BERLIN — “Germany. But normal.”
That’s the message the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is taking into this September’s federal election. Hundreds of elected officials and party members met last weekend in Dresden to introduce their new messaging and debate their official party platform.
The slogan is as much a statement about the kind of world the AfD pitches to its voters—hearkening back to a simpler, better time before globalization, a wave of refugee arrivals and a pandemic—as it is about how the AfD hopes it and its positions will be perceived in the German political landscape.
Meanwhile, the party approved its most radical platform yet: In addition to doubling down on its demand that Germany leave the European Union, AfD delegates voted to end family reunification for refugees, ban the construction of minarets, implement a strict Japan-style immigration system and repeal the current mask mandate, among other positions.
“In the end, it’s a contradiction,” Johannes Hillje, a political consultant and expert on the AfD’s rhetorical tactics, told me. “The communication strategy is directed toward the center, but in terms of content they’re moving even further to the right and getting more radical.”
Germans will go to the polls in September to elect a new parliament and, by extension, a new chancellor. After 16 years with Angela Merkel at the helm, the election will represent a major turning point in German politics—not least because the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic has upended political polling and put Merkel’s long-ascendant Christian Democrats (CDU) on the defensive. Five and a half months out, the campaign is beginning in earnest: With both the CDU on the verge of choosing their chancellor candidate and the Greens having just done so, the electoral field is starting to take shape.
For the AfD, the stakes in September’s elections are high. After a difficult year, the party is looking to recoup its losses and prove it can reach the same levels of support it had in the 2017 election. It’s a tall order: The pandemic is the only recent “crisis” in German politics it hasn’t been able to clearly exploit for its own benefit. The dynamics of pandemic politics, combined with the domestic intelligence service’s impending surveillance of the entire party, mean AfD leaders have reason to be nervous.
Two years ago, the future looked quite different for the AfD: In May of that year, the partyAfD won 11 percent of the vote in the European parliament elections, a slight drop from its 2017 federal election result but still a 4 percent increase over the support it had received in the 2014 European elections. That fall, itthe party made significant gains in state elections in eastern Germany, becoming the second-largest party in Saxony (27.5 percent), Brandenburg (23.5 percent) and Thuringia (23.4 percent).
In February 2020, the AfD showed its penchant for disruption in another way: Its actions helped break a major taboo in Thuringia, where it voted with other right-of-center parties to oust the state’s left-wing premier. That alliance sparked national outrage and upended internal politics within Merkel’s CDU. Just two weeks later, a deadly far-right attack targeting shisha bars that killed nineelected people in the central city of Hanau drew attention to how the AfD’s rhetoric emboldens violent extremists.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. At the outset, the AfD seemed unsure how it should react: Some of its politicians initially called for stricter measures to fight the virus while others dismissed COVID-19 as nothing more than a flu. It wasn’t until the summer that the party coalesced around a more unified message of opposing government pandemic measures. What’s more, with attention focused on the virus, the AfD’s top issue—refugee policy and migration—all but disappeared from the headlines.
The AfD has since built itself up as the sole political party opposed to what it calls Merkel’s “corona dictatorship,” unofficially joining forces with the Querdenken movement and other protests against government measures. Marching in Berlin last summer, AfD politicians appeared to have no problem rubbing shoulders with conspiracy theorists.
But embracing the small but vocal anti-coronavirus measures opposition has failed to boost the AfD electorally like the influx of refugees did in 2015 and 2016. Indeed, the opposite has been true for most of the last year. Its support began dropping in the polls as the pandemic took hold last spring, and more than a year later, the party is still struggling to get back to where it was in early 2020. Even as the public has begun to sour on the government’s handling of the pandemic in recent weeks, the AfD has been only a modest beneficiary of the electorate’s shifting mood.
The party’s pandemic-era fortunes have had an impact at the ballot box. In mid-March, voters in two western German states, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, dealt the AfD significant losses. In Baden-Württemberg it lost more than a third of its support compared with 2016, dropping from 15.1 percent to just 9.7 percent. And in Rhineland-Palatinate, where the party’s support tends to track closely to what it wins nationally, it went from 12.6 percent to 8.3 percent.
