BERLIN — When it first entered the German Bundestag four years ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany had aspirations to be a major national player, with party leaders defiantly vowing to “hunt” Angela Merkel and reshape the German political landscape.
Now, after posting losses in Sunday’s election, some of those same party leaders struck a decidedly less confident note. In fact, they weren’t even able to agree on whether or not they had a decent night.
Unlike other parties that had clear victories (such as the center-left Social Democrats) or obvious lows (the conservative Christian Democratic Union), the AfD’s performance on Sunday was a bit tougher to decipher.
On the one hand, it suffered a significant decline nationally: With its signature issue of immigration long playing a lesser role in the headlines and its struggles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the AfD won just 10.3 percent of the vote, down from 12.6 percent four years ago.
Rather than remaining the largest opposition party and the third-biggest party overall, the AfD now stands in fifth place behind the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats — and, given the fact that no one wants to partner with them, they’ll play no role whatsoever in the upcoming coalition negotiations.
Still, the national results obscure the fact that the AfD has become an established regional force in parts of eastern Germany, where it has capitalized on social resentment and enduring disparities with the West: The party came in first in both Saxony and Thuringia with 24.6 percent and 24 percent, respectively. And with their second time winning seats in the Bundestag, the party now will even have access to a series of benefits other parties already have, including federal campaign funding and money for an affiliated foundation.
In other words, the AfD isn’t going away any time soon — but it’s increasingly based in the East, and at least there is difficult to ignore.
“It was pretty much what we expected: There wasn’t any appreciable increase, but it wasn’t a disaster for them,” said Kai Arzheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Mainz. “This was very much in line with expectations, especially with the continuing East-West divide.”
The AfD, originally founded as a Euroskeptic party in 2013, first gained real relevance in the wake of the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016. Capitalizing on anti-immigration sentiment at the time, the party carved out a space for itself in German politics: Despite its relatively small size, it had a penchant for provocation that gave it a disproportionate impact on the national political debate.
It has struggled to maintain that impact in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, to which AfD leaders initially struggled to respond. Over the course of the last year and a half, they’ve settled into an anti-lockdown, anti-restrictions message that puts them in line with conspiracy-driven protest movements like the Querdenker (meaning unconventional thinkers).
Although its campaign slogan this fall was “Germany. But Normal,” the AfD is, of course, anything but. It has grown increasingly radical over the years, and its leaders have consistently failed to draw clear boundaries between party figures and Germany’s loose network of right-wing extremist groups.
That’s a big part of why, earlier this year, the country’s domestic intelligence service drew up plans to put the entire party under surveillance. It has also led to near-constant infighting over the future direction of the party, a fight that the more radical leaders at any given time tend to win.
Those long-standing internal tensions were on full display at the party’s traditional day-after press conference Monday afternoon.
Jörg Meuthen, seen as the more moderate party leader, stressed the AfD needs to evaluate its mistakes in order to move forward: “We can’t gloss over the fact that we have lost a considerable number of votes,” he said, adding explicitly that this “is not a good result.”
Rather than blaming its losses on stigmatization by the media, Meuthen argued, the party should consider whether things like a “Dexit” proposal in its party program — the suggestion that Germany should leave the European Union — were wise. In order to win back new voters, he added, the AfD should focus on sending “strong signals” toward the center.
Top candidates Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, however, praised the party’s “solid” result and said it already is “the new center” in eastern Germany. Weidel said she and Chrupalla were “very, very satisfied” with the results and, referring to Meuthen, said she “won’t let someone speak badly” about their vote share.
Meuthen then fired back, saying he “considers satisfaction to be inappropriate,” because losing nearly 20 percent of the party’s electorate “should not be satisfactory.”
Weidel and Meuthen, who’ve long represented two opposing forces within the party, sat on opposite ends of the podium and essentially refused to refer to each other by name. It was in some ways an echo of the party’s post-election press conference in 2017, when then-party leader Frauke Petry resigned out of protest with the party’s new course.
Although Meuthen shows no signs of resigning himself, the public spat on stage is proof the internal battles are still raging strong — and seems likely to further fuel what Arzheimer called the party’s “almost continuous radicalization.”
Still, it will be difficult for the AfD to recapture the kind of media and political attention the party got after entering the Bundestag four years ago. Without immigration as a top issue and without the novelty factor they had at the time, they’re likely to keep doing exactly what they did in this campaign: Garner primarily the attention of their die-hard voters but fail to expand their base.
“They’re sort of factored in now, and that makes it more difficult for them to reach people through what they call the mainstream media,” Arzheimer said. “On the other hand, they’re a very strong force on social media — and I think they can talk very well to their own supporters.”