European elections: the view from Berlin

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"The political debate in the AfD never ran between liberals and conservatives […] The dividing line runs between the middle classes, liberals and conservatives, and the German national reactionaries. It runs between modernity and anti-modernity, both in the imagination of society as well as of the role of nation-states.” This characterisation of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s most popular Eurosceptic party, comes neither from a critical commentator nor from a political rival. The quote is taken from an open letter written by Thomas Rang, a founding member of the AfD in North Rhine-Westphalia and the longstanding chairman of the party’s European Union committee. Rang wrote the letter after he quit the party in early April, in frustration at the AfD’s increasing subordination to its radical right wing.

Rang’s is not a unique case: a number of the AfD’s former leaders have left the party in recent days, such as Dagmar Metzger, former spokesperson of the AfD, Jörg Burger, the party’s chairman in North Rhine-Westphalia, and half of the AfD’s board in Saxony-Anhalt. Their departure was motivated by a significant increase of authoritarianism within the party, along with its growing radical right-wing, nationalistic, and even anti-Semitic leanings. Just a few weeks before the European Parliament elections, the party seems to have reached a crossroads. Its situation brings an important question back into Germany’s political debate: is there additional space within the political and democratic spectrum of Germany to the right of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU)? Or have parts of the AfD already crossed the line once drawn by former Bavarian prime minster Franz Josef Strauss?

In late March, the AfD held its second general party convention in Erfurt, and under the glare of massive media attention, the tumultuous atmosphere lent itself to upheaval. Party members shot down plans to create a new governing structure for the party put forward by Bernd Lucke, the party’s top candidate for the European elections and one of three speakers for the party’s federal board. Lucke had envisaged merging the three federal board speaker posts into one prominent leadership position, which he himself would have filled. The move was seen as an attempt by Lucke to take sole power, and as a result, the party’s members refused to support him.

Lucke’s subsequent speech, however, was met with strong support. He described the AfD as the “party of common sense” (Partei des gesunden Menschenverstands), while Hans-Olaf Henkel, former president of the Federation of German Industries and the AfD’s number two candidate for the European elections, expressed pride in the party’s image of consisting of “know-it-alls” and university professors. He said this was proof of the party’s competence on economic affairs. The main issue on the agenda at the convention was the party’s new 27-page programme for the European elections. The AfD still demands that European monetary union be dissolved and that every eurozone country be given the option to exit the euro without leaving the EU. Further, the party wants to stop European Stability Mechanism payments and to gain greater influence for Germany within the European Central Bank. European centralisation should be reversed and legislative power should be returned to national parliaments. And every EU member state should be given the right to veto EU legislation.

Despite the power struggle within the party, the most controversial topic proved to be a proposal for a resolution against sanctions on Russia in the context of the Crimea annexation. The original draft expressed broad understanding for Russia’s actions and was characterised by an openly anti-American tone. Though many delegates criticised this notion, the majority nevertheless agreed on the argument that Russia should be respected as a powerful nation, and that the new government in Kiev completely lacked legitimacy. In the end, the final resolution did not reflect the very Pro-Putin tendencies of the debate, but it stated clearly that the AfD rejects any kind of sanctions as well as any further eastward enlargement of NATO.

The mastermind behind AfD’s retrogressive foreign policy programme is Alexander Gauland, a member of the federal AfD board, a former member of the CDU, and the former state secretary for Hesse premier Walter Wallmann. In September 2013, before the Bundestag elections, Gauland published a concept paper for the AfD outlining key theses on the party’s foreign policy positions, in which he went so far as to call for a return to the nineteenth-century realism of Carl von Clausewitz, who called “war […] the continuation of policy by other means”. But the grounding of Gauland’s thinking lies back in pre-AfD times. For example, Gauland wrote a column in July 2012 for the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel titled “Foggy pacifism – why Germans have major issues with the use of force”, in which he publicly argued that Germans should be made to overcome their “troubled relationship with the use of military power” and quoted Otto von Bismarck as advice to future German governments: “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions […] but by iron and blood.”

In contrast to Gauland’s open revanchist attitude, AfD members rarely and only cautiously express blunt rightist populist convictions in public, and the party continues to shy away from alliances with its like-minded European counterparts, such as Marie Le Pen or Geert Wilders. But as Thomas Rang says in his letter, these notions are gaining ground. At the party conference, Lucke and the party leadership continued to describe the AfD as the party for the small people, the taxpayers and the savers, while the EU’s bureaucracy works for the business and banking elite. However, this image was contradicted just a week later, when AfD’s youth organisation, Junge Alternative, gave a platform at a meeting in Cologne to Nigel Farage, chairman of the British Eurosceptic party UKIP, who was cheered by a large crowd of local AfD members.

Manfred Güllner, head of the influential polling organisation, the FORSA institute, says the AfD does not pose a threat to the conservative CDU/CSU. CDU/CSU voters tend to be religious and pro-Europe. AfD voters, on the other hand, are typically unaffiliated with any religion and often adhere to conspiracy theories. Therefore, the AfD is more likely to gain votes from non-voters and from supporters of rightist-extremist parties who are dissatisfied with current policies. But reality might proove pollsters like Güllner wrong. Exemplary of a phenomenon up until now quite unknown among German politicians is influential AfD member Beatrix von Storch. Known as the “figurehead of the national-conservative scene in Germany”, she has been characterised as an evangelist in the mode of the US Tea Party. She has publicly spoken out against the rights of gay people and Muslims. Furthermore, the religiously motivated group represented by von Storch, who is number four on the AfD’s list of candidates for the European elections, denies the right to abortion, opposes any kind of euthanasia, and is convinced that Turkey does not belong within the EU.

Recent polls indicate that the AfD will gain a 5-7.5 percent share of the vote in the European elections. However, the most optimistic figure of 7.5 percent comes from INSA, the Institute for New Social Answers, which is critical of EU governance. So, a more realistic outcome for the AfD might be a 5-6 percent vote share. By comparison, recent polls predict a 3 percent share for the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), putting the AfD on course to emerge as the fifth strongest party in Germany.

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