The pandemic has merely sped up a process that was already underway: The AfD’s voter base is hardening and the party is radicalizing. As Hillje puts it, “we see a consolidation rather than a collapse of the party.”
Amid the headlines about the pandemic last year, stories about the party’s direction and internal fights often passed by unnoticed or got less attention than they otherwise should have. Last March, for example, as the first wave of the pandemic hit Europe, the AfD announced that its even more far-right faction known as “Wing” would be disbanded. Eager to avoid surveillance by the German domestic intelligence service, which had already declared the “Wing” a “suspected case” of extremist activity, more moderate party leaders made a concerted effort to at least improve the party’s image.
That’s meant the perennial internal battle within the AfD—between so-called moderates and the far-right radicals—has only intensified since the start of the pandemic. The party “is more divided internally than ever before,” the journalists Katja Bauer and Maria Fiedler write in their new book, The AfD Method. “The bitter internal disputes have paralyzed the party and prevent it from working through strategic questions.”
Over the summer, the party leadership narrowly voted to kick out Andreas Kalbitz, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Brandenburg. He had allegedly lied about his past involvement in neo-Nazi youth organizations, which was a step too far for some in the party. Removing Kalbitz gave party leaders an easy example to point to when they say they don’t tolerate any extremism within their ranks—while leaders like Höcke retain their loose ties with Germany’s network of extreme-right groups.
The blowback from the more radical far-right wing of the party has been fierce, however. At a fall party conference in the western German city of Kalkar, delegates booed party leader Jörg Meuthen when he called for a more moderate tone on the pandemic. There was even speculation Meuthen could be voted out of the party leadership, though that has not yet happened. Meanwhile, more radical members are winning election to leadership at local and state levels across the country; In Berlin, the new party leader was elected with support of the far-right “Wing.”
Ultimately, the efforts of Meuthen and others to avoid surveillance by the domestic intelligence service appear to have failed: The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV for short, will indeed declare the entire party a “suspected case” of extremism, media outlets reported earlier this year.
That may ultimately serve only to strengthen the AfD’s far-right wing. At the party convention last weekend, it was easy to see where the influence is trending: Many of the radical proposals that ultimately passed did so at Höcke’s urging. More supposedly moderate leaders, like Meuthen, saw their influence diminished.
“The whole conference was a victory for the extremists in the party regarding the manifesto,” Hillje said. “Especially Björn Höcke showed his power within the party.”
As things stand now, the AfD stands to either see modest losses or maintain its previous level of support. Most opinion polling shows it around 11 percent, down from the 12.6 percent it won back in the 2017 federal elections but easily within the margin of error.
With its “Germany. But normal” slogan, the party is making a play for voters across the spectrum: Like their frequent focus on protecting the Heimat, or homeland, the new messaging is purposely vague. “Normal” can mean different things to different voters—and played right, could be persuasive to both protest voters (who see the party’s radicalization and aren’t especially bothered) as well as the die-hard right-wing voters (who see the party’s radicalization and are totally on board).
It’s hard to make long-term predictions about the AfD’s trajectory; even keeping an eye on September is difficult with the pandemic situation still so volatile. If the current loss of trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic continues and the vaccine campaign sees further delays, the AfD could stand to benefit. If things improve and Merkel’s CDU regains some trust, the AfD may find its newfound identity as the “anti-lockdown” party less relevant and less helpful.
Meanwhile, the BfV’s decision to put the party under surveillance may scare off some more centrist voters who might otherwise vote for the party out of frustration or a desire for protest, even if the development has little effect on the AfD’s core voter base.
But the conversations I’ve had with party officials and supporters over the years, from Görlitz on the eastern border with Poland to Gelsenkirchen in Germany’s former coal country to an AfD stronghold in Höcke’s home state of Thuringia, have convinced me the AfD isn’t going anywhere in the near future. As long as it can continue to be a home for Germany’s far-right activists and channel the frustration of enough German voters, particularly in the east, it will remain a factor in political life.