This Sunday, Germans will head to the polls to choose their national elected officials following a subdued, no-frills campaign. Angela Merkel is expected to cruise to victory and continue her 12-year reign as Chancellor, and the latest polls show her party, the Christian Democratic Union, will likely win with 36.2 percent of the vote. Only 22.1 percent favor the main opposition, Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party.
But the real focus in Germany during this election hasn’t been on the Christian Democrats or Schulz’s Socialists. It’s been on Alternative for Germany (AfD), a four year old nationalist party that’s currently polling third, at 10.5 percent. That’s enough to pass the 5 percent threshold the German Bundestag (equivalent to the House of Representatives) requires, which means that Germany is likely to send far-right delegates to the Bundestag for the first time since 1945.
Given the country’s history, the rise of AfD has caused hand-wringing across the country and serves as evidence that the far-right populists in Europe haven’t receded, as the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands suggested.
“Europe should be concerned,” right-wing populist expert Timo Lochocki told the Washington Post. “The world should be concerned”.
Who are AfD?
Alternative for Germany’s nationalist themes are clear the minute you arrive on its official website. Photos showing Germany’s many landscapes slide across the screen with slogans like “Our home”, “Our Germany”, and “Our culture.” The party launched in 2013 as a reaction to the Eurozone crisis and promised to abandon the Euro and re-introduce the Deutschmark. Since then though, the party has grown increasingly nationalist — so much so that AfD’s first leader, Bernd Lucke, left the party in 2015 saying that it had become too xenophobic. It is currently led by 42-year-old former chemist Frauke Petry.
The party’s manifesto talks at length about how the topics of asylum and immigration “are characterized by an ideologically-biased climate of political correctness, accompanied by banned terms and newspeak” and how “Islam’s expansion and the ever-increasing number of Muslims in the country are…a danger to our state, our society and our values.” In June, Björn Höcke, a senior member of the party, attacked the Holocaust memorial in Berlin saying, “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.”
The dangers AfD presents
What scares AfD’s opponents most is that, like Trump’s election and Brexit, they have helped push marginal, far-right factions which have previously received only minimal political support into the national spotlight. Far-right parties like the German People’s Union and the National Democratic Party of Germany have existed on the fringes of German politics, with no representation on a national level, thanks in part to the 5 percent threshold that prevents many from entering the Bundestag. But AfD’s rise has now emboldened many of these nationalists and given them a high platform to spread their hate — and, perhaps more alarmingly, given them a space to raise money for the cause.
An example occurred in July, in the sleepy town of Themar in central Germany, where 6,000 AfD supporters descended to attend a right rock (rechtsrock) concert, “Rock Against Foreign Infiltration.” The event was made possible by local mayor Bodo Dressel, who was a member of AfD until the Restrock scandal broke.
According to Deutsche Welle, attendees chanted “Sieg heil” and police eventually brought dozens of charges against fans for weapons possession and violating laws on Nazi symbolism.
Henning Flad, project director of the Federal Working Group for the Church and Right-Wing Radicalism, told DW that, while the event took in around 300,000 and 400,000 euros ($344,000 to $458,000), the more pressing issue was how widespread the far right trend was becoming outside of the venue.
“…Thanks to this well-attended concert, [the rise of far right rhetoric and extremist musics] has become more visible,” Flad said. Extremism expert Jan Raabe agreed, noting that the music scene in particular had given the troubling political ideology a bigger boost.
“What we, of course, don’t know is how many young people have this sort of music on MP3 players and other devices,” Raabe warned.
Thuringia State Premier Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party told the outlet that the concert — an apparent fundraising effort — was “intolerable.”
“I find it intolerable that they staged a giant right-wing extremist rock festival under the guise of a demonstration and earned money for their political network while all the costs were passed on to taxpayers,” he said, referring to the local police presence.
What has propelled their rise?
While AfD started out in reaction to the continuing Eurozone crisis, it has seized upon immigration in reaction to Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders and allow approximately 1 million asylum seekers into the country.
Fake news and hysteria surrounding refugee issues have fueled AfD’s rise, as in the case of “Lisa F”, a 13-year old Russian speaking girl in Berlin who was allegedly raped numerous times by “southern-looking” asylum seekers. German police later investigated and concluded that Lisa F was neither abducted nor raped, but the narrative proved useful to the right wing extremists nonetheless.
The number of people claiming asylum in Germany is, in actuality, down considerably — from a 890,000 in 2015 to 280,000 in 2016 and 90,389 in 2017. Merkel herself acknowledged that the refugee influx created strains, but has said she stands by her decision. The economic success of Germany – 3.7 percent unemployment, rising wages and a budget surplus – also strengthens her hand and helps blunt the far right message. But it hasn’t been enough to stop them.
What does this mean for Germany?
Despite Merkel’s likely win on Sunday, the rise of AfD should still be cause for concern — not only because it shows how global the right-wing populist message is, but also because Merkel has repeatedly been touted as one of the last defenders of the liberal world order. It also shows how dissatisfaction with the current political climate transcends — and can spread past — borders. “The AfD is like a vacuum cleaner for those unsatisfied with the other parties,” Nico Siegel, head of the infratest dimap German polling agency, told the Washington Post.
As Trump and the United Kingdom’s protracted Brexit struggle have shown, there’s a big difference between campaigning on a populist platform and implementing your promises. But because of Germany’s history of extremism –most notably the rise of the Nazi Party in 1920, later stamped out by the end of World War II in 1945 — there’s an understandable apprehension about a far-right party joining the Bundestag or even coming close.
“We felt we had learnt our lesson with racism and fascism, it’s scary to see that there might be quite a lot of people out there channeling their anger in the AfD’s direction,” Khue Pham, political editor at Die Zeit, told Al Jazeera. “A lot of Germans have a sense that our government is like an anchor for the world.”