The “Alternative for Germany”

Factors Behind its Emergence and Profile of a New Right-wing Populist Party

in German Politics and Society


Until 2013, right-wing populist or extremist parties were unable to establish themselves as a relevant political force in Germany. With the advent of the Alternative für Deutschland the party landscape has changed significantly. The window of opportunity for the newcomer was opened in 2013 by the Euro crisis. Combining euroskepticism with liberal economic policies and a conservative social issue agenda the AfD mainly capitalized on the neglecting of these matters by the liberal party and the Christian democrats. Controversy between the market-oriented moderate wing represented by party founder Bernd Lucke and the radical advocates of national populism led to the split off of the former in July 2015. Only with the refugee crisis did the AfD regain its electoral fortunes and obtained its best results thus far in the March 2016 state elections. Most probably, the party’s prospects will remain promising if one considers the voter’s side. The main risks lie in its own ranks, where ideological battles, personal struggles and the unresolved question of how to distance the party from right-wing extremism could further self-destruction.

The Advent of a New Challenger in the German Party System1

For most of its history, the Federal Republic of Germany has proven to be a blank space on the map of European right-wing populism. While some right-wing populist and extremist parties have occasionally been successful at the ballot box since the mid 1980s in Germany as well, those triumphs were primarily limited to the regional realm of state elections without leading to the permanent establishment of a right-wing populist party at the national level.2 The rise of the euro(pe)skeptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) has changed this. Having come up just short of crossing the five percent threshold in the 2013 federal election, the newcomer achieved its first remarkable electoral success in the European elections in May 2014, winning 7.1 percent of the vote a little over a year after the party’s founding. Even better electoral showings were obtained by the AfD in subsequent regional elections in the eastern German states of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia. Support was more limited in state elections in Hamburg (6.1 percent) and Bremen (5.5 percent), which nonetheless allowed the party to enter its first state parliaments in the western part of the country as well.

While the arrival of this new kind of right-wing populism within the German party system represents an adjustment that places it more in line with its (western) European neighbors and their respective established right-wing populist parties, the question remains why this phenomenon had failed to materialize and establish organizational structures in Germany until recently. Work in the comparative field has demonstrated that certain societal crisis constellations—what American historian Lawrence Goodwyn3 refers to as “populist moments”—are usually a prerequisite for the spawning of such parties and movements. In the AfD’s case, the euro and financial crisis played that role. It opened the window of opportunity for a new euroskeptic party whose primary policy demands—a controlled dissolution of the monetary union and the rejection of a further deepening of the European integration process—lent themselves to the attachment of a broader right-wing populist platform to it.

A closer inspection of the party’s origins reveals its ability to draw on an already existing network of social and political structures in this task. The party therefore did not have to start from scratch after its official establishment in April 2013.4 Among others, a few of its predecessors both at the party and mass levels are: The Bund freier Bürger (League of Free Citiziens), a euroskeptic party founded in the wake of the 1993 signing of the Maastricht Treaty and disbanded once again in 2000, the Hayek Gesellschaft (Hayek Society), the Initative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (Initiative for a New Social Market Economy), the Bündnis Bürgerwille (Alliance of the Citizens’ Will), the Wahlalternative 2013, and the fundamentalist-Christian campaign network Zivile Koalition (Civil Coalition) set up by Beatrix von Storch. The latter serves to illustrate that from the outset, the AfD’s political path was built upon a fusion of economically liberal and socially conservative/nationalist positions.

New parties either emerge from within society or after a split from an existing party. The latter also applies to the AfD with certain reservations. Many of its former and current leading figures used to call the center-right camp (CDU and FDP) their home, albeit failing to ever make it past its “second row.” Bernd Lucke, the party’s most well-known face until his departure in July 2015 and a member of the triumvirate that founded the party along with Alexander Gauland and Konrad Adam, for example, turned his back on the cdu because of its policies during the Eurozone crisis while Gauland pointed to his negative experiences as part of the “Berlin Circle”—an alliance of conservative members within the cdu that was openly opposed by party leader Angela Merkel and her then Secretary-General Hermann Gröhe (Gauland had been a member of the cdu for forty years and was chief of the Hessian State Chancellery between 1987 and 1991). On his part, the former president of the Federation of German Industries Hans-Olaf Henkel found his way into the AfD from the fdp via a short excursion to the Freie Wähler (Free Voters).

