Recently, nationalist parties have been strikingly on the rise worldwide, and Germany witnessed a similar phenomenon when the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time in the German general elections of 2017, which marked the party's rise with nearly 13% of the vote. This came as a shock for many since people believed that Germany's past had made the country immune to extremist parties, which have been on the rise recently. The anti-establishment AfD party has xenophobic and nationalist tendencies in public opinion, and its relation to democracy raises concerns.
"There are still questions about the AfD's commitment to democracy and limited evidence that it would undermine the liberal structure, media freedom or the judiciary. If these were the case, the Verfassungsschutz, Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, would interfere in case it crossed the line as it monitors every movement closely," Hans Kundnani, a senior research fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House, told Daily Sabah.
Created in 2013, the party's raison d'être was to protest German Chancellor Angela Merkel's euro crisis policy; people did not want a system where fiscally responsible countries would endlessly help the irresponsible. However, when the refugee crisis of 2015 began, the AfD shifted its focus from the euro to immigration and Islam. With Syrians pouring into Germany and the country's transition to renewable energy branded as dangerous for both the country's economy and culture, people in eastern Germany switched mostly to the AfD, while the party itself began to see itself as the advocate of the eastern German population.
"A growing part of German voters are not satisfied about the current system. Whereas the AfD is giving a voice, they do not have a policy. It seems that they do not want to get into government, because then they really need to do something. Currently, they play the loud voice of opposition," Olaf Boehnke, former head of the European Council on Foreign Relations Berlin Office, told Daily Sabah.
AfD becomes party of nonaligned voters
Due to their anger about the current system, voters prefer the party make a protest vote rather than voting for its ideas. Without having concrete policies, the AfD is more focused on infighting and "opposing all suggestions of the main parties," as Boehnke explained. Furthermore, an ideological war is going on within the party as it split several times. In 2015 and 2017, leaders of the party left due to radicalization. "At first the party was rational based, yet with every split it became more radical," Boehnke said.
Founder Bernd Lucke quit the party in 2015 after he lost elections of the party chairmanship due to its xenophobic shift. "I certainly made my share of mistakes, and among the biggest was realizing too late the extent to which members were pushing the AfD to become a populist protest party," Lucke said. On the other side, Frauke Petry, one of the prominent faces of the party, stated in 2017 that she could not stand an "anarchistic party" that lacked a credible plan to govern and would sit in parliament as an independent. There are fundamental disagreements between the AfD's economically liberal/euroskeptic wing, and the more traditional far-right element focused on anti-immigration issues.
"It is interesting that the party has supporters from all classes. It could be defined as a 'Volkspartei,' which means that it integrates different structures of society. Not many parties do that anymore, the term tended to be used for the [Merkel's Christian Democratic Union] CDU," Kundnani said. As he expresses, understanding the motives of AfD voters is difficult since there are many, and they are varied; however, it is still notable that the party has a greater success rate in the former East Germany, where it topped second on Sept. 1 in the state elections of Brandenburg and Saxony. On Oct. 27, another eastern state, Thuringia, will vote, which equally raises concerns.
Nearly three decades after Germany's reunification, the remnants of the past can still be felt. The people no longer felt represented due to the parliament's policies, whether economic, environmental or cultural. The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats (SPD) indirectly paved the way for the euroskeptic party. Even though the party is a long way off from being able to form a government, the lack of representation of the main parties could lead to further sympathy of extremism and drive the people to the AfD.
Populism could be understood as a symptom of the problems of democracy, according to many pundits. However, some think that if existing parties and institutions respond properly, the existence of the AfD could be helpful in combating the deficiencies of democracy and inequalities. The big parties need to take the concerns of the people seriously, engage with people and local communities, winning them back, stressed Boehnke, adding that there are two sections of voters: one that can be won back by rational steps and another that is rather a lost cause, believing everything the party says including things about privileges for immigrants and that immigrants cause a higher crime rate in the country, endangering German culture.