What Germany Says About Far-Right Politics

The Alternative for Germany is expected to fall short of its historic 2017 victory, but that doesn’t mean it has failed.

Leaders of the AfD huddle together
Michael Sohn / AP

When Germany heads to the polls this weekend, the far-right Alternative for Germany will again be on the ballot, once a fringe presence that has become the largest—and most loathed—opposition party in the Bundestag. It has stood at the center of scandal after scandal, yet unlike other far-right parties across Europe, its experience in mainstream politics hasn’t had a moderating effect on its outlook. The AfD of 2021 is more established, but also more radical.

With Angela Merkel set to step down after 16 years in office following this weekend’s election, all eyes are on who is poised to replace her. Whatever the outcome, however, the AfD is all but certain to be excluded from any future government. And if polling is any indication, the far-right party is expected to win only 11 percent of the vote, falling short of its historic showing in 2017.

Four years ago, many worried that the AfD would eventually win power, so it would be easy to write off the party as having failed. One could think that perhaps Germany has proved the limits of far-right populism.

The reality is not so simple: If any lesson is to be learned from Germany over the past four years, it’s that the populist right doesn’t need to be in power to be politically effective. From the sidelines, the AfD has managed to set the terms and tone of Germany’s political debate, all the while breaking taboos and challenging the limits of what constitutes acceptable political discourse in the country. No matter the result of the election, that much is unlikely to change.

Conventional wisdom suggests that once a far-right party enters the political mainstream, it begins to self-moderate in an effort to broaden its appeal. Such has been the case in France, where Marine Le Pen has tried to rebrand her far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front) into a more palatable choice—a process that has involved expelling the party’s founder and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as turning away from much of his xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. (The party’s other policies, including its nativism and Islamophobia, remain intact.) The same has also proved true in Sweden, where the far-right Swedish Democrats have sought to distance themselves from their neo-Nazi roots.

The AfD, however, has only grown more extreme. Though it was founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party (its name was a pointed response to “There is no alternative,” one of Merkel’s signature statements), it swiftly pivoted during the 2015 migrant crisis, which saw Germany absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. The party’s far-right politics gave it a path to the Bundestag, and its leaders seem confident that those politics can keep it there. In addition to doubling down on anti-immigration rhetoric in this election (“Cologne, Kassel or Konstanz can’t cope with more Kabul,” reads one AfD poster, in an apparent reference to Berlin’s decision to accept thousands of vulnerable Afghan refugees fleeing Taliban rule), the party has also sought to capitalize on more pressing issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, positioning itself as a political home for shutdown opponents and climate-change skeptics.

German voters haven’t embraced the AfD’s shift. The party suffered a blow this year in a regional election in East Germany, a defeat that was attributed in part to voters’ waning interest in immigration as a wedge issue, as well as to the internal battle between the AfD’s more moderate and extremist wings, the latter of which has attracted the attention of Germany’s domestic-intelligence agency, which is charged with monitoring extremist forces in the country. “They are under scrutiny—not officially yet under observation,” Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist and expert on right-wing extremism at Germany’s University of Mainz, told me. “But in the public’s mind, they are borderline extremists.” (The AfD leadership did not respond to requests for comment.)

Poll numbers and election results, clear though they are, can also be limited gauges of a movement’s impact. This is because, as several populist forces across Europe have demonstrated, the far right doesn’t have to win power to achieve its political goals. Such was the case in Britain with Nigel Farage, who despite never winning a seat in Parliament managed to elevate his pet issue, Britain leaving the European Union, to a matter of fierce national debate—one that ultimately culminated in Farage’s desired outcome: Brexit. Elsewhere in Europe, mainstream parties have adopted more hard-line rhetoric on immigration in a bid to undercut the growing populist and nationalist wave.

“It may look at some point like the far right is not doing very well,” Hans Kundnani, the director of the Europe program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told me. “Centrists can say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? We’ve seen off the populist wave.’ But what’s actually happened is that the center-right has completely taken over their agenda.”

Although Germany’s mainstream parties have maintained a cordon sanitaire around the AfD, they haven’t been immune to the trend that Kundnani described. Indeed, a number of politicians belonging to the Christian Social Union, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, parroted AfD talking points about Islam and migration in a fruitless attempt to undercut the far right during state elections in 2018. Even now, some of the most right-wing members of Merkel’s party sound more like AfD supporters than they do Christian Democrats—the most prominent example being Hans-Georg Maassen, the party’s candidate for the East German state of Thuringia and the former head of the country’s domestic-intelligence agency, a position from which he was sacked over accusations of harboring far-right sympathies.

By claiming a share, however small, of Germany’s political real estate, the AfD has forced the country’s mainstream parties to broaden their tents and, in some cases, even normalize far-right positions. It has also forced them to consider more cumbersome coalitions that not long ago might have been unthinkable, complicating the math of forming a government in a country where a single party rarely wins an overall majority. “Its sheer existence makes two-way coalitions on the national level almost impossible,” Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Germany expert at the Brookings Institution, told me, noting that the country’s previous attempt at forming a governing coalition without the AfD took five months to negotiate. This time could be similar.

“We are looking at the possibility of protracted coalition negotiations and an inward-looking German capital at a time when I would argue German responsibility in Europe is urgently needed,” Stelzenmüller said. “That is one significant impact the AfD has, whether it is in the opposition or not.”