Such tendencies to part ways with the cdu and fdp are easy to understand if the changes undergone by both parties over the last one-and-a-half decades are kept in mind. The fdp failed to pick up the euroskeptic mantle after party members narrowly lent support to the government’s Eurozone rescue policies in an internal party referendum. In other issue areas as well, the party lacked the ability to provide a counterweight to the Christian Democrats by staking out independent positions (for example on tax policy).5 Under the leadership of Angela Merkel, the cdu has on its part adopted a more social democratic position on economic policy matters by completely renouncing the liberal reform agenda that Merkel had herself initially still championed. At the same time, the party has kept on moving to the center on sociocultural matters, discarding long-held family policy and social issue preferences, ranging from the recognition of same-sex civil unions to the introduction of a gender quota in the boardrooms of German companies and supporting a modern immigration law—changes that place the party firmly in line with the contemporary zeitgeist. Through their programmatic course of action, both center-right parties thereby created an opening that the AfD has been able to successfully exploit.

Attempts at identifying the roots and reasons behind the party’s success have to invariably also incorporate the “Sarrazin debate.” Using his book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany does away with itself)6 to advance several propositions concerning the supposed failure of immigration and integration policies, spd politician and former member of the Executive Board of the Bundesbank Thilo Sarrazin launched a national debate that held the country captive for several weeks during the summer of 2010—a debate that played an instrumental role in paving the way for the entry of right-wing populism into the discursive space. Sarrazin continued in this role as he also employed its programmatic formula in books on the Eurozone crisis and political correctness. One can therefore consider him to be a kind of spiritus rector of the AfD and wonder why he has remained a member of the spd instead of joining the right-wing populists.

Ideological Placement and Political Objectives

In the AfD’s case, the categorization as a right-wing populist party has been a point of contention—among scholars as well—from the very beginning. From the party’s point of view, its rigorous attempts to cast off the label are only too understandable. After entering the European Parliament, the AfD for example did its utmost to be admitted into the conservative parliamentary group primarily made up of British Tory MEPs and representatives from the Polish Law and Justice Party—all of this against the expressed wishes of Angela Merkel who even approached David Cameron to make the case against allowing the AfD into their parliamentary group. The AfD wanted to avoid any sort of association with parties such as ukip and their general euroskeptic stance—let alone the hard core of European right-wing populism: France’s National Front, Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord), Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang), or the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid).

The problematic nature of the right-wing populist label is rooted in its role as not just a mere scientific analytical category but its additional frequent injections into political debates with strong connotations.7 The latter cannot be a sufficient reason though to avoid its scientific usage. Some observers wanted to avoid labeling the AfD as right-wing populist by citing feuds regarding the party’s personnel as well as internal debates about the future path of the party as evidence of it consisting of three fundamentally incompatible currents: an economically liberal, a national-conservative, and a right-wing populist one.8 This approach is based on a misconception since these currents are not just compatible with one another but to a certain extent even intertwined. Combined they constitute the programmatic and electoral “winning formula” of new right-wing parties into which euroskeptic positions can be integrated effortlessly. In this relationship, populism serves as the overarching theme. It stands for the anti-establishment orientation of the party, already illustrated by the “Alternative” in its name along with its self-conception as speaking for the “real” people or at least the silent majority among them. Evidence of this can be found in numerous comments made on the campaign trail by AfD politicians, showcasing a political stance either intentionally or unintentionally glossed over in the party’s rather moderate election manifestos. Moreover, the AfD shares the European right-wing populist mainstream’s demand for more direct democratic participation on the basis of what the party refers to as the “Swiss model,” a call rooted in the general criticism of the contemporary political system.

