How German right-wing parties always sabotage themselves: the example of AfD

Bild_TWolfTanja Wolf is the author of this post for POP. Her research interests concern the right-wing parties in Europe as well as right-wing populism and extremism. She also studies left-wing propaganda, especially in former socialist or communist states. She works at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität in Würzburg, Germany.

In this article she investigates the case of Alternative für Deutschland and its peculiarity when compared with traditional right-wing parties in Germany.

Ökologische Plattform NRW Follow Nazis blocken , DIE LINKE. Dortmund

ökologische Plattform, DIE LINKE Dortmund

During the last two years, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) was one of the main political topics on the media. For the first time after World War 2 the Germans had the impression that a – more or less – right-wing party might have become successful. Even though Germany has quite a few far right-wing parties – like the National Democratic Party (NPD), the Republicans (REP), the Freedom Party (Die Freiheit), the Right-Wing Party (Die Rechte) or the voter’s associations Pro Cologne/Pro North Rhine-Westphalia/Pro Germany – none of them has had a lasting success. The conundrum is: we have never had a successful right-wing party although there are quite a lot of parties within this spectrum in Germany. How come? And how come that almost all of those right-wing parties – the AfD currently being an exception – started as moderate right eventually becoming more extreme?

To answer these questions we will first have a look at another quite famous example of the German far-right: The Republicans (REP).

The party was founded in 1983 and at first distanced itself from the far-right spectrum. However, soon after its founding many right-wing extremists became members and hence shifted the party’s consensus to the far right-wing side. In 1985 Franz Schönhuber became head of the party and gradually established ties with the area of right-wing extremists. This led to a first wave of announcements of resignations. At the beginning of the 90s, the leaders recognized that they were too far-right and tried to present themselves once again as more moderate. This led to the second wave of resignation announcements. In the last election for the Bundestag they only gained 0,2% of the votes, trapped between moderation and extremism.

Bernd Lucke

Bernd Lucke

So now you might say, okay that’s what has happened to REP, but the case of the AfD is different! Founded in 2013, the AfD is a rather young managed by a bunch of highly academic people. Furthermore, their criticism of the Euro policy and the rescue package for Greece is strictly ‘scientific’ rather than political. And that might even be true for their initial demands and opinions. The head of party, Bernd Lucke, even declared that his party would be neither right-wing nor left-wing, but a party of a new type. Indeed, it was a party of a new type – at least when it comes to the unique success during the first months of its existence. Already before the official founding the party had more than 7,500 members, and only five months after the official founding they gained 4,7 % of the votes at the elections for the German Bundestag. However, it soon became obvious there was considerable potential for conflict within the party: the leadership of some state branches resigned or was ousted and personal continuities with the far right became soon obvious. Martin Sichert, head of the Bavarian branch, is an admirer of Erwin Rommel. The head of the state branch of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was sued because of incitement of the masses in 2014. A member of the Thuringian Landtag liked a picture on Facebook which displayed a swastika and a picture of Hitler. Another AfD member is operator of a webshop selling right-wing extremist products. This list could be continued…

Furthermore, since the end of 2014 there is an internal struggle for power: Bernd Lucke suggested having only one party leader in the future[1], which should be – of course –himself. Lucke’s strategic move was strongly criticized by the two other – former – heads of the party. Both Petry and Adam have always been clearly more right-wing than Lucke and have preferred to seek voters within PEGIDA[2] and the right-wing spectrum rather than the bourgeois camp. At the moment, the dispute between Lucke and Petry is dividing the party, potentially even leading to a split-off. According to most opinion-polls, the AfD has lost a lot of support due to its internal fights.

6160417562_f316501d4f_nSo what do AfD and REP (and practically all of the German far-right parties) have in common? They started off as rather moderate/conservative right-wing parties and then drifted gradually to the far-right. In both cases, the leaders originally wanted to present the party as relatively moderate in order to win conservative voters establishing the party as a credible alternative to CDU-CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany and its Bavarian offshoot). In a second tep, more and more far-right individuals became members of these parties and even gained official positions. This strategy leads to two consequences. First, the differences between the ideological positions within the party become bigger, leading to either internal disputes or divisions. Second, and more important, sliding to the far-right spectrum they attracted the attention of the media system, which started changing the public perception of these parties. Consequently, in the opinion of moderate or conservative voters, these parties seem to be (and in fact are) too far right to be voted. Therefore, a big part of their constituency leaves and suddenly the party is not only quite far right but also a lot less successful than before.

The collective memory about the German past plays a pivotal role in this mechanism: when trying to gain influence as a moderate voice to the right of the CDU-CSU, the German far right movements succeed only to be dumped by the electorate as soon as they move too right. This is also the reason why Germany has so many far-right parties for a rather small far right voter base. Nobody knows how long this mechanism will still function but, so far, the German far-right spectrum has always sabotaged itself. Will AfD represent an exception thanks to its guise of respectable academics, or will rather find himself stuck in the same mechanisms?

[1] So far, there were three of them: Bernd Lucke, Frauke Petry and Konrad Adam.

[2] In full: Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident).

[3] The first picture comes from here.

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