BERLIN — Where does right-wing populism go when it fizzles?
In Germany, straight into the national Parliament, where Alternative for Germany — a nationalist, anti-immigrant party that has questioned German guilt for Nazi crimes — could be the third-largest faction after an election on Sept. 24.
A recent poll suggested the far-right party could capture 11 percent of the vote, down from about 15 percent in mid-2016, when concern over the arrival of refugees was pronounced. Even the revised figure would hand Alternative for Germany, or AfD, more than 60 of the 600-odd spots in the lower house, known as the Bundestag. It would trail only the Christian Democratic Union, the center-right group led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the center-left Social Democratic Party, which governs in a coalition with Merkel's party and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian Social Union.
The AfD is unlikely to upend Berlin’s political establishment, as it threatened to do following strong showings in state and local races last year — and as the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union sent shock waves through the West.
But the German election is an important gauge of right-wing nationalism in Europe, and it could grant far-right German figures new visibility — and the sort of legislative authority they have long been denied — while keeping them far from real governing power.
“The AfD is already in 13 state parliaments, so it’s not new on the political scene,” said Alexander Hensel, one of the authors of a 2017 study of the AfD’s role in state parliaments for the Frankfurt-based Otto Brenner Foundation. “But to enter the national Parliament, this is a very, very important step. The party will gain new resources, and it will be a continual part of the debate on the national level.”
With Merkel in a dominant position several weeks from the election, the question, analysts say, is with whom she will govern. A strong showing by the AfD could limit her options, forcing her back into the arms of the Social Democrats or requiring her to join hands with both the Greens and the pro-market Free Democrats. The latter, so-called Jamaica coalition — the hues of the three parties form the Caribbean nation’s colors — is unprecedented on the national level. Merkel has ruled out partnering with the AfD, which, after a dip in the polls amid party infighting earlier this year, has regained ground across recent surveys.
The party seems all but guaranteed to clear the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag for the first time.
That this prospect hardly registers as a shock in a remarkably placid race, however, is a reflection of the AfD’s attempts at normalization. Founded as an anti-euro protest party in 2013, it came to focus on opposing immigration after Merkel welcomed hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers into Germany in 2015. “Islam does not belong to Germany,” its campaign program declares.
The election, Hensel said, will decide whether the AfD’s appeal was a temporary effect of the refugee crisis or whether the party will be a “long-term factor in German politics.”
Clues to the sort of role the AfD might play in the Bundestag lie in its approach at the state level, where its lawmakers have been rhetorically combative but also active with legislation, primarily in using parliamentary instruments to demand information from the government. The party’s focus has not just been immigration, Hensel said, but issues such as the environment and infrastructure.
If the AfD intends to transcend its role as a protest group, it "needs to decide what sort of party it wants to be," said Konstantin Vössing, a political scientist at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Founded as a technocratic, anti-European Union party, it no longer has a clear economic message, he said, and has not been able to seize the right flank of Merkel's party, left open by her centrist stance on issues such as immigration, the environment and same-sex marriage.
The party's conflicting instincts were on display last month, when Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old lesbian mother and one of the party's two leading candidates, addressed reporters in Berlin, seeking to distance herself from the party's harsher strains of cultural and religious nationalism. She said she welcomed migrants who integrated into German society and regretted a campaign advertisement pairing the belly of a pregnant woman with the pronouncement "New Germans? We'll make them ourselves."
A day earlier, the other leading candidate, Alexander Gauland, 76, told supporters that the government’s integration commissioner, Aydan Ozoguz, who has Turkish roots, could learn about national culture by coming to Eichsfeld, the district in central Germany where he was speaking.
“Then she’ll never come here again, and we will, thank God, be able to dispose of her in Anatolia,” he said, in remarks described by a former federal judge as incitement to hatred in violation of Germany’s criminal code.
The two styles create a cacophonous message — with many notes still proof, for the party’s critics, that it is beyond the pale. But the different approaches may also help the relatively new bloc cast a wide net.
The important point for some supporters is that the AfD is challenging the political establishment — and the behavioral codes it upholds. Max Naegele, a 50-year-old postal worker in Augsburg, in southern Germany, acknowledged the party’s blemishes but declared himself “sick and tired of hearing the same old story. Every day I go to work and I’m poorer than the day before.”
But others are backing away. Uli Heinemann, a retired engineer in Anklam, a stronghold of the far right in eastern Germany, has voted for the AfD before but planned to support Merkel’s party this fall.
“I voted for the AfD because I wanted to try something different,” said Heinemann, 72. “I liked that they were against the massive influx of refugees.”
Two years later, he said, the AfD’s dire predictions have not come true. “This year, I will vote for the CDU. Mrs. Merkel is leading in a pretty clever way. She’s calm and unemotional.”
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.