Alternative für Deutschland: The Right Populism Challenging Angela Merkel’s alternativlos paradigm

Grant Welby, JHU:

The political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came into being in 2013 as a Eurosceptic party of comprised of disgruntled highly educated German professionals. The founder, Bernd Lucke, was a Macroeconomics professor at the University of Hamburg diametrically opposed to the adoption of the Euro as the common currency of Europe and the seemingly unending stream of Greek bailouts. Riding a wave of discontent, the AfD shocked the German political establishment with incredible success in the 2014 elections. Since then, the AfD has moved in a decidedly more disturbing direction under new leadership, ousting Bernd Lucke. Under Frauke Petry, the new chair of the party, the AfD has moved further to the right, and taken up anti-immigration policies in response to the refugee crisis. Now, in a similarly striking manner as their success in 2014, the AfD has ridden another wave of discontent to success at the ballot boxes. Two weeks ago the AfD scored huge victories in state elections in Rhineland-Pfalz, Baden-Württemberg and Sachsen-Anhalt, capturing 12.6%, 15.1%, and 24.2% of the vote, respectively. To put this in perspective, this is the most rapid rise of a political party in the history of modern Germany. Although the AfD did not receive enough support to form a government in any of the aforementioned regions, it did reshuffle the coalitions in power, and sent a shot across the bow of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). If the current trend holds, the AfD will see big electoral gains in the Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state elections in September of 2016.

The AfD’s success is considered a direct response Merkel’s difficulty in addressing the refugee crisis and has led the electorate to question her previously stalwart leadership. The de facto leader of Europe, Merkel has been in power since 2005, making her the longest-governing incumbent on the continent. Merkel has remained in power through a series of shrewd political maneuvers and compromises, stealing the wind out of her opponents’ sails by coopting opposing parties’ stances on key wedge issues like same-sex marriage and nuclear power. Her patience has become so notable that it has drawn the ire of some German youth, who coined the term ‘merkeln’ to describe her particular brand of ‘wait-and-see’ politics. Merkel has done her best to portray her positions as alternativlos—that is, ‘without alternative.’

Merkel’s approval rating dropped to 46% in February, shortly after the Cologne attacks, when more than 100 women came forward with allegations of sexual assault by gangs of men who were likely immigrants. Merkel has been under constant criticism since her decision to allow more than 1.5 million Syrian asylum seekers and other immigrants to enter Germany under the guise of Willkommenskultur (“Welcome Culture”). In this wedge issue, Merkel’s opposition has finally found a popular, viable alternative to her policy, providing the most serious challenge Merkel has ever faced during her nearly 11 years in power.

Some might argue that the AfD is a beast of Merkel’s own making. A centrist, Merkel has maneuvered her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), formerly a right of center party, closer to the center in an effort to keep power. That shrewd calculus has also opened up space to the CDU’s ideological right, a space the AfD has come to fill. The AfD has treaded carefully, using tactics similar to other right wing populists in Europe but adapted specifically to attempt to avoid Germany’s aversion towards far-right politics. The AfD has disavowed any and all affiliation with the NPD, the remnants of Germany’s nationalist party, while tacitly supporting (or at the very least refusing to criticize) the right-wing protest movement PEGIDA.

The coming year will be incredibly dangerous for Angela Merkel, as she attempts to successfully navigate a political minefield ahead of the August 2017 German Federal Elections. An often-overlooked hurdle for Merkel will be the UK’s referendum on exiting the European Union, the so-called “Brexit.” Although the referendum will take place later in the summer of 2016, bookmakers seem to believe there is at least a one in three chance of the UK exiting the EU. A Brexit would be disastrous for Merkel, given she is effectively the leader of the EU. Such a move would undeniably damage her credibility, which is damaged enough already. Furthermore, Merkel’s power has always rested on the economic well being of the German people. A Brexit would endanger the 127 Billion-Euro in yearly trade between the two nations, adding complicated diplomatic and economic negotiations to the Chancellor’s plate the year before an election. A Brexit could also lead to a fracturing of the EU as a whole. Should Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front win the presidency in 2017, she has promised to carry out a similar referendum. Critically, if Le Pen were to be elected, it would be before the 2017 German Federal Elections, adding to the momentum of the AfD going into the elections.

The AfD’s Eurosceptic founding would also come in handy in case of a Brexit. Although the party has moved towards anti-immigrant rhetoric as a source of support in the last year, a crumbling EU would provide the AfD an avenue through which to legitimize their party and broaden their support base. The AfD could recapture the support of the middle class professionals that founded the group, and appeal to potentially disillusioned Germans in the midst of a EU crisis. Although there are dozens of potential variables capable of boosting the AfD and harming Merkel, including a terrorist attack on German soil, one thing remains clear: in order to threaten the chancellor’s tight grip on power, the AfD needs to capitalize on a crisis. A failure on Merkel’s part to address either the refugee crisis or a fractious EU could spell disaster for her. It is important to consider that the AfD does not need to win majority for Merkel to fall, only make enough of a dent in the CDU’s base to allow for a coalition of the SPD and the Greens.

What has Merkel’s response to this challenge been? To her credit, Merkel has demonstrated her legendary calm demeanor, refusing to renege on her immigration policy. However, this last round of elections, and the rise of the AfD as a whole is a clear warning to Merkel: get your house in order, or else.

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