The ‘illusionary giant’ of German politics: the AfD

By Timo Lochocki.

Four rea­sons why the AfD’s polling might col­lapse over the next year

The right-wing pop­ulist Alter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) seems unstop­pable. In Sep­tem­ber they won 20.8% at the region­al elec­tions in rur­al Meck­len­burg-Vor­pom­mern and 14.2% in Berlin. If elec­tions for the Bun­destag would be held today, the INSA poll of Sep­tem­ber 27 finds that 15.5% of Ger­man vot­ers would vote AfD. The par­ty nev­er had high­er sup­port rates.It seems Ger­many is final­ly falling prey to the polit­i­cal frag­men­ta­tion and depart­ing insta­bil­i­ty known from oth­er West­ern Euro­pean democ­ra­cies. Com­men­taries call for prepar­ing for the AfD remain­ing a strong force in Ger­man pol­i­tics to reck­on with.

How­ev­er, the AfD might turn out as ‘Schein­riese’, as an ‘illu­sion­ary giant’. The Ger­man nov­el­ist Michael Ende coined the term refer­ring to a man that looks gigan­tic from afar, but becomes small­er and small­er the clos­er you move towards him. Mov­ing clos­er to the AfD, scru­ti­niz­ing the roots of its suc­cess shows strik­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that might sub­stan­tial­ly decrease its pop­u­lar sup­port until Germany’s fed­er­al elec­tion in Sep­tem­ber 2017.

Right-wing pop­ulist par­ties as the AfD rely on the win­ning for­mu­la ‘for the nation, against the estab­lish­ment’. They por­tray them­selves as only polit­i­cal force defend­ing the endan­gered cul­tur­al core of the nation (1), which vot­ers con­sid­er as key polit­i­cal issue (2). Defend­ing the nation is not only nec­es­sary against exter­nal threats (e.g. migrants or the EU), but espe­cial­ly against the nation­al polit­i­cal elites that only work for secur­ing the sta­tus quo (3). Offer­ing an alter­na­tive to these unbear­able con­di­tions, right-wing pop­ulists por­tray them­selves as only cred­i­ble con­ser­v­a­tive force in the demo­c­ra­t­ic spec­trum (4).

The AfD might lose all these four ‘sell­ing points’ in the com­ing months.

Rea­son one: Real­ly the only ones to defend the nation?

The party’s pub­lic sup­port increased mas­sive­ly from three to 12 per­cent from Octo­ber 2015 to Jan­u­ary 2016 as the Grand Coali­tion (Con­ser­v­a­tive CDU, its Bavar­i­an sis­ter par­ty CSU and the Social-Democ­rats SPD) begun fierce­ly to argue about how to reduce the num­bers of incom­ing refugees. In win­ter 2015/2016, up to 210.000 refugees reached Ger­many every month. The CSU called for more con­ser­v­a­tive poli­cies (e.g. clos­ing down nation­al bor­ders) than the CDU and the SPD were will­ing to accept. This gave the impres­sion to Ger­man vot­ers that a more ‘order­ly, more con­ser­v­a­tive’ approach was avail­able, but the estab­lished par­ties refused to adhere to it. This legi­t­iz­imed the AfD’s con­ser­v­a­tive migra­tion pol­i­cy and boost­ed the assump­tion that the estab­lished elites would not pro­tect the nation.

How­ev­er, refugee num­bers dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly to a few thou­sands a months since Jan­u­ary 2016, while Ger­man inte­gra­tion and migra­tion laws took a sub­stan­tive con­ser­v­a­tive turn since. But Ger­man vot­ers still do not trust the gov­ern­ing par­ties on the mat­ter. Ger­man vot­ers how­ev­er would trust estab­lished par­ties if they clear­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive posi­tions in mutu­al agree­ment. This was vis­i­ble pre­vi­ous­ly when the CDU/CSU and the SPD forged a con­ser­v­a­tive com­pro­mise in mutu­al agree­ment to drop Greece off the Euro­zone if the coun­try would not meet Ger­man demands. In con­se­quence, the AfD’s sup­port – which up to then main­ly relied on anti-Euro and anti-EU sen­ti­ments — dropped from 10 to 3% in the first half of 2015. The new­ly rise of AfD is thus the unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of a lack of a coher­ent, con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing by the Grand Coali­tion. Com­par­a­tive research across West­ern Europe shows that this is not mere­ly a Ger­man phe­nom­e­non.

