The Fall and Rise of AfD: Windows of Opportunity and Political Culture

Dr. André Haller analyses the ideological evolution of Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its communicative strategy, the role played by the so called ‘refugees crisis’, and the possibility for right-wing populism to finally thrive in Germany, immune to right-wing populist Pied Pipers since the aftermath of World War II.

Alternative for Germany (“Alternative für Deutschland”, AfD) was founded on February 6, 2013. Originally, its primary aim was to criticize the measures of the German government to rescue the common European currency in the aftermath of the financial crisis in Greece. After two impressive results – 4.7% of the votes in the German parliamentary elections 2013 and 7.1% in the European elections 2014 – the party was torn by internal disputes about its future political orientation.

There were two contrary camps: the most prominent founding father Bernd Lucke stood for a market-liberal focus, whereas Frauke Petry, Björn Höcke and others favored a national-conservative approach. In 2015, Frauke Petry won this battle and became the party’s chairwoman. Soon AfD transformed into a right-wing populist party with a programmatic focus on anti-migration, anti-gender mainstreaming  and other issues in the right-wing sector.

Subsequently the party did poorly in the polls (3-6% between April and September 2015). However, when the refugee crisis resulted in the opening of the German borders in September 2015 the party got more and more popular (in recent polls AfD has 13%)[1]. Today Alternative for Germany has seats in ten regional parliaments. The biggest success has been the election in the German federal state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where the party gained more votes than Chancellor Merkel’s CDU.

Windows of Opportunity as Door Openers

Although several right-wing parties were moderately and shortly successful in the last decades, e.g. the radical National Democratic Party (NPD), the law-and-order Schill Party in Hamburg or the Republikaner, parties on the right spectrum of politics had never succeeded in the long term. Arguably the main reason lies  within German history and the strong culture of remembrance in the Federal Republic of Germany. Some analysts suggest that discursive windows of opportunity enable the AfD to strengthen its position in the political landscape[2]: In the party’s starting phase the discussion about the European financial policy opened the door to broader sections of the electorate.  Since 2015 the refugee crisis has been concerning the German public. With respect to these public concerns Alternative for Germany offers a radical opposite pole to the grand coalition in Berlin.

A classical Populistic Approach

Can Alternative for Germany be classified as a populist party? The terms “populist politician” or “populist party” are (especially in Germany) often used as a political slogan against especially concerning left- or right-wing movements. The interesting thing is that populist politics are often described as a way of “simplifying” complex political topics. In social science the definition of populism is more detailed. Among a broad range of theoretical concepts the explanation of Mudde is most recognized: “I define populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”[3].

In addition to that populist separation between “the people” and “the elite” Jagers and Walgrave introduce a third group which populist parties exclude from the society: “Those groups are blamed for all misfortune and accidents affecting the general population. Consequently, these categories are scapegoated and must be fiercely dealt with, if not simply removed from the territory of the people.”[4]

Taking both definitions as a theoretical basis the AfD can be categorized as a right-wing populist party: since the takeover by Frauke Petry, Björn Höcke and Alexander Gauland the Alternative pursues the strategy to present itself as the voice of “the German people” against the German government. The party combines that theme with criticism of the mainstream media which leading party officials maliciously call “Pinocchio press” in allusion to the “liar press” shouts of the Pegida movement. Besides the fundamental opposition against the elites in politics and mass media the AfD stands for a hard line against immigration and especially Islam. Here the AfD follows a classical example for the exclusion of a certain religious group.

Intentional Scandals as Communicative Strategy

In a previous populism observer post[5] I introduced the concept of intentional self-scandalization[6] in political communication, which is particularly used as a populist communication strategy. Populists produce scandals on purpose to gain a scarce good: public attention. In the case of the AfD the German public witnessed several of such scandals.

It was especially Björn Höcke who became infamous for controversial actions: in October 2015 he was a guest in the political talk show Günther Jauch, aired on the biggest public service TV channel in Germany (ARD). During that show he put a German flag on his chair, a fact which attracted much attention from the media, since signs of nationalism are considered as particularly alarming in the German political culture post World War 2.

Höcke’s speeches are particularly offensive. In January 2016 he spoke to a crowd in Erfurt and claimed that Chancellor Angela Merkel has lost her mind and that she would need to be put into a straightjacket. He also said that the German government is led by “idiots”. In particular, Höcke has been massively criticized for his call “3.000 years of Europe and 1.000 years of Erfurt” which can be understood as a reference to national-socialist propaganda (“The Thousand-Year Reich”). Despite this, or maybe because of this, the AfD has become one of the major topics on the in the public discourse. The last scandal was produced by Frauke Petry when she made a statement that the term “völkisch” should not only by connoted negatively to the Nazi era (the word stood for the nationalistic concept of the pure German race).

A “New Camp” in the Political Landscape?

Right now the AfD performs constantly well in opinion polls for the German parliamentary election. Most analysts are sure that the party will be elected into to Bundestag in 2017. On the contrary, the right-wing citizen movement Pegida is not playing anymore a dominant role in the political discourse in Germany. In autumn 2015 up to 20.000 protesters followed the Pegida meetings in Dresden. In 2016 the numbers decreased to less than 3.000 participants. It can be assumed that the stabilization of the Alternative for Germany in the German party system is one reason for the decrease in followers. However, it is unclear if the party can play a role in the long term as other populist parties in Europe.

[1] Poll Results by Forsa, see

[2] Nestler, C., & Rohgalf, J. (2014). Eine deutsche Angst – Erfolgreiche Parteien recht von der Union: Zur AfD und den gegenwärtigen Gelegenheitsstrukturen des Parteienwettbewerbs. Zeitschrift für Politik, 61(4), 389–413.

[3] Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist.Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

[4] Jagers, J. & Walgrave, S. (2007). Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46(3), 319–345. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6765.2006.00690.x


[6] Haller, A. (2015). “How to deal with the Black Sheep? An evaluation of journalists’ reactions towards intentional self-scandalization by politicians”. In: Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies, 4(3), 435-451, doi: 10.1386/ajms.4.3.435_1. URL:,id=20621/

André HallerDr. André Haller works at the Institute for Communication Science of the Bamberg University, Germany. His research interests include self-scandalization in the media, electoral campaign communication, and data driven journalism. He writes for POP about  the AfD, PEGIDA and populist communication strategies.

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