The party’s economically liberal and conservative positions do not contradict each other either. They have been fused into a brand of national populism that seeks to on the one hand, defend the wealth and economic standing of the nation and its inhabitants along with also putting a premium on competition—in the process creating a final product that emphasizes the superiority of the own national economic model over that of other nations and cultures. Economic problems faced by the Eurozone’s southern rim play into the hands of this line of argumentation as their misery can easily be presented as the negative counterpart to a supposedly virtuous Germany. The same applies to the AfD’s preferred concept of a meritocratic society that is juxtaposed with the existing welfare state, the former exemplified by an immigration policy solely guided by the economic benefits offered by would-be migrants. This approach can be found in both Christian-conservative as well as ordoliberal notions on social and political order.9

On economic issues, its liberal positions place it roughly in line with the fdp while its location on social issues is notably to the right of the cdu and slightly less so when compared to the CSU. The strong emphasis on a free market distinguishes the AfD from the solid core of Europe’s populist radical right, which tends to espouse protectionist and therefore economically leftist positions today. The conservative-authoritarian societal policy positions advocated for by right-wing populists can on the other hand also attract leftist voters whose own policy preferences on these issues are frequently to the right of the social democratic and socialist parties they generally favor (working class authoritarianism).

Answering whether the AfD is a part of the moderate or radical wing of the right-wing populist movement presents a more complicated challenge. Europe is home to both, as illustrated by the examples of the Front National on one and the Norwegian Progress Party on the other side. Fierce fights for the control over the AfD between both sides constituted a central part of the party’s internal debates from the outset. While the economic wing around Lucke and Henkel placed an emphasis on the topic of the euro and preferred an economically liberal orientation for the AfD, the “national-conservative” wing headed by Frauke Petry and Gauland sought to play up “identity politics,” favoring a more aggressively populist appeal to voters. Along with immigration, family and gender policies also took up a relatively prominent space.10 This constitutes a distinguishing feature compared to most other right-wing populist parties in Europe, with some of them—such as the Dutch PVV—even espousing liberal positions on sociocultural matters.11

Due to the initial dominance of the economic liberal wing within the party leadership ranks, the AfD’s official programmatic agenda—drawn up in the political guidelines and party manifestos for the German and European elections—continues to bear its handwriting.12 Electoral campaigns nonetheless revealed quite a different tone right away. This applied in particular to eastern Germany where the topic of national identity, coupled with xenophobic positions and a rigorous anti-establishment rhetoric promised greater electoral windfalls than in the west of the country. The fact that Lucke and fellow proponents of a more moderate path willingly allowed themselves to be drawn into this downward spiral of radicalization essentially indicts them as coconspirators in the AfD’s continuous shift towards more radical positions.

The 2013 federal election already revealed opposition by voters to immigration to be a stronger impetus for supporting the AfD than the euroskeptic positions that had been at the heart of the party’s manifesto.13 At the European elections, AfD-voters mentioned immigration just as frequently as a stable currency (40 and 41 percent respectively) when asked about the topic that determined their electoral choice. Among all voters this split stood at 13 and 29 percent. Other studies have shown AfD voters to be strongly motivated by feelings of protest rooted in their disenchantment with the current state of Germany’s democracy. Almost half of them agree with the proposition that “Germany needs a strong leader that can quickly decide on everything.”14 The prevalence of right-wing positions among the AfD’s electorate is also illustrated by its readiness to voice support for Dresden’s “Pegida” movement. Although AfD officials—to notably varying degrees15—distanced themselves from the movement due to its xenophobic and extremist tendencies, 76 percent of AfD voters expressed an understanding for the protests. Just 22 percent of the entire electorate held such a position; even among nonvoters, the share of Pegida sympathizers came in substantially lower at 36 percent.16

That the balance of power slowly but surely shifted away from the economically liberal to the national-conservative wing as all signs moreover pointed in the direction of a further radicalization in the wake of the European elections of 2014 was in no small part related to the decreasing salience of the Eurozone crisis, a topic that had served as the AfD’s raison d’être. The common currency crisis that had initially lent itself to being exploited and capitalized upon was eventually largely confined to Greece. The option of a “Grexit” would even be raised at the highest levels of government as it was no longer deemed to represent a threat of contagion to other crisis-struck countries or the eu in general. The AfD’s central demand had therefore been incorporated into the German government’s official policy—personified by the Christian Democratic finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Even on the campaign trail ahead of Hamburg’s state elections (in January and February of 2015), the topic of Greece merely played a supporting role despite the fact that a change in government in Athens had brought the subject of rescue packages to the fore once again. Owing to the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State and the increasing inflow of asylum seekers and refugees, the central right-wing populist concern of (national) identity began to play an ever larger and more prominent role. It therefore came as little surprise that the party eventually placed a central emphasis on this particular issue area seeing as it moreover also stood at the center of the newly established Pegida movement.

