Here to stay? The Alternative for Germany partway between establishment and normalisation

by Dr. Anna-Sophie Heinze (University of Trier)

September 2021’s Federal General Election was not a success story for the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). However, the party has clearly established itself organisationally and is unlikely to disappear in the coming years. The question now is what influence it will exert in the future.

First election losses at the federal and state level

After this year’s federal election on 26 September, the AfD had little apparent reason to celebrate. With 10.3% of the vote, it had lost not only 2.3% of its national support compared to 2017, but also its status as the largest opposition party (which had given it some privileges in the Bundestag during the last legislative period). The result, however, came as little surprise: firstly, opinion polls had been indicating relatively stable support for the AfD at between 10-12% for months (whilst fluctuating more widely for the CDU, SPD and Greens). Secondly, the AfD had lost votes in all the state level elections held earlier in 2021 (Baden-Württemberg -5.4%; Rhineland-Palatinate -4.3%; and Saxony-Anhalt -3.5%).

Much has been written about the reasons for this defeat. On the one hand, this year’s Federal General Election was very much about the succession of the chancellorship after 16 years of Angela Merkel at the top, allowing fewer opportunities to focus on “typical” populist radical right issues. Additionally, the AfD’s image was undermined by internal party disputes and donation scandals, including one concerning a top candidate, Alice Weidel. At the same time, the party had to tackle the question of how to deal with the threat of surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, all whilst the new anti-COVID restrictions party dieBasis (the base) won 1.5% of the vote. These votes may otherwise have gone to the AfD.

Stable party organisation and stronghold in “the east”

Taking a close look at the AfD’s organisation and mobilisation reveals why the party is unlikely to disappear in the medium term. Unlike previous far-right parties (e.g. the NPD, DVU or Die Republikaner), the AfD quickly built up a complex, relatively stable organisation with strong branches in all 16 of Germany’s federal states. In our forthcoming article in the Populism in Action Special Issue of Politics & Governance edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Stijn van Kessel, Manès Weisskircher and I show how the AfD’s organisation has always been characterised by: dual leadership, relatively high participation by its members and strong cooperation with far-right social movements (for instance PEGIDA, and, more recently, also the anti-COVID Querdenken movement, which mobilises against anti-COVID restrictions and vaccines). The AfD has developed positions on all major issues in recent years and is increasingly trying to present itself as a “normal” party, even adopting the election slogan “Germany. But normal”.

The AfD has had its electoral “strongholds” in eastern Germany for some time. At the federal election, it even became the largest party in Saxony and Thuringia, by receiving 24.6% and 24% of the votes, respectively. Moreover, it is only in eastern Germany that it also won direct mandates (on the basis of votes given to specific candidates, rather than party lists). It gained 10 of these in Saxony, 4 in Thuringia and 2 in Saxony-Anhalt. The reasons for this strong showing are manifold, including the feeling of most eastern Germans that they are treated as “second-class citizens” (for a more in-depth analysis see Manès Weisskircher’s article in The Political Quarterly). The AfD also seems to be gaining support where the CDU has lost its formerly dominant position. Crucially, the AfD mobilises across the entire electorate and is often the preferred party amongst younger age cohorts – which again speaks for the party’s established status, at least in eastern Germany. This raises the question of how other parties should react to it.

Long-term success largely depends on the behaviour of the other parties

Now that the AfD has established itself, the million-dollar question is what influence it will gain in the long term. As I argued in my West European Politics article back in 2018, the behaviour of the other parties plays a crucial role here. Once established parties engage with a “pariah”, this step towards “normalisation” cannot be reversed (for more on this, see recent work by Léonie de Jonge, who will also contribute to the Special Issue mentioned above). Although other German parties have largely excluded the AfD so far, there have been exceptions at the subnational level, like the contentious election of Thomas Kemmerich as Prime Minister of Thuringia with votes from the FDP, CDU and AfD in February 2020.

While direct cooperation with the AfD remains taboo, the mainstreaming of AfD positions is having much indirect impact. This can be observed particularly among actors from the CDU and the CSU. One of the most prominent examples is Hans-Georg Maaßen, who was selected by the CDU as a local constituency candidate (Direktkandidat) for the Federal General Election, eventually losing to the SPD. In the near future, the election of the CDU’s new party chair next January will most probably be decisive to settle the extent to which the party will distance itself from the AfD. The empirical evidence suggests that many potential AfD voters cannot be “won back”, with recent research by Viola Neu indicating that 50% of them would rather vote for no party at all than for the CDU/CSU, if the AfD was not an option anymore.

The AfD’s future will also be shaped by its new party executive, which will be elected at the party’s conference on 11-12th December 2021. Party co-leader Jörg Meuthen (one of the last prominent representatives of the “rather moderate” camp) has announced he will not run again, increasing speculation about a further rightward turn for the party. As mentioned above, the party will probably be cautious about this, for at least two reasons: the threat of state surveillance and its efforts to establish itself (e.g. by possibly attracting state funding for its own political foundation). More generally, these developments highlight, once again, why we should not focus too much on individual elections or events, but keep our eyes open for the entire ideological, strategic and organisational panoply underlying the establishment of the far right, so as to understand why the AfD is here to stay.

Dr Anna-Sophie Heinze is a political scientist at the Trier Institute for Democracy and Party Research (TIDUP), University of Trier, Germany. In 2019, she defended her PhD thesis on party responses towards the AfD at the Friedrich Schiller University, Jena. Her research focuses on political parties, democracy, populism, and the far right. You can follow her on Twitter here.