People jump across concrete elements of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial. (Reuters)

Frauke Petry, the head of Germany’s new AfD party, just spent a few days in Moscow to build connections with Russian politicians. The AfD party is one of a number of right-wing populist parties that have sprung up in Europe over the last few years. While it is not as well established as France’s National Front party — which is leading in some polls for the forthcoming French presidential election — it has representatives in 10 of 16 German states (this is tough under Germany’s electoral law, which discriminates against small parties through imposing electoral thresholds). Its influence on political debates in Germany is far bigger than its number of elected politicians would suggest. So what is the AfD, and how is it changing German politics? 

The AfD is the product of Europe’s economic difficulties

The AfD came into being four years ago. It was a response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rescue packages for other euro-zone countries which share a common currency, the euro, with Germany. Merkel contended that there was no alternative to providing sizable loans to these countries. The AfD — whose name translates in English to the “Alternative for Germany” — argued the contrary. Initially, its members were primarily defectors from Germany’s traditional conservative and free-market liberal parties, who opposed bailing out other countries. The party quickly took up other issues such as immigration and national identity. Because of 20th century history, these topics are highly sensitive in German politics.

After an internal split in 2015, the party became still less interested in economic questions, and more focused on hot button issues such as immigration. It currently polls at 10 to 12 percent, and is very likely to enter the German federal parliament (Bundestag) in elections later this year, possibly even as the strongest opposition party.

Why has this party succeeded where others have failed?

The AfD is not the first right-wing populist party to try to build an electoral base in German politics. So why is it succeeding? The answer is convergence — and crisis.

The most important root of the AfD’s success is the ideological convergence of the center-right and center-left in Germany. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Germany’s left-of-center Social Democrats began to embrace a neoliberal economic agenda aimed at deregulating the labor market in an effort to lower unemployment and attract middle class voters.  The right-of-center CDU, for its part, has dropped much of its traditional conservatism, supported phasing out nuclear power and moderated its positions on immigration and German national identity. This meant that some left-wing voters who wanted protection for workers, and right-wing voters who didn’t like immigrants, found themselves without a party to call home.

Opinion polls show that German voters are aware of this convergence, in particular the CDU’s recent leftward shift. Polls asking voters to place the parties on an ideological scale have shown that Germans now think there is an almost negligible gap between the CDU and the leftist Greens for example. This has given the AfD space to attract voters.

Crisis also has helped the AfD. The party came into being thanks to Germany’s response to the euro zone’s economic crisis. No other party represented in the German Parliament was prepared to push back against Merkel’s argument that the euro had to be rescued through expensive loans.

However, this crisis on its own was insufficient. After initial electoral success in German state legislatures and the European Parliament, the AfD seemed to have lost momentum by the summer of 2015, as its issues fell off the political agenda, and it suffered internal upheavals. What saved it was the controversy surrounding the influx of refugees and migrants in the fall of 2015. Chancellor Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees generated consternation on the right, recruiting many supporters to the AfD. By early November it surpassed its previous highest level of public support, and reached double digits in opinion polls in the wake of the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Again, it was the only major political actor that objected to the government’s handling of the migrant crisis on principle.



Poll numbers for major political parties in Germany since the last federal election in September of 2013 (Used with permission: Infratest dimap).

The AfD probably has a long future

Angela Merkel’s move to the left on immigration allowed the AfD to present itself as the primary anti-immigration party in a country increasingly worried about the consequences of immigration. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, 50 percent of Germans said that immigration was one of the two most prominent issues the E.U. had to confront, up from only 11 percent in the summer of 2013. AfD voters are especially concerned — 94 percent of them say that immigration brings more disadvantages than advantages.

It isn’t just immigration though. Many German voters seemed disillusioned with politics even before the migrant crisis. AfD supporters are mostly defined by their dissatisfaction with the state of democracy in Germany (80 percent are unhappy). Even though AfD voters were far more likely than others to say that “refugees” were the deciding factor in how they cast their vote in 2016 state elections, the party’s strength among voters that that have previously stayed home on election day suggests that it is filling a gap in the political system and could continue to prosper even if the refugee crisis were to abate entirely.

This said, the party may have difficulty expanding its support beyond 15 percent or so of voters. Germany’s Nazi past is a highly sensitive topic in German politics, meaning that even conservatives are careful about how they talk about national identity. The AfD has been criticized for how it handled controversial comments about the Holocaust monument in Berlin by one of its prominent figures, Björn Höcke, who leads its ethno-nationalist wing. This controversy has also highlighted a continuing rift within the AfD’s leadership and among some supporters. The recent decision to expel Höcke could lead to a fresh split within the party, perhaps badly hurting its electoral prospects this fall. Even if a legal challenge lodged by Höcke allows him to remain in the party, there will be infighting in the future. If the party fails to do as well as expected in the September elections, the feud is likely to get worse.

Philipp Adorf is a political scientist working at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Germany