Internal Development and Party Split

Past internal differences in opinion within the AfD regarding the emphasis and specific thematic usage of right-wing populist ideas are nothing out of the ordinary. Battles between different currents over the correct path are a central component of any political party. Only those with strong wings can soar! The image may seem somewhat outdated but it nonetheless serves as a reminder that parties wishing to reach a broad segment of the electorate also require a certain programmatic breadth. There is a limit to this nonetheless. On the one hand, parties have the task of bringing together different positions to forge sensible compromises on policies and create an overarching concept that sets out the strategic path of the party. At the same time, infighting brought about by such policy differences have to avoid descending into power struggles between party leaders while also doing everything possible to preserve the image of a united party, essential in the struggle for electoral support. Lucke’s AfD failed on both counts. It was incapable of establishing a stable programmatic formula and a common approach in its appeals to voters because the favored policy positions of the party’s national-conservative wing inevitably diluted the boundaries between it and the country’s extreme right fringe. A distinct lack of experience and professionalism among both the upper echelons of the party and its rank-and-file moreover made it impossible to conduct policy discussions in a peaceful and conciliatory manner.

It is difficult to assess whether the party could have travelled down a different road. Part of the problem could undoubtedly be found in the person of Lucke who was neither willing nor capable of bridging ideological divides in order to keep the party united. The AfD’s founder was not just completely committed to the party’s moderate economically liberal wing; he also practiced an authoritarian leadership style that placed virtually no value on incorporating other positions and was therefore criticized as high-handed. As a slightly wonkish analytical leader he moreover lacked personal charisma. The significance of this absence should by no means be overstated though. As can be seen across Europe, charismatic leaders are no longer as prevalent at the top of right-wing populist parties as one might assume. Such a leadership style is generally more present during a party’s nascence. The subsequent period of consolidation has frequently seen parties emancipate themselves from their dependence on particular leading figures (and their charismatic traits) while adopting the organizational structure of mainstream parties.

The strict legal framework parties have to contend with in the Federal Republic leaves no alternative to an institutionalization anyway. German right-wing populists lack the capacity to establish a party run by a single dominant leader because the country’s constitution and political parties act place rigorous democratic requirements on a party’s “internal organization.” That the participatory rights provided to the party’s rank-and-file obstruct the task of building a party organization in a controlled manner is illustrated by the publicly waged battles over the direction and personal makeup of the AfD that preceded its split. Internal democratic stipulations therefore present a bigger impediment to the AfD’s success than Germany’s electoral law or its party financing provisions. This problem is exacerbated by the party’s plebiscitary understanding of democracy, which logically has to be applied to its internal organization as well. A corollary of this is the party’s decision to frequently ask members rather than delegates to cast a ballot on a variety of matters. Its model of having two or even three party leaders that stand on an equal footing is moreover an organizational element that has thus far only been employed by leftist parties in Germany (Greens and the Left Party).

The AfD’s rightward move was reinforced and helped by the fact that the first elections to follow the successful results at the federal and European level were held in east German states in the late summer of 2014. The party’s results there exceeded their performance in the west, which state branches interpreted as evidence that their decision to move the AfD’s central focus away from the euro towards a more extensive right-wing populist platform constituted the right course of action. Large numbers of former members of the Republikaner, the Schill-Party, and the German Freedom Party (“Die Freiheit”) joined the AfD, often rising through its ranks to enter various state executive committees. Internal quarrels befell virtually all state branches, prompting the federal leadership to expand its own powers and jurisdiction, which merely served to further enrage the base.17

