But any celebration may be short-lived. Merkel, who is expected to win a fourth term on Sunday, has already closed the door on governing with the far-right party, whose leaders she has openly criticized. (She’s also ruled out coalitions with the far left.) This means that the AfD will largely exist as a protest party—one that promises to make a lot of noise in the Bundestag.
Still: Even if the AfD is made a pariah in the parliament, it will be presented with an unprecedented opportunity. With its new status, the party will have to choose whether its political future will be best served by demonstrating that it can co-exist as a more cooperative opposition party, or by sticking with its right-wing populist bona fides. First, it will have to reckon with its weakness for infighting if it has any hope of achieving its far-right goals on migration and domestic security.
Alexander Hensel, an expert on the AfD, told me that the Bundestag will give the AfD the biggest platform it has ever had. “They will try to use parliamentary debates to get more visibility in public for their radical political demands. With the entry in the national parliament, the AfD will gain many new resources: more finances, a big staff and new formal possibilities of political action,” Hensel added. Its “entry in the parliament is an important step in the long-term party development.”
Infighting between the AfD’s more moderate and extremist poles, however, could complicate the equation. After founder Bernd Lucke’s departure, Frauke Petry took the helm as the party gravitated to the right. She drew headlines for her sharp rhetoric on refugees and Islam, but also began charting a more pragmatic course for the party that could help it one day become a coalition partner.
That new direction was met with resistance by leading AfD figures like now co-leading candidate Alexander Gauland and the controversial Björn Höcke, who has suffered from backlash over comments he made related to the Holocaust. Some AfD leaders, like Höcke and Jörg Meuthen, accused Petry of trying to divide the party. At the party’s convention in April, the 600 delegates declined to debate her motion to take the AfD in a more mainstream direction, as the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria has done. Additionally, new rifts between party leaders opened over Höcke’s calling the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame.” The AfD’s federal board voted to expel him earlier this year, but Gauland and Meuthen rose to his defense. (Höcke’s expulsion is now in the hands of an AfD arbitration committee in the central German state of Thuringia.)
Ultimately, Petry chose not to stand as the AfD’s leading candidate in the election, signaling the party’s further shift to the right. AfD members who attended the party’s convention in April elected Gauland and Alice Weidel to fill her spot. At the convention, Gauland, who has frequently clashed with Petry, directly acknowledged the party’s internal struggles. “From this day on, all conflicts in this party should end. From today on, we will only attack political enemies,” he said. This political odd couple appeared to represent two wings of the party: Gauland, a firebrand conservative with a penchant for provocation, and Weidel, an economist, lesbian, and mother, who was drawn to the party because of its euro-skeptic roots.