The euroskeptic, anti-immigration and anti-Islam Alternative for Germany party has upended the country’s normally staid politics, demonstrating that Europe’s biggest economy isn’t immune to the populism that has permeated its European Union neighbors. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and Germany’s other mainstream parties swore off any cooperation with the AfD, even after it emerged as the third-strongest political force in the 2017 national election. But its pivotal role in the selection of a new leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, where leaders from Merkel’s party defied her ban, threatens anew to push her coalition government to the breaking point.

1. Where did the AfD come from?

It was founded in 2013 by economists and former politicians who were against Merkel’s support for bailing out Greece in the wake of the global financial crisis. It urged “the dissolution of the euro in favor of national currencies or smaller currency alliances” and the “orderly sovereign insolvency” of highly indebted euro-area countries, with private creditors paying the cost. The party gained momentum amid widespread discontent with Merkel’s immigration policy, which opened the door to more than 1 million refugees arriving in Germany after 2015 during a crisis tied to Syria’s civil war.

2. What happened in Thuringia?

Despite pledges by other parties not to cooperate with it, AfD managed to play a pivotal role in the regional legislature’s selection of Thuringia’s next governor on Feb. 5 -- the first time a German state premier was appointed with the far right’s help. AfD did so by dropping its own nominee on the third ballot and backing Thomas Kemmerich, of the small pro-business Free Democrats; members of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union also backed Kemmerich, in defiance of orders from party headquarters. His victory denied a second term to Bodo Ramelow of the anti-capitalist Left party. The outcome provoked uproar, with Merkel calling it “unforgivable” and her coalition partners scheduling a crisis meeting to talk about the consequences, putting CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s chosen successor, under even greater pressure. One day after the vote, Kemmerich said he would step down as state premier and seek new elections.

3. Why won’t other parties work with AfD?

Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, Germany’s mainstream political parties remain haunted by memories of the Hitler era and on guard for advances by the far right. There are moderate forces within the AfD who have advocated for a more conventional image. But AfD continues to be defined by politicians outside the mainstream. Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD’s state leader in Thuringia, is a notorious figure from the hard-right nationalist wing who has made headlines by assailing Germany’s guilt complex over the Holocaust, referring to the memorial to it in Berlin as a “monument of shame.” A German court ruled in September that he could legally be called a “fascist.”

4. How strong is the AfD?

It won 94 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag in the September 2017 election, with 13% of the vote, becoming the first far-right party to gain entry to Germany’s lower house of parliament since right after World War II. It has become the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag, ahead of the liberal Free Democrats, the Left Party and Alliance 90/The Greens, although it still trails well behind the governing conservative CDU/CSU alliance and their social democratic SPD coalition partners. It’s also represented in all of Germany’s 16 state parliaments and in the European parliament.

5. What are its goals?

Its 2017 election platform called for closing Germany’s borders to stop “unregulated mass immigration,” reframing Germany’s liberal rules on political asylum, calling a referendum to restore Germany’s own currency and lifting economic sanctions on Russia. It has called on the government to challenge past European Central Bank bond purchases in court and seek an end to further asset-buying. The AfD alleges that the ECB’s “enormous” bond purchase programs, which helped the euro survive at the height of the debt crisis, exceed limits set by Germany’s constitutional court. The AfD is also alone among German parties in being skeptical of climate change.

6. Who runs the party?

The party is co-led by Joerg Meuthen, an economics professor from the south-western state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, and Tino Chrupalla, a tradesman and legislator from Saxony. Meuthen has shifted the focus from criticizing the ECB to slamming Merkel’s migration policy. The caucus in the Bundestag is led by Alexander Gauland, who helped run the Hesse state chancellery when he was a member of Merkel’s CDU, and Alice Weidel, a consultant who holds a Ph.D. in business administration.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Lisa Beyer

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