By early 2015 it had become abundantly clear that the AfD’s leadership—primarily made up of representatives of its moderate wing—had lost the backing of the party’s membership base and other officials. Lucke attempted to regain control over the party by changing its charter and proposing a reduction in the number of party chairs from three to one (himself) after a short transitional period. The modification’s approval at the Bremen party conference in late January 2015 would prove to be a pyrrhic victory as it neither brought about an end to the now ever more bitterly contested internal power struggles nor prevent the election of Frauke Petry as party leader at the Essen party conference in early July 2015. In a last-ditch effort, Lucke tried to stave off his dismissal by assembling his supporters in a new splinter group—“Weckruf” (wake-up call) 2015—ahead of the party conference, a move that foreshadowed the eventual party split. Until the end of the August, around a fifth of the party’s 21,000 members would leave the AfD, as most members of its economic liberal wing, such as Henkel, Ulrike Trebesius, Bernd Kölmel, and Joachim Starbatty, joined the Lucke-led exodus. Members of the “wake-up call” overwhelmingly supported the establishment of a new euroskeptic party under Lucke’s leadership with the newly founded “Alliance for Progress and Renewal” (alfa) immediately appearing on the political stage in July 2015.

The prospects for this newcomer were from the outset rather dim. The March 2016 state elections in Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt saw it failing to garner more than one percent of the vote anywhere. Where could it have scored political points anyway? Chief among a number of challenges that the former AfD members had to contend with was the simple fact that its primary mobilization tool—criticism of the common currency—had disappeared from the headlines long before the refugee crisis even began to dominate the national political agenda in September 2015. Despite voicing similar anxieties concerning refugees and migrants, it was incapable of siphoning votes off the larger and significantly more vociferous AfD on the topic, as the fdp moreover also joined the chorus of Merkel critics who objected to her refugee policy.

Reaching New Electoral Heights Due to the Refugee Crisis

The crisis proved to be an unexpected gift for the AfD. Whereas infighting caused its polling numbers to plunge throughout the first half of 2015, the crisis now catapulted it to previously unseen heights. The party grew into a mouthpiece and almost sole medium of protest for a population deeply unsettled by uncontrolled migrant streams. The Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris as well as the sexual assaults perpetrated mainly by North Africans on New Year’s Eve in Cologne also played into the party’s hands, as did conflicts within the government about reforming the country’s asylum laws and the sometimes staunch criticism levied against the chancellor from within her own party. In state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March of 2016, the AfD garnered 15.1 and 12.6 percent of the vote respectively, in the process securing its first double-digit results in a western state. In Saxony-Anhalt, it managed to receive the highest share of the vote ever obtained by a right-wing populist or extremist party in state elections as it won 24.2 percent of the vote.

As election analyses illustrate, a quarter of the AfD’s electorate in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate and even a third in Saxony-Anhalt was made up of voters that had not taken part in previous elections.18 It therefore came to represent the primary profiteer of the increasing politicization precipitated by the refugee crisis that drove up turnout by around ten percentage points in all three states. Once voter defections from existing parties are taken into account, it emerges that just under half of the AfD’s voters in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate and more than half in Saxony-Anhalt used to call the left-of-center camp home. The same effect had been present in previous state elections in the east of the country. That the placement of the AfD on the right side of the political spectrum only partially reflects the structure of its electorate is highlighted by its above average support among both the working class and unemployed. In Baden-Württemberg, AfD candidates managed to win direct mandates in the former spd strongholds of Mannheim and Pforzheim; in Rhineland-Palatinate its best result could be found in the industrial city of Ludwigshafen with almost 19 percent of the vote. Below average shares were obtained among civil servants and white collar workers.

Other social features by and large correspond with the right-wing populist electorates found in other European countries. Men are strongly and younger voters somewhat overrepresented. Comparatively low levels of support are found among the over sixty year-olds who continue to represent the catch all-parties’ most important demographic bastion. Concerning education and income, AfD voters occupy lower status segments of the population, which in this case resembles the composition found among the German catch-all parties. Instead of the objective affiliation with any particular social class, policy preferences and shared values serve as the primary explanation for the affinity towards right-wing populism.

