Germany’s Divided Right-Wing Nationalists
BERLIN—Right-wing nationalism is rising in Germany. Recent polls suggest that the new Alternative for Germany (AfD) party can tap a potential voting block as large as 30 percent of the German electorate. The AfD’s party platform largely follows the formula of classic European right-wing populists, positioning itself as for the nation and against the existing political establishment. Originally founded as an anti-euro (although not necessarily anti-Europe) party, the AfD now attacks establishment German politicians for all sorts of undesirable social changes over the last few decades. It also blames migrants and the influence of the European Union for hampering the bright outlook of the German nation.
But the AfD has also been riven by internal party disputes between the informal party leader Bernd Lucke and a national-conservative faction. On most political issues, the wing of the party that supports Lucke wants to adopt some positions that were held by the mainstream Christian Democrats only ten years ago. For example, Lucke has called for the party to commit to transatlantic and European cooperation, is skeptical about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and proposes a strict stance on immigration policies.
At the same time, a more far-right national-conservative faction led by Konrad Adam, Alexander Gauland, and Frauke Petry wants to position the AfD as a German version of France’s Front National (FN). In their view, the AfD should mainly focus on issues relating to German identity, on which the positions of the Christian Democrats is far too liberal. As such, they fully reject transatlantic cooperation, have strong sympathies for the Russian stance on Ukraine, and propose selective migration based on their religion. Remarkably, the internal disputes have so far had almost no impact on the AfD’s public standing; polling for AfD has remained steady at 6 to 8 percent since mid-2013.
A party convention in Bremen on January 31 resolved nearly all of the intra-party conflicts in Lucke’s favor, and he is likely to become the sole party leader in November. As Lucke has frequently pointed out, with two important federal state elections on the horizon, it is important for the party to paper over its internal disputes. It was not necessarily a sense of consensus on the issues, but rather a commitment to this pledge for unity, that led a substantial share of AfD members to ultimately support Lucke.
However, several party members expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that nearly all dissenting proposals were voted down. They were even more taken aback by Lucke’s assertion that he would step down from his leadership position if his proposals were not accepted. Their dismay at such authoritarian tactics was somewhat mitigated by anxiety over the AfD’s negative image in the German media.
Lucke’s triumph at the party convention could ultimately turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. The limited debate on issues means that Lucke’s party rivals may gain momentum in the coming months. Disenchanted with the convention’s results, some members will continue to criticize Lucke for his authoritarian style of leadership. They will also accuse him of being too soft on immigration, the EU, and the United States, and for being too critical of Putin’s Russia. Even at the Bremen convention, some supporters of Adam, Gauland, and Petry openly criticized Lucke’s leadership and programmatic priorities, to sustained applause, although they stopped short of resisting his proposals.
The struggle for primacy in the AfD is therefore by no means over, and whoever emerges victorious will define the party’s agenda in the years to come. The upcoming AfD party conventions in April and November will show which platform will prevail: the largely pro-U.S., anti-euro conservatives around Lucke, or the pro-Putin, anti-Europe national-conservatives around Adam, Gauland, and Petry.
Timo Lochocki is a non-resident transatlantic fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.