Germany's Right Wing Party Crashes and Burns

The National Front. UKIP. Golden Dawn. The prominence of right wing, Euro-skeptic parties has grown significantly since the outbreak of the European crisis at the end of the last decade.

Germany hasn’t been immune to this outpouring of right-leaning, Euro-skeptic political impulses. The political party Alternative for Germany (Die Alternative für Deutschland), or AfD, was founded in 2013. It was founded primarily to demand an “alternative” to further European integration for Germany. Its manifesto demands the “orderly dismantling of the Euro currency Union,” stating that “other countries are harming the Euro [currency].”

The AfD Program also demands changes to immigration policy in Germany, saying that Germany needs qualified and “integration-willing” immigrants. The current “disorderly” system of unlimited migration that takes advantage of the German social insurance system “must be prevented.” This is pretty typical stuff, as far as it goes. The AfD has the same DNA as UKIP in Britain and the National Front in France.

But where the AfD differentiates itself is the fact that its Program does not end there. There is also a strong current of economic liberalism. In addition to the immigration demands, the AfD also says that “Germany has much more debt than is permissible” and demands a simplification of the tax code.

If the connection between economic liberalism and anti-European nationalism doesn’t make sense at first blink, don’t worry – it didn’t for me either. But in the minds of the AfD, the connection is quite clear. On the one hand, feckless southern European countries damage the credibility of Europe through irresponsible borrowing and exploding public budgets. On the other, the huge costs involved in rescuing these irresponsible countries endangers the integrity of Germany’s own public budget.

For the neoliberals of the AfD, the Greek crisis is a perfect illustration of their fundamental dislike of public expenditure and debt. If the Euro zone is simply a means to allow southern Europe to drown in debt while needing perpetual rescue by the responsible northern Europeans, then the AfD wants out.

Electoral Success

The union of economic liberals with patriotic nationalists was a highly advantageous strategy. In a sense, nationalist anti-European feelings were legitimized by their association with respected businessmen, including Hans-Olaf Henkel. And by appealing to everyday Germans’ sense that European institutions did not always have their best interests in mind, the economic liberals felt themselves part of a genuinely democratic, grassroots movement.

It was an extremely successful combination. Less than a year after being founded, the AfD received more than 2 million votes in the 2013 federal election. Their 4.7% share of votes stunned observers. Since then, the AfD has defied those who thought that the 2013 elections were, in a sense, a fluke – that 2013 was a protest year and that voters would come to their senses. The AfD has entered the state government of four federal states over the past two years, including such cosmopolitan cities as Hamburg and Bremen.

The AfD’s ability to pull voters away from the economically conservative (but pro-European) CDU/CSU party while simultaneously drawing support from further-right fringe parties is extremely disconcerting for the mainstream parties in Germany, and has put the AfD in a good position to enter the federal parliament during the next federal election in 2017.

Except for one potential problem: the AfD might be on the verge of splitting apart.

Warring Factions

For the past two years, the two factions in the AfD have tolerated one another. Both sides wanted to do their best to keep tension to a minimum in order to keep building momentum.

At the end of 2014, however, a wave of anti-immigration, anti-Muslim protests occurred across Germany. The Pegida movement (or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamification of the Occident) attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators, a number of whom were involved with far right, even neo-Nazi political organizations. Mainstream political parties criticized the demonstrations, with the Justice Minister saying that Pegida is a “shame for Germany.”

The AfD leadership, on the other hand, did not quite do the same thing. One of co-founders, Alexander Gauland, said this winter that the AfD are the “natural allies” of the Pegida movement. In case his point wasn’t clear enough, Gauland went on to say that “there are cultural traditions, which find it difficult to integrate here [in Germany]. I would not like any further immigration from these cultural traditions. This cultural tradition is at home in the Middle East.”

That certainly makes things clear.

The economic liberal wing of the party, including co-founder Bernd Lucke and Hans-Olaf Henkel, were aghast. Henkel resigned his position in the leadership due to his concerns about the rising influence of nationalists within the AfD. And Bernd Lucke has said repeatedly over the past six months that the AfD should not allow itself to be steered by nationalists.

Things have gotten so bad that Lucke, Henkel, and other members of the economic liberal wing of the party launched a website this week called “Wake up Call 2015,” in which they warn about the rising influence of the nationalists within the AfD. On the website, they write that “the AfD must remain a non-ideological, objective, and constructive People’s Party for the middle of society.”

In response, AfD co-Chairman Frauke Petry said this week that “I am of the opinion that Bernd Lucke is politically no longer able to lead this party.” Petry, a voice for the nationalists within the AfD, announced that she would run to replace Lucke as Chairman at the convention in June.

The Future

The conflict between the economic liberal and nationalist wings of the party is only surprising in how quickly it arose. While a showdown regarding the party’s future was probably inevitable, the Pegida protests at the end of 2014 accelerated the process and made it vividly clear, not only to AfD insiders but to outsiders as well, how starkly divided the AfD really was.

Lucke has said that his new Wakeup Call 2015 is not intended to be the platform for yet a new party. He says that he is simply fighting to ensure that the AfD does not transform into a nationalist, anti-immigration party in the mold of UKIP or National Front. The unspoken addendum to that intention, though, is that if the AfD does go in that direction in June, Lucke probably has no intention of remaining associated with it.

Wakeup Call 2015 is not a political party itself – not yet. But it is not difficult to imagine that if Lucke loses the leadership fight next month, he and other economic liberals will find themselves facing a stark choice: accept nationalism as a price to pay for future electoral success; or break away, split AfD down the middle, and (probably) give up their dreams of federal parliamentary seats.