientation is not one of anti-constitutional extremism but the fact that the AfD is preparing to occupy the populist right-wing gap in the German party political landscape that has been vacant until now. In other words: even without radical right-wingers in its ranks, the AfD represents a new party political challenge for our democratic civil society.
- And this contains within it a further insight: although the AfD has profited until now from the bonus of being a new party political ‘alternative’, it represents in terms of content the diametrical opposite. For despite its populist polemicizing against the ‘old parties’ the AfD positions itself as a literally reactionary movement in response to a pluralist and multicultural immigration society. Its propaganda and policy statements represent a return, in the spirit of national liberalism and national conservatism, to the period of the ‘intellectual and moral turning point’ with its appeals to national identity, to anti-feminism and opposition to social emancipation, augmented by New Right slogans against dual citizenship, equal rights for homosexuals, gender mainstreaming, pacifism, anti-racism, anti-nationalism and the acknowledgement of Germany as a multicultural immigration society.
- This is accompanied by a national(istic) and regressively-based alarmism that invokes the loss of ‘national identity’ and the suppression of ‘national interests’ due to the supposedly unpatriotic and unpopular policies of the ‘old parties’. In this context something became clear to us which we at first found surprising: within the AfD there is a widespread perception that the political party which best incorporates the tendency towards the ‘dissolution’ of prevailing notions of national as well as sexual, familial and social order is not the Left but the Greens. The Green Party, as can be seen in countless comments on AfD supporters’ fora, symbolizes the ‘corrosive power of emancipation’ – which is also the title of a polemical pamphlet about the Greens in a series published by the New Right ‘Institut für Staatspolitik (IfS)’. The IfS is affiliated to the New Right weekly ‘Junge Freiheit (JF)’, which has become a kind of informal party newspaper of the AfD. The self-declared mission of JF is that of establishing a national liberal/national conservative force to the right of the CDU/CSU. This necessitates breaking through the ‘left-wing hegemony’ in the media and politics whose most successful agent is considered to be the Green party, which is why it has been built up into the ‘main enemy’ by the right in this culture war. The AfD’s electoral successes represent for these nationalistic-New Right forces the first realistic party political opportunity for decades to make progress towards their goal of a re-nationalisation of politics together with the social restoration of an anti-emancipatory ideology.
Eastern German electoral successes
Now that the AfD has followed up its breakthrough into the European Parliament by comfortably winning seats in the eastern German Land parliaments of Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia, it faces a new challenge. Whereas at first it was able to make a populist impression simply as a protest party opposed to all the others, which were dismissed as ‚old parties‘, now it has to demonstrate that it can function as a political actor. This task confronts the AfD – which owes its success to date purely to the exploitation of favourable unearned political opportunities, such as Merkel’s mantra about the absence of any alternative to the Euro rescue policy, and the repercussions of the Sarrazin debate – with a fundamental test of its capacity to act in the world of (Real-)politics. Instead of simply occupying the party political space for right-wing populism, the AfD now has to demonstrate that it can offer a genuine ‘alternative’ in a party political sense. In view of massive internal conflicts and a pool of competent personnel that is at best meagre, this amounts to an existential challenge.
The securing of its political position at the regional level is proceeding in tandem with a broadening of the AfD‘s political programme, which aims to position it ever more clearly as a party compatible with the right-wing populist theories of the successful author Thilo Sarrazin. Despite serious internal party conflicts, the electoral successes of the AfD demonstrate a trend towards political consolidation which accompanies the securing of its party political position to the right of the established conservative parties. The European elections led to the creation of a bloc sharing a nationalist economic approach and made up of Eurosceptics with market fundamentalist and national conservative tendencies; it includes the AfD together with the right-wing populist ‘Finns Party’ and the ‘Danish People’s Party (DPP)’, under the Parliamentary Group name of ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’. Contrary to the pledge made before the election to maintain a distance from right-wing populist parties, AfD national spokesperson Bernd Lucke announced this alliance with national conservatives and right-wing populists in the ECR Group as a victory over those “who want to place the AfD in the right-wing corner”.