The motivations driving AfD voters can possibly best be characterized through the dual term of insecurity/anxiety. Insecurity refers more to the social situation, meaning apprehensions about a deprivation in wealth, while anxiety aims to describe emotions of cultural alienation, the loss of a familiar social order and its moorings.19 Both motives are combined to form the desire of limiting government services and benefits to the own, native population—migrants that supposedly lack any sort of affiliation with the national community are to be excluded (welfare chauvinism). That a fear of foreigners is not necessarily at its most pronounced in those areas home to the highest shares of foreigners is not a new finding—neither is the spread of a far-right mindset to the heart of society.20 By fomenting protest against a refugee policy that is supported by all other parties (aside from the CSU), the AfD is bringing such latent convictions to the surface. At the same time, it profits from defections by nonextremist policy-based voters from the middle-class/center-right camp who feel abandoned by a cdu that has moved to the left.

Threats and problems facing the AfD are primarily of an internal nature. They are related to the following points:

* Feuds regarding the programmatic direction:The formation of alfa has undoubtedly shifted the balance of power within the party in the direction of the national-conservative and decidedly right-wing populist players. Economically liberal positions nonetheless do continue to constitute a strong presence particularly among western state branches. At the federal level, they are represented by Petry’s co-chairperson Jörg Meuthen. The strong showing of his state branch in the Baden-Württemberg state election has only served to increase his influence within the party. Building on the policy guidelines agreed upon in 2013, the party program adopted in late April 2016 has incorporated a number of demands that can be classified as market liberal (dissolution of the federal employment agency, introduction of a nonlinear income tax, restoring the secrecy in tax and banking matters (Steuer- und Bankgeheimnis). It may very well run into the opposition of the radical wing who would like the AfD to chart a more populist path on economic and welfare matters with the intent of turning it into a “party of the common man,” a moniker that can already be applied on the basis of its current voter structure. If this—particularly among eastern German state branches—favored course of action prevails, the party’s policy positions would mirror those of other western and central European right-wing populist parties.

* Erosion of the boundary with the extreme right: The AfD’s radicalization has had the effect of once again drawing in more supporters from the right-wing extremist camp. While not limited to the east of the country, this development is nonetheless particularly pronounced in the former German Democratic Republic where parts of the party openly express racist and antidemocratic positions.21 The extent of how difficult it has become for the AfD to clearly distance itself from right-wing extremism is illustrated by its handling of the Thuringia state chairman Björn Höcke. His proposed expulsion from the party, initiated by the federal executive committee in May 2015, was abandoned after the ousting of Lucke as party leader. Höcke, who maintains contacts with npd (National Democratic Party of Germany) associates of the New Right, and his radical positions are not just an irritation for the liberal camp around Meuthen but also annoy those members of the national-conservative wing who are worried about the party’s reputation among middle-class voters. If future AfD election results fail to live up to expectations—something that could quite easily be the case if current protest sentiments against the government’s refugee policies subside—the infighting between the moderate and radical camps may very well flare up again.

* Conflicts regarding party personnel:Another burden on the AfD’s public image are conflicts concerning the personnel makeup of the party and the vying for influence of the actors in question. Such problems are, on the one hand, the inevitable result of its various parliamentary factions whose members are ill equipped for their political work due to a lack of experience and professionalism. Departures and defections of elected officials are highly likely. The other cause can be found among a party leadership that has shown a distinct lack of team spirit. Petry, whose selection had initially been met with high hopes by her party, has for quite some time now been the subject of criticism for a leadership style defined by going it alone, as well as making comments that are not run by other party officials and frequently not thought-through.22 This fall from grace has occurred despite the fact that her nonaffiliation with either the moderate or radical wing made her appear to be the perfect person to bridge internal party divides.

On the Path Towards a Six-Party System?

When Jürgen Möllemann and Guido Westerwelle launched their “Project 18” in the early 2000s, they were motivated by the justified question regarding why the electoral results of the German fdp lagged behind those of its sister parties in Scandinavia and the Benelux countries. Part of the answer could be found in the rather narrow programmatic profile. While liberal parties in neighboring countries had adopted more or less conservative positions on sociocultural questions that reflected the security concerns and modernization fears of their electorates, the fdp continued to remain steadfast in its desire to preserve outdated liberal positions on civil liberties.23 Along with a consistent anti-establishment orientation, a promising right-wing populist strategy would above all have required placing the immigration problem front and center. After completely cutting its nationalist roots in the 1970s, the prospects for such a course alteration were rather slim. The populism of “Project 18” therefore remained “ideologically halved,” focusing entirely on economic liberalism and a popularization of its outreach to voters.

