In 2012, a group of German luminaries of some stature – including a former state secretary of Hesse, a veteran journalist, and a professor of macroeconomics – started a party as an alternative to Angela Merkel’s government. The Eurozone crisis was at its fiercest, with Grexit looking significantly more likely than Brexit as austerity measures grew increasingly unpopular and Brussel’s patience with the southern European state grew thin.
The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (Alternativ für Deutschland or AfD)began with a manifesto which received the support of journalists, thought leaders and professors who agreed that the Euro was increasingly becoming an unstable and ineffective currency for Germany to participate in. Many of its early members – including Alexander Gauland, former state secretary – were drawn from Merkel’s own Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), a traditionally conservative party which retained a deeply conservative aspect, fiscally as well as socially.
At a time when the EU’s woes were marked by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was hard to imagine that the party would become the de facto voice of Germany’s xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment – ending the decades long claim by the country’s politicians that the nation’s history immured it to populist hatred.
Back in 2012, a Eurosceptic party in the heart of the Eurozone’s most powerful and industrious nation was enough to make quite a splash. At first glance, its showing at the 2013 federal elections wasn’t so promising – it achieved just 4.7% of the vote, about one and a half percent more than UKIP in 2010, and missing out on entering the Bundestag. But German’s fractured electoral system, which relies upon alliances between parties with often disparate goals, made this showing considerably more potent – especially as the other smaller parties all lost a few percentage points. Nevertheless, the union of Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU) received a 41.5% of the votes, putting it within spitting distance of an absolute majority.
The AfD was not phased by this, and entered the European Parliamentary elections in 2014 with enthusiasm, reaping just over 7% of the national vote, with its seven members joining the European Conservatives and Reformists group alongside the Tories and other major European conservative parties. 2014 marked a turning point in the group’s fortunes, with state elections that year and in 2015 providing further proof of a German swing to Euroscepticism.
It was to be in 2015 that the anti-immigrant, xenophobic party which the AfD is known as today emerged, as Frauke Petry, a self-described national-conservative, took control of the party, moving it away from the economic conservatism which had marked its early stages. Instead, it became the party which most readily capitalised upon Angela Merkel’s choice to welcome refugees fleeing from ISIS. If dissent towards the Eurozone had been shocking, an uncomfortably mainstream party with anti-immigrant, pro-Russian leanings was horrifying – hinting at a strain of politics which Germany had long claimed to reject.
All of which made the 2017 election so disturbing. Not only did the CDU and CSU return with a significantly reduced majority of 32.9% – a sign that Merkel’s support for refugees had significantly if not fatally dented her popularity within her own party – but the AfD surged to take 12.6% of the vote, clearing the barrier to gain representation in the Bundestag and becoming the third largest party.
In terms of practical politics, the other German parties have done their best to exclude the AfD: politics there has traditionally been based on alliances, allowing Merkel to stay in power without an absolute majority. But the challenge she faces can’t be ignored: her most likely allies, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and Die Grünen (The Green Party),are at odds with each other politically, and unlikely to have great faith in the future of the CDU-CSU.
Yet the AfD’s path to further political disruption is unclear. Petry announced her resignation co-chair shortly after the election – perhaps ironically as part of a belief that the party’s ever more radical bent (with current leader and founder Alexander Gauland clamouring for recognition of Wehrmacht soldiers) will doom it to the position of a noisy but perennial opposition. But regardless of the political change it enacts, the AfD’s success this year mark a new high-water mark for populism – and a new ebb for those who saw Germany as the ‘special case’ of Europe.