How­ev­er, a con­ser­v­a­tive com­pro­mise between the CDU, CSU and the SPD that could hurt the AfD sim­i­lar to the one on Greece, seems to be in the mak­ing. The dev­as­tat­ing elec­toral results for the CDU in Berlin (17.6%, los­ing 5.7%) and Meck­len­burg-Vor­pom­mern (19.0%, los­ing 4.0%) seems to have led the CDU to reach out to its far more con­ser­v­a­tive sis­ter par­ty CSU. Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel’s rel­a­tiviz­ing state­ments about her refugee poli­cies are a sig­nal to her polit­i­cal allies to accept the call to focus more on con­ser­v­a­tive mes­sag­ing in the com­ing weeks. Giv­en the lack of clear lib­er­al and mul­ti­cul­tur­al mes­sag­ing on part of the SPD, the par­ty seems inclined to join this con­cert­ed con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing on migra­tion mat­ters. If so, the prime sell­ing point of the AfD – being the sole defend­er of the Ger­man nation – will be very dif­fi­cult to uphold.

Rea­son Two: Issues beyond refugees and immigration

The sec­ond ingre­di­ent of the AfD’s win­ning for­mu­la is the impor­tance Ger­man vot­ers ascribe to immi­gra­tion and refugee issues. Despite the mas­sive drop in asy­lum fig­ures, Polit­barom­e­ter sur­veys indi­cate that still 70% of Ger­man vot­ers deem migra­tion mat­ters the most press­ing polit­i­cal prob­lem. These high salience fig­ures for one stem from the mixed mes­sag­ing of the gov­ern­ment par­ties that gives vot­ers the impres­sion that the prob­lem is still unsolved; for the oth­er, that Ger­man par­ties have not put for­ward any oth­er polit­i­cal issues to discuss.

This might change the clos­er Germany’s next fed­er­al elec­tion in autumn 2017 draws. Infrat­est polls show that sev­en per­cent of Ger­man vot­ers deem the AfD com­pe­tent in migra­tion and secu­ri­ty mat­ters; how­ev­er, on all oth­er issues Ger­man vot­ers ascribe no issue com­pe­tence to the AfD what­so­ev­er. In stark con­trast, the gov­ern­ing part­ners have remark­able com­pe­tence val­ues on bud­getary issues (53% trust the CDU/CSU, 15% the SPD and only 2% the AfD), cre­at­ing jobs (40% trust the CDU/CSU, 26% the SPD and only 2% the AfD) and fight­ing social jus­tice (16% trust the CDU/CSU, 33% the SPD and only 4% the AfD). In the light of these num­bers, the Grand Coali­tion is like­ly to focus their elec­toral cam­paigns on eco­nom­ic fissures.

Such a polit­i­cal con­flict would in turn increase the salience of bud­getary issues, employ­ment ques­tions and wel­fare state reform. Here, the AfD can only loose. Con­se­quent­ly, the AfD’s sec­ond advan­tage – the high salience Ger­man vot­ers ascribe to migra­tion mat­ters and the low impor­tance of eco­nom­ic issues over 2016 – might get slim­mer in the com­ing months.

Such a polar­iza­tion over eco­nom­ic issues would also low­er the appeal of the anti-estab­lish­ment sen­ti­ment the AfD thrives on. In con­trast to con­flicts over migra­tion poli­cies, vot­ers appre­ci­ate argu­ments over eco­nom­ic mat­ters as they con­sid­er this a strug­gle for inno­v­a­tive solu­tions. Accus­ing the Grand Coali­tion of offer­ing ‘no real alter­na­tive’ to Ger­man vot­ers would lose clout.

Rea­son Three: Alter­na­tives to the sta­tus quo

Ger­man vot­ers might not only have the chance to choose dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic pro­grams, but also a dif­fer­ent chan­cel­lor: Angela Merkel was con­sid­ered untouch­able as the SPD and its most like­ly can­di­date, Sig­mar Gabriel, is polling about ten per­cent­age points behind the CDU/CSU. The option of choice for the SPD – a coali­tion with the Greens – is cur­rent­ly only attract­ing 32–35% of vot­er support.
But after the for­ma­tion of var­i­ous coali­tions between the SPD, the Greens and the Left on the region­al lev­el, more and more voic­es in polit­i­cal Berlin con­sid­er such a three-way coali­tion an option on the fed­er­al lev­el, too. Includ­ing the Left, red-red-green could win a major­i­ty of seats. In fact, it already holds enough seats in the Bun­destag for a sta­ble gov­ern­ment coali­tion, but the SPD still feels bound to the CDU/CSU and is weary about the Left’s for­eign policies.

How­ev­er, Thomas Opper­mann, the SPD whip in the Bun­destag and as such a key fig­ure for pos­si­ble coali­tion talks, con­sid­ered these chal­lenges reme­di­a­ble until the fed­er­al elec­tions. If the SPD is seri­ous about this, Ger­man vot­ers might get the feel­ing they can again choose between an SPD- or a CDU/C­SU-led government.