A more auspicious opportunity to appeal to voters on the right was presented by the topic of the euro. The liberals could have made the case that criticism of the monetary union and even calls for its dissolution should not be misinterpreted as a general anti-European position. Supporters of the argument that the euro is driving apart the eu while deeming a purported solution found in a common economic policy to be neither realistic nor desirable can be found in the left camp as well.24 It is pointless to speculate whether euro critics coalescing around Frank Schäffler would have gotten their way had the fdp remained in opposition after the 2009 election. In this case, the AfD would likely have never emerged.

A right-wing liberal force, as intended by the protagonists of the moderate wing led by Lucke, would have constituted a dangerous and potentially lethal competitor for the fdp. On the one hand, this would have called into question the fdp’s claim to represent the sole decidedly market liberal advocate in the Federal Republic’s political system, an assertion rightfully made by pointing to the cdu’s “social democratization” on economic issues since 2005. On the other hand, the AfD would have profited from the wide-spread popularity of its euroskeptic and socially conservative positions among both the fdp’s voters and its members. The radicalization of the AfD therefore represents good news for the fdp on two fronts. It is now not only in a position to defend or regain its unique position on economic policy matters but can also hope that the AfD’s shift to the right serves as a deterrent to its own voters.

Whether the right-wing populists can hope to establish themselves next to or in place of the fdp is far from certain despite its current wave of success brought about by the refugee crisis. From a supply side or actors’ perspective, the rightward move appears to have, if anything, dimmed the party’s prospects. Taking the issue preferences that drive voters to the polls into account would admittedly make the exodus of the moderate wing appear to be manageable. This only applies to party branches in the east of the country though that—contrary to their western counterparts—had to contend with a rather small number of member departures in the wake of the split as it had by that point long become a home for the far-right fringe. The challenge of distancing itself from the extreme right will nonetheless inevitably come to the fore here as well.

The up until this point rather short history of the AfD has once again illustrated why upstarts on the German (far) right continue to face challenges that exceed those found in other European countries.25 The potential danger of succumbing to your own organizational incompetence is first of all always dangling over such parties. At the same time though, it is exacerbated by the environment and restrictive conditions German political newcomers are confronted with. The “main problem” can be found in the stigmatization of right-wing extremism as a result of the Nazi legacy. Parties such as the AfD that present a moderate image are used by members of the extreme right as a vehicle to overcome said stigmatization. Internal conflicts concerning how to best address an influx of these unwelcome supporters are unavoidable and serve to damage the party’s public standing, while threatening to sooner or later ruin its internal cohesion.

The AfD’s prospects look significantly brighter when attention is placed on the demand side. Considering the immense challenges and pressure to change that German society will face in future years and decades as a result of immigration, it would be highly surprising if a party critical of a migrant influx such as the AfD was incapable of exploiting these developments for its own electoral profits. Even after a decrease in the number of refugees entering the country, the party will therefore have plenty of thematic opportunities at its disposal. This, moreover, is the case as its conservative positions on sociocultural issues fill other gaps in the party system that have been left vacant as the cdu has increasingly lost its capability of integrating substantial parts of the political right.

As voters on the left are also susceptible to these kinds of positions, the success of right-wing populists at the ballot box contributes to a general rightward shift of the party system’s axis. This is, on the one hand, bad news for Germany’s Social Democrats as it puts a further dent in their chances of ever regaining the chancellery from the cdu. At the same time, it hurts the Christian Democratic sister parties, which can have no interest in any sort of cooperation with the right-wing populists as long as they are incapable of credibly distancing themselves from the extreme-right fringe. The AfD’s presence increases both the polarization as well as the segmentation of the country’s party system. In terms of possible coalitions, it appears that along with a Grand Coalition the only other viable option is a three party alliance between the Christian and Free Democrats and the Greens—a partnership that would with virtual certainty provide the AfD with additional opportunities. Few signs therefore indicate that the latest right-wing populist incarnation in the party system will—as has been the case with its predecessors—turn out to be a mere passing episode. At least in the mid term, representatives of the establishment will have to come to terms with the AfD.


