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Home Opinion European debut for Germany’s anti-euro AfD
EU Election • Germany • Protest

European debut for Germany’s anti-euro AfD

Kai Arzheimer - 27 May 2014

Germany is unusual amongst west European democracies because its elites as well as the electorate are almost unanimously pro-European. But now, for the first time since 1989, there will be a delegation of German eurosceptics in Brussels

Who is the AfD?

After some toing and froing in 2012, the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) was founded early in 2013 by orthodox economists and dissidents from the (then governing) CDU and FDP who objected to the bailout packages for Greece and the other crisis-hit eurozone members that were pushed through parliament by the second Merkel government. The AfD demands that the eurozone should be either dissolved or replaced by smaller, more homogeneous currency unions.

The nascent party managed to quickly set up regional and local chapters just in time for the parliamentary election in September 2013. In this contest, they came tantalisingly close to the nationwide five per cent threshold. While their initial focus was on the woes of the euro, they quickly attracted a socially conservative membership that resents gay marriage and immigration. They also became a target for Germany's ailing extreme right, who were looking for a more reputable cover. The AfD was forced to establish a formal ban on right-wingers joining the party, and claims that they are carrying out background checks on new members.

In the weeks leading up to the European election, party leaders toned down their rhetoric. They now claim that they are pro-European and even pro-EU in principle, but remain highly critical of the EU's institutional structure. The AfD staunchly rejects the idea that they are right-wing populists. Party leader Bernd Lucke claims that his creature is neither left nor right, but interested in applying "correct", "pragmatic" and "economically sound" solutions to Europe's problems. He wants to join the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the new parliament. Many of the party’s rank and file, however, would rather join the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group.

Who voted for them?

The AfD is particularly strong in some parts of east Germany, but it is by no means an eastern party. The spatial pattern of their support somewhat unsurprisingly suggests that they may have benefitted from the Liberal Democrats' political decline, and that they are doing less well in the remaining strongholds of the main parties (very Catholic areas for the Christian Democrats, old mining/steel towns for the SPD and the Left, university towns for the Greens). But given that the AfD is still a new party, these patterns may be shaped by their organisational strength on the ground, which in turn partially reflects their strategy for the next string of state elections (all held in the East in August/September).

Exit polls demonstrate that the AfD was most successful amongst men aged 25 to 44, who are disaffected with the existing parties. They may be more eurosceptic than the average German voter, yet according to one poll, less than half of them believe that being an EU member is a disadvantage for Germany. But they are eager to protect their standard of living, and they are worried about immigration - an attitudinal cocktail that has been dubbed "welfare chauvinism" back in the 1980s and 1990s, when a group of then relatively new radical right parties rose to prominence in western Europe. In Germany, welfare chauvinism and a youngish, predominantly male electorate are reminiscent of the "Republican" party, which won 7 per cent of the vote in 1989, then plummeted into obscurity in the mid-1990s.

But unlike the "Republicans," the AfD promotes market-liberal principles. Amongst their seven MEPs are an insolvency lawyer, a member of a state court of auditors, two right-leaning professors of economy, and the former president of the Umbrella Organisation of German Industry (BDI), who favours a minimal state and has likened the EU to the former Soviet Union. The exit polls suggest that the AfD was most successful amongst working class voters. This might be yet another case of turkeys voting for Christmas.   

What does their success mean for Germany?

Like in other EU countries, the EP election was widely seen as a second-order contest. Turnout was well below 50 per cent, and many AfD voters cited protest against the establishment as their primary motive. However, having seven MEPs will give the AfD a stage, and, more importantly access to state funding and other resources.

Without doubt, their success at the European level will give the AfD a head start in the three state elections to be held in August/September in the eastern Länder of Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia. However, the only elections in 2015 are those in the city states of Bremen and Hamburg, where the AfD did not perform well this time. If their current momentum carries them all the way through to the 2016/17 cycle remains to be seen.

Much will depend on Lucke's ability to retain control of the party. Lucke, for many years a member of the CDU, has been adamant that he will steer clear of right-wing populism proper (whether he adhered to this principle during the campaign is a different question). His vision of the AfD amounts to a market-liberal, socially conservative, EU-sceptic centre-right party. Once his voters realise that this is what he is standing for, a considerable number of them is bound to desert the party.

But then, there is the pull of the populist strategy. In the past, xenophobic parties in Germany failed eventually because they were associated with and became tangled up in the country’s Nazi past. Trying to create a somehow respectable populist party along the lines of UKIP must be a very strong temptation. During the campaign, the party's youth organisation invited Nigel Farage to Germany against Lucke's express wishes. One of the renegades is now an MEP and has called Lucke's strategy into doubt again on election night, and one local party chapter wants to force an intra-party referendum on the issue.

How should the mainstream react?
   
Past research has shown that elites are often able to shape public opinion as long as they are united. It would be unwise and implausible for Merkel's centre-right CDU or the centre-left SPD to renege on their pro-integrationist consensus to pander to a very small minority of hard eurosceptics. Merkel, who knows that very well, has quickly ruled out any co-operation with the AfD, while her CDU's small sister party, the Bavarian CSU who are prone to toy with populist rhetoric, are licking their wounds after suffering considerable losses in the election. Trying to re-connect with disaffected voters seems like a difficult yet ultimately more promising strategy. But the velocity of the AfD's ascendancy, just like the rise of the Greens, the Republicans, the Left and even the flash in the pan success of the Pirates, all point to an inconvenient truth: Ever so slowly, Germany's once loyal voters are becoming choosers. The moderate success of the AfD may not signal a seismic shift, but it is indicative of a glacial movement away from political stability.

Kai Arzheimer is professor of political science at the University of Mainz and visiting fellow, Department of Government, University of Essex

Policy Network will also debate The EU after the European Elections at a major conference on 5 June held in partnership with the European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom and hosted by Nomura.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Germany , Elections , Politics , Kai Arzheimer , Opinion , SPD , Social Democratic Party of Germany , Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands , Angela Merkel , Christian Democratic Union of Germany , Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands , CDU , CSU , CDU/CSU , Alliance '90/The Greens , Bündnis 90/Die Grünen , Alliance '90 , The Greens , Bündnis 90 , Die Grünen , Free Democratic Party , Freie Demokratische Partei , FDP , Red-Green Coalition , Sigmar Gabriel , Jürgen Trittin , Christoph Hickmann ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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