The dusted-off relics of nationalism
In the aristocrat Beatrix von Storch, the AfD has sent to the European Parliament a politician with a curious interpretation of democracy. In her candidate’s speech for the European elections von Storch declared “democracy only works at the national level. It is not possible at international level. It means ‘the rule of the people’ – that is, of one people, not ‘the rule of the peoples.” That sounds like a dusted-off relic from the attic of 1950s nationalism.
And in Marcus Pretzell the European Parliament has an AfD delegate with no qualms about contacts with the right-wing populists of UKIP. For instance, he appeared at an event organised by the youth wing of AfD in Cologne in the spring of 2014 to which the UKIP leader Nigel Farage was invited as the main speaker.
But a successful entry into the German Land parliaments was even more important to the AfD than winning their first seats in the European Parliament. The more than just hesitant negative stance towards the possibility of coalition arrangements that was adopted by the ruling CDU – one which on the national spectrum stands far to the right – helped the AfD to achieve their entry in Saxony almost in double figures, way ahead of the Greens and close to the vote share of the SPD. Moreover, the party’s election manifesto for the Saxon elections shows clear signs of a strategic push in a right-wing populist direction – for example the call for referendums on the construction of mosques with minarets, and for a quota for German language songs on the radio and television. Such calls were augmented by questionable ideas for dual votes for parents in elections: according to press reports, Frauke Petry, a member of the AfD governing board in Saxony, thought that “parents should in future have voting rights for their dependent children”.
Furthermore, the more than 13,000 votes from former NPD voters in the Saxony elections show that this success was won by holding to a firm right-wing course. Something similar happened again in the Land parliament elections in Thuringia and Brandenburg: the AfD election campaign, with its typically right-wing populist slogans against crime and against asylum, showed a striking similarity to the calls emanating from the NPD.
Striking similarity to the calls of the NPD
A further sign of a more decisive move to the right can be seen in the Patriotic Platform set up by AfD members in January 2014. In its founding appeal, the Patriotic Platform attacks “the creation of a multicultural society on its [Germany’s] soil”. The invitation to the FPÖ strategist Andreas Mölzer to take part in a discussion event – which in the end did not take place because of the public scandal provoked – came from these circles. The appeal to ‘national identity’ seems to be developing into the AfD‘s central theme. For instance, the lead candidate for the AfD in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, gave a long interview to the New Right paper ‘Blaue Narzisse’ (Blue Narcissus) under the heading ‘The AfD as a force for identity’ in which he elevated the “issue of identity to the central issue for humanity in the 21st century” because it is “the key to economic and ecological homeostasis, that is, the achievement of balance in a society through self-regulation”. And further: “Germans and Europeans have a responsibility to rediscover the value of their advanced civilization”. In addition he expressed his support for Sarrazin‘s Islamophobic populism in the following sentences: “Thilo Sarrazin once said that if he wanted to hear the Muezzin’s call he would travel to the Orient. There is nothing to add to that.”
The AfD as a ‘Catch-all’ party?
In commentary on the eastern German elections in the public media, the claim was repeatedly made that the AfD had won over swing voters from all other parties. This is only true if the Greens are excluded. The Greens are – this is my thesis – not only the symbolic enemy for AfD supporters; supporters of the Greens are at the same time and by some distance the group on the party political spectrum most immune to AfD propaganda. There is much room for speculation as to the reasons for this. Social issues offer a useful starting point, and at the same time a new challenge for Green politics in its dealings with the Right. For the AfD has no scruples about presenting itself in eastern German elections, contrary to its policies, as the ‘advocate’ for the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged by offering them both a voice for protest and a target for that protest – the ‘old parties’ and the immigrants. In addition, the mixture is enriched with regressive and nostalgic references in populist style to the supposed blessings of GDR security policy. The Greens, by contrast, find their supporters in political, social and cultural milieus diametrically different to those of the AfD – which can be viewed either as a boon or as a challenge. For if politics is understood in part as the responsibility to help the socially disadvantaged and excluded and the ‘ordinary people’ to their rights and their dignity, then the Green Party too is confronted with the task of developing a new political programme to offer these classes and milieus. Its special status vis-à-vis the AfD means that it can play a leading role in this confrontational political argument.
The complete text of the study Die “Alternative für Deutschland” – eine rechtspopulistische Partei by Alexander Häusler can be downloaded from the website of the Landesstiftung NRW.
This article was originally published in German by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.