German parliamentary debates tend to be well-tempered, often dreary affairs. But a recent session showed just how tense the climate in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, has become.
Earlier this month, Alexander Gauland, a lawmaker with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the lower house of parliament, lambasted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policies. A verbal pile-on ensued. Senior Social Democratic politician Martin Schulz accused the AfD legislator of being a “right-wing radical” and using “tactics of fascism.”
Eventually, the 94 AfD members of parliament walked out, saying that comparisons to the Nazis and other insults were “unacceptable.”
In last September’s elections, the AfD became the first far-right party to win seats in the Bundestag in more than half a century, becoming the official opposition to Merkel’s ruling “grand coalition” of conservatives and social democrats. Although — or precisely because — the AfD is treated as a pariah in the legislature, its support is growing among German voters.
The AfD was listed as the country’s second most popular party in a recent poll, with 18 percent support, beating the mainstream Social Democratic Party into third place, albeit by just a single point.
It is the latest sign that many citizens are drawn to a populist movement that is reshaping politics in Germany, a trend that’s playing out in Europe and elsewhere. AfD politicians are regularly accused of extremism and don’t shy from the type of nationalist rhetoric that mainstream German politicians largely have shunned since World War II. After launching in 2013, Alternative for Germany has grown powerful by focusing especially on the public’s fears and frustrations over the country taking in record numbers of migrants and refugees in recent years.
AfD’s spokesman Jörg Meuthen believes his party is in touch with German society: “On the crucial issues of our time, the views of the majority of the population coincide with ours. That drives these people to us,” he tells NPR.
Accusations that the party’s members are right-wing radicals or a danger to democracy are “an expression of political helplessness” by mainstream politicians, he says.
Meuthen, an economist who also serves as a German member of European Parliament, insists the party’s leaders “completely reject any form of right-wing radicalism.”
But various current and former AfD politicians have been criticized for anything from stoking prejudiced views of ethnic and religious minorities to trivializing the Holocaust. The party rejects such accusations.
In recent protest rallies in the eastern city of Chemnitz, members of the AfD marched alongside leading figures of the anti-migrant group PEGIDA and neo-Nazi activists. Some of the protesters performed Nazi salutes — which are illegal in Germany — and shouted “foreigners out!”
Most Germans reject it
Many are alarmed by the far right’s rise in Germany, a country that has fought to stamp out extremism and remnants of Nazi thinking. Some experts warn against drawing too much comparison to the 1930s Weimar period that led to Adolf Hitler’s rise, but they recognize certain parallels.
“What is interesting is that the dominant right wing of the AfD tries to copy the agitation, the ideology, the rhetoric of the fascists of the Weimar Republic, but they encounter their limits,” says Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Free University of Berlin.
Earlier this month, a survey found that 79 percent of Germans believe right-wing extremism is a danger to democracy. “And big majorities do want that Germany offers [a] place to war refugees,” Funke adds, as another recent study shows.
So, how has the AfD managed to garner so much support for its “alternative” for the country?
According to Werner Weidenfeld, a political scientist at the University of Munich, the party appeals to a variety of sectors. “The AfD supporters are not all right-wing radicals,” he says. There is a range of backers, including “disappointed middle-class” citizens and “some right-wing extremists.”
He thinks the AfD’s success reflects people’s longing for simple solutions to complex issues, like security and artificial intelligence. “We live in an age of complexity,” he says, “while at the same time nobody explains the complex connections. So there is confusion, and people become incredibly insecure. They are frustrated, afraid and want a simple answer.”
Weidenfeld says Germany’s mainstream parties do not provide these answers, so “many of today’s AfD voters stayed home on election days. Now they have found a way of expressing their fear and frustration — by voting for the AfD.”
“Democracy is not threatened today, but it might be the day after tomorrow,” Weidenfeld says. The traditional parties have to “regain the trust of citizens.”
Media scientist Jo Grobel argues that AfD politicians are careful to remain vague on almost all other topics but the refugee issue. That attracts people with widely differing views, who feel unrepresented by established parties, around a single topic.
A record of more than 1 million asylum-seekers came to Europe in 2015, largely from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many conservatives in Germany, and outside the country, have criticized Merkel for letting so many migrants enter.
“So there is a valve for the frustration and anger over the prevailing political style,” Grobel says. As long as the party focuses on migration without straying into other areas, it can harness Germans’ “shared anger.”
There is also a realization in Germany of bigger trends: Europe’s establishment politicians still win elections, but right-wing populists have made considerable gains — with a laser focus on immigration — in countries like Italy and Sweden. That momentum has grabbed the attention of American white nationalist figures as well.
“There is no singular explanation for the strengthening of the extreme right — it is a worldwide phenomenon,” says Konstantin von Notz, a German parliamentarian from the opposition Green Party. “The far right and autocrats have an international network and see themselves as a movement. This threatens the Western-type democracies massively, whose freedoms we have taken for granted for decades.”
Another driver is the AfD’s social media expertise. Political consultant Martin Fuchs says, unlike traditional parties, the populist right-wing party was founded in the age of Facebook. “It consequently built its party structures along the network and uses it better than any other party,” he says, “both in terms of connecting [supporters] to the party, as well as the implementation [of its political agenda] with emotional content, escalating scandals, focusing on one topic and managing its community.” Fuchs says the party uses the online social network so successfully, it no longer needs the mainstream media to reach and mobilize supporters.
The government is aware it needs to improve its appeal to citizens. “The public perception of the government needs a lot of improvement,” says Johannes Kahrs, a member of parliament for the Social Democrats, a partner in the ruling coalition. “Trust calms, a lack of trust gives a boost to the extremists.”
He says to combat the appeal of the AfD, traditional parties “need [to offer] guidance and we need to solve problems.” But he insists politicians should not adopt far-right positions: “There should be no attempt to overtake the far right on the right.” There has to be a clear limit to what is acceptable in German politics and society, Kahrs says.