I would like to thank Philipp Adorf for his assistance.


See Frank Decker, “Warum der parteiförmige Rechtspopulismus in Deutschland so erfolglos ist,” Vorgänge 51, no. 1( 2012): 21-28.


Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise. The Populist Moment in America (New York, 1976).


See David Bebnowski, Die Alternative für Deutschland. Aufstieg und gesellschaftliche Repräsentanz einer rechten populistischen Partei (Wiesbaden, 2015), 19 ff.


See Frank Decker, “Follow-up to the Grand Coalition: The German Party System Before and After the 2013 Federal Election,” German Politics and Society 32, no. 2 (2014): 31 ff.


Thilo Sarrazin, Deutschland schafft sich ab. Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen (Berlin, 2010).


See Frank Decker, Der neue Rechtspopulismus, 2nd ed. (Opladen, 2004), 21 ff.


See Alban Werner, “Vor der Zerreißprobe: Wohin treibt die AfD?” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 60, no. 2 (2015): 83-90.


For a detailed assessment see: David Bebnowski and Lisa Julika Förster, Wettbewerbspo-pulismus. Die Alternative für Deutschland und die Rolle der Ökonomen (Frankfurt/Main, 2014).


See Inken Behrmann, “D-Mark, Familie, Vaterland: Die AfD nach Lucke,” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 60, no. 8 (2015): 99-107.


This for example applies to gay rights. On such topics, a liberal stance primarily serves to buttress the main ideological pillar of right-wing populism: its disapproving attitude towards Islam.


See Simon Tobias Franzmann, “Die Wahlprogrammatik der AfD in vergleichender Perspektive,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Parteienrecht und Parteienforschung 20 (2014): 115-124.


See Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck, “Euro-Kritik, Wirtschaftspessimismus und Einwanderungsskepsis: Hintergründe des Beinahe-Erfolgs der Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) bei der Bundestagswahl 2013,” Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen 45, no. 1 (2014): 94-112.


Nicole Berbuir, Marcel Lewandowsky, and Jasmin Siri, “The AfD and its Sympathisers: Finally a Right-Wing Populist Movement in Germany?” German Politics 24, no. 2 (2015): 168 f.


See Lars Geiges, Stine Marg, and Franz Walter, Pegida. Die schmutzige Seite der Zivilgesellschaft? (Bielefeld, 2015), 151 ff.


Data from Infratest dimap.


See Oskar Niedermayer, “Eine neue Konkurrentin im Parteiensystem? Die Alternative für Deutschland,” in Die Parteien nach der Bundestagswahl 2013, ed. Oskar Niedermayer (Wiesbaden, 2015), 201 ff.


Data from Infratest dimap.


See Geiges, Marg, and Walter (note 15).


See Andreas Zick and Anna Klein, Fragile Mitte—Feindselige Zustände. Rechtsextreme Einstellungen in Deutschland 2014 (Bonn, 2014).


See Alexander Häusler and Rainer Roeser, “Zwischen Euro-Kritik und rechtem Populismus: Merkmale und Dynamik des Rechtsrucks in der AfD,” in Wut, Verachtung, Abwertung. Rechtspopulismus in Deutschland, eds. Andreas Zick and Beate Küpper (Bonn, 2015), 124-145.


Petry’s comments in a newspaper interview that refugees crossing the border could as a last resort be fired upon caused widespread outrage. Criticism was also levied against her from within the party, forcing Petry to later recant the statement.


See Frank Decker, “Noch eine Chance für die Liberalen?” Berliner Republik 13, no. 5 (2011): 58-65.


See Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus (Berlin, 2013), 237 ff.


See Decker (note 2).

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Contributor Notes

Frank Decker is professor in the Institute für Politische Wissenschaft und Soziologie, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn in Germany. His main research interests focus on problems of institutional reforms in Western democracies, party systems and right-wing populism. Recent publications include Der Irrweg der Volksgesetzgebung (Bonn, 2016) and Parteiendemokratie im Wandel (Baden-Baden 2016).


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