A pal­pa­ble polit­i­cal alter­na­tive would then be in sight with­out need for the AfD. The AfD would then lose its third sell­ing point – por­tray­ing estab­lished par­ties as only pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo and the AfD as being the only cred­i­ble alternative.

Rea­son Four: Bal­anc­ing act between rad­i­cal opin­ion and extremism

Final­ly, the AfD might spoil its most impor­tant asset – dis­tanc­ing itself from rad­i­cal ele­ments to fare as con­ser­v­a­tive par­ty with­in the demo­c­ra­t­ic spec­trum. The AfD is rich of extra­or­di­nary fig­ures that dance on the razor blade to polit­i­cal extrem­ism. Beat­rix von Storch – key AfD politi­cian in the Berlin branch and mem­ber of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment – pro­posed to pre­vent bor­der cross­ings at gun­point, Bjo­ern Hoecke – head of the region­al chap­ter of the AfD Thuringia – took posi­tions that drew accu­sa­tions he was being anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic and neo-fas­cist.

At the par­ty con­ven­tion in April 2016, par­ty lead­er­ship had to maneu­ver very care­ful­ly to not let the far right sen­ti­ments with­in its rank and file become part of the par­ty plat­form. How­ev­er, the par­ty still took a clear-cut anti-Islam line that seems to be at odds with the Ger­man con­sti­tu­tion, which for­bids dis­crim­i­na­tion by reli­gion. In June 2016, AfD vice chair­man Alexan­der Gauland gave an inter­view to the con­ser­v­a­tive news­pa­per of record Frank­furter All­ge­meine Zeitung in which he said that “Ger­mans like Jerome Boateng as a foot­baller, but do not want him as a neigh­bor”. Germany’s con­ser­v­a­tive media fierce­ly reject­ed this attack on a mem­ber of a cen­tral sym­bol of Ger­man nation­al pride – the foot­ball team that won the World Cup in 2014. The more main­stream con­ser­v­a­tive vot­er stra­ta might grow weary of these kind of extreme com­ments and turn away from the AfD.

This all the more as the extrem­ist state­ments all stem from the AfD branch that seem to want to top­ple Frauke Petry as par­ty leader. It is like­ly that these inter­nal con­flicts would break out in the open once the AfD drops in pub­lic sup­port after the Grand Coali­tion has altered its polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing to cater to AfD vot­ers. Such an inter­nal con­flict alone would dam­age the AfD’s rep­u­ta­tion. All the more, as the more extrem­ist branch in the AfD – around Alexan­der Gauland and Bjo­ern Hoecke – would be like­ly to win such a revolt as they hold key posi­tions and majori­ties with­in the AfD. Con­se­quent­ly, the AfD might as well lose its fourth asset in the com­ing months – por­tray­ing itself as demo­c­ra­t­ic actor freed of rad­i­cal elements.

The AfD is cur­rent­ly polling at around 13% with most fed­er­al polls and appear as polit­i­cal force to reck­on with in the upcom­ing fed­er­al elec­tion. How­ev­er, with­out a mas­sive new surge in migrants and refugees, the par­ty appears extreme­ly vul­ner­a­ble to polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing of the Grand Coalition.

Exact­ly such mes­sag­ing seems to form in Berlin – name­ly the forg­ing of a con­ser­v­a­tive migra­tion com­pro­mise between CDU, CSU and SPD; a focus of their elec­toral cam­paigns on eco­nom­ic fis­sures; and the SPD open­ing up for a red-red-green coali­tion. If these three nar­ra­tives are con­veyed vivid­ly to Ger­man vot­ers, the AfD’s appeal to Ger­man vot­ers will go down sub­stan­tial­ly and the par­ty is bound to inter­nal tur­moil the more extrem­ist ele­ments in the par­ty are like­ly to win. At least then the par­ty might resem­ble the fan­tas­tic fig­ure known from Michael Ende: an illu­sion­ary giant.

Dr Timo Lochoc­ki is a transat­lantic fel­low with the Europe pro­gram at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund and a lec­tur­er for Euro­pean Pol­i­tics at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty Berlin. His research focus­es on the inter­sec­tion between inter­na­tion­al pol­i­cy chal­lenges (migra­tion and mat­ters of Euro­pean Inte­gra­tion, in par­tic­u­lar) and Euro­pean par­ty pol­i­tics. Timo holds a Ph.D. in com­par­a­tive pol­i­tics from the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty Berlin, where he wrote his doc­tor­al the­sis on the vary­ing elec­toral advances of right-wing pop­ulist par­ties in Europe over the last 30 years.

Pic­ture: ‘AfD Bun­desparteitag am 1. Feb­ru­ar 2015 in Bre­men’ by Olaf Kosin­sky / Wikipedia, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, released under Cre­ative Commons.

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