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Split of AfD not end of right-wing populism in Germany

Greece is on the verge of leaving the eurozone and the influx of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean into the EU is reaching unprecedented levels. Such headlines should create an extraordinary momentum for the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD). The eurosceptical protest party with a populist streak was the big winner of the 2014 European elections in Germany and the rising star on Germany’s political scene. But only a year later the party is caught in infighting among its leadership and on the brink of a split. It is heading for a showdown at its party congress on the coming weekend, where its two main branches will compete over the party’s future leadership and political direction.

In 2013 few had predicted the rapid success of the newly founded AfD that had begun as a single-issue party calling for an unravelling of the eurozone. Already at the European elections last year the party scooped up more than seven per cent of the votes and send seven MEPs into the EP’s “European Conservatives and Reformists” (ECR) group. Shortly after, the AfD made headlines winning seats in the regional parliaments of five German Länder – Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, Hamburg and most recently Bremen – garnering up to 12 per cent of the votes. Yet, escalating power struggles among the party’s leadership over the party’s future course has seen support slip and poll ratings at the federal level stagnate in recent months.

Turning right

Essentially the party’s profile is dominated by a mix of economic liberal and conservative positions. While ideological breadth and flexibility was the initial recipe for the party’s success and allowed it to draw protest voters from many political camps, its different wings prove increasingly hard to bring together. On the one hand the party emerged during the debt crisis from an anti-euro movement. It was carried by an economic liberal elite of business representatives and academics opposing Angela Merkel’s rescue policy. Much like the British Tories, this wing wants the EU to focus on fostering the internal market, limit integration beyond the economic realm and renationalise powers in be it in budgetary and social policy. At the heart of their agenda remains the dissolution of the eurozone. Its representatives make up the majority in the AfD’s delegation in the European Parliament. They went to Brussels to do serious business, focussing on issues of economic governance, fiscal policy and trade.

On the other hand the party also attracts conservatives that are unhappy with the increasingly moderate course of Merkel’s CDU in the socio-political field. They stand for the classic triads of law and order, anti-immigration and an old-fashioned family policy. It is this faction that has been gaining ground over the course of the past year both within the party and in the public. In fact, in the public perception a tough anti-immigration and anti-Islam stance has become the AfD’s central feature. In particular in Eastern Germany the party won votes by sporting a proper nationalist conservative profile and fishing for votes at the very right rim of the political spectrum. Here, the party is at its most populist and also shows the strongest opposition to the EU. Prominent officials question the principle of free movement and demand to re-establish internal border controls in the EU in order to fight trans-border crime and limit irregular immigration. They advocate a pro-Russian course in the conflict over Ukraine and have openly sided with the anti-immigration movement PEGIDA.

The party certainly does not compare to some of the traditional extreme right parties in the European Parliament. But its right turn brings it much closer to Europe’s modern right-wing populists like Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party or the Danish People’s Party. And this is what makes for the core of the conflict dividing the party. The political positions of the two camps would be reconcilable, but the increasingly nationalist edge and populist style of the conservative camp around the strong East German party branches is hard to bring together with the distinguished economics professors and business men that represent the party in Brussels.

Room for a right-wing populist party

Observers that have dreaded the rise of a eurosceptical and right-wing populist party in Germany are welcoming the current escalation among the AfD’s leadership. Yet, they should be careful what they wish for. In the medium term a split could easily benefit the AfD’s conservative wing once it rids itself of the party infighting and in whatever form it reconstitutes itself. It may be true that right-wing parties had a hard time with voters in Germany in the past decades. Too heavy weighed the stigma of the past. But times are changing and the AfD’s conservative branch does not sport the crude nationalism and xenophobia of other right-wing parties. With the EU caught in constant crisis mode – be it the refugee, debt or Ukraine crises – its populist and nationalist slogans fall on fruitful ground all across Germany. In particular the unceasing flow of refugees and migrants into Germany and the ever rising asylum requests almost guarantee an electoral potential well above five per cent. There is room for a modern populist party to the right of Angela Merkel’s CDU and someone is going to fill it sooner or later.

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