Germany’s largest far-right party since the Nazis, AfD is stoking discontent on migration, energy

Posted on : 2023-09-06 17:15 KST Modified on : 2023-09-06 17:34 KST
In the 10 years since it was founded, the AfD has gained increasing ground in Germany by exploiting public discontent, most recently about the war in Ukraine and domestic immigration policies
Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) holds its party convention in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, in July. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) holds its party convention in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, in July. (Reuters/Yonhap)

Trouble is brewing in Germany.

One out of five German citizens told pollsters that if the general election were held this weekend, they would vote for the far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

The return of the far right in Europe, along with its increasing activity and growing strength, should no longer come as a surprise. But it’s still an unpleasant shock in Germany, the country that has never stopped expressing contrition for the past horrors perpetrated by Adolf Hitler.

The AfD has been rapidly gaining ground amid global inflation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the climate and energy crisis, simmering frustration with the immigration issue, and public dissatisfaction over the “traffic light” coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz composed of the Social Democratic Party (red), the Free Democratic Party (yellow), and the Greens.

The AfD is just 10 years old. It was established in February 2013 by middle-aged academics opposed to the euro currency who were members or supporters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a moderate conservative party.

That year, the party received 4.7% of the vote in federal elections, narrowly failing to clear the 5% bar for claiming seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament. The following year, the AfD took 7% of the vote in an election for European Parliament, clinching seven of the 96 seats reserved for Germany.

But the decisive factor behind the AfD’s growing power was the European migrant crisis in 2015. German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a policy of granting asylum to all Syrian refugees who arrived in the country. The AfD responded by characterizing immigrants as a threat, paving the way for increasing influence.

In March 2016, the AfD received 25% of the vote in parliamentary elections in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, coming in second after the CDU. When the next federal elections were held in September 2019, the party won the support of 12.6% of voters, giving it 94 of 704 seats in the Bundestag.

That was the first time a far-right party had enjoyed so much electoral success since the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — that is, the Nazis.

The AfD’s performance at the polls dipped to 10.3% in the 2021 parliamentary election, but the party has taken full advantage of the war in Ukraine that began five months later, as well as the ramifications of that war.

Several opinion polls in Germany have given the AfD a national approval rating of 20%. The party is trailing the CDU by single digits and in the lead over Scholz’s Social Democratic Party.

The AfD opposes most of the policies advanced by Scholz’s coalition government, but the best-known disagreement is on the issue of immigration. Germany has maintained an immigration policy so inclusive it’s often called a “country of immigrants.” But the number of migrants has been increasing again recently, fueling discontent.

Last year, Germany processed 244,000 applications for asylum, up 47% from the previous year. Syrian, Afghan and Turkish nationals make up the vast majority of asylum seekers.

Even local government officials with the Greens, a party that actively supports taking in migrants, have complained that the country can’t care for so many people any longer.

According to a May poll conducted by German public broadcaster ARD, 54% of respondents said that accepting immigrants has more disadvantages than advantages.

The AfD is also making shrewd use of public skepticism about the coalition government’s climate and energy policy. Energy prices soared last year when Germany halted imports of Russian natural gas following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That coincided with inflation, as prices in Germany rose 8.8% from the previous year (as of October-November of last year).

Under those circumstances, an increasing number of people are frustrated with the government’s energetic push to ban the registration of new vehicles with internal combustion engines in the EU and to ban the installation of gas- and oil-fueled boilers in newly constructed buildings.

Another boon for the AfD is fatigue over the continuing war in Ukraine. While a significant number of citizens approve of the German government providing armaments to Ukraine, a March poll by ARD found that close to 40% of Germans think its military aid has been excessive.

The AfD has signaled anti-US, pro-Russian sentiments while arguing that Germany should halt military aid and shift the focus to “diplomatic efforts.” The party also advocates lifting sanctions on Russia on the grounds that they “harm German industry.”

Breaking down the party’s support by region gives a glimpse into the fault lines that remain in Germany more than three decades after the country’s reunification. The AfD is especially strong in the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, where public frustration with immigration policy has been strongest. It has basically become the leading party in those states, with support upwards of 30% — around 10 points higher than the national average.

A study of far-right attitudes in eastern Germany that was published this past June by the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik Institute (EFBI) found that feelings of inequality and being “second-class citizens” and overall discontent with democracy are more frequent in that region than in the west. Indeed, many residents of the east suffered collective unemployment during the process of being reunified with the west in the 1990s, with around 2.5 million residents impacted by unemployment at that time.

In addition to the gap in wealth and income between eastern and western Germany, the eastern states tend to be more rural and therefore more prone to aging and population exodus, which also impacts voters’ sentiment.

“These structural differences may add to a feeling of being ‘left behind’ [for people in eastern Germany]. The AfD knows how to tap into these fears of relegation [in status] and use them to its advantage,” commented Marius Dilling, a research associate at EFBI, in an interview with the Hankyoreh.

The AfD’s radicalization has been becoming more prominent since the election of new leaders in June 2022.

The figure to watch is Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in the state of Thuringia. He’s the most radical figure in the party who infamously said that a memorial to the Holocaust was “shameful.” Höcke’s influence is growing at the federal level.

“Both the leaders and the bulk of the party’s executive board identify with the extreme faction’s moves. Unlike before, it will not be counterbalanced by more moderate politicians,” Kamil Frymark, a senior fellow at the Poland-based Centre for Eastern Studies, told the Hankyoreh.

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

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