AfD Sets its Sights on German Parliament

Der Spiegel, September 13, 2017 

AfD Demonstration

Alternative for Deutschland rally in Berlin, Germany. (Credit Image: © Markus Heine/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

Gauland’s story is also one of self-radicalization. He still dresses like minor English nobility, but when he is standing behind a microphone on a market square, he calls for resistance to the “dictator” Merkel. In spring 2016, he generated headlines for saying that “the people don’t want a Boateng as a neighbor,” a reference to the German national football team player Jérome Boateng, who is black.

When he takes his seat in the Bundestag following the Sept. 24 election, Gauland will be surrounded by a group of fortune seekers, racists and the indignant, all of whom are united by their fury at the chancellor. Some of them have extremely personal vendettas to settle.

It was “shoddy,” says Martin Hohmann, the way CDU head Merkel shoved him aside back in Nov. 14, 2003, seeing to it that he was excluded from the conservatives’ parliamentary caucus. Even today, Hohmann doesn’t see anything wrong with the speech he held on the Day of German Unity in October 2003, a plenary address that was interwoven with deeply anti-Semitic sentiments. He says he was the victim of a “perfidious media campaign.” In 2005, Hohmann tried to circumvent the party and get elected to the Bundestag on his own, and even managed 21.5 percent of the vote, but it wasn’t enough to beat the establishment CDU candidate.

After that, Hohmann says, “I basically decided that my political career was over.” But then along came the AfD. Initially, his application to join the party wasn’t acted on for several months. Once the party’s moderate founder Bernd Lucke was toppled, however, his application was quickly approved.

“God. Family. Fatherland.” reads the black-red-gold lettering on Hohmann’s flyers.

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Merkel’s CDU, Hohmann said, would rather have a Turkish-German as a candidate than a German mother.

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The AfD now has seats in 13 state parliaments and 30 percent of its voters are women. Frauke Petry is one of the party’s co-leaders while Alice Weidel is a lead candidate in this campaign along with Gauland. Weidel lives together with her female partner, who is originally from Sri Lanka but has Swiss citizenship, and together they are raising two sons. It isn’t terribly easy to see exactly what binds someone like Weidel to the AfD.

Issues Being Glossed Over

The same can be said of Marian Harder-Kühnel, who leads the list for the AfD state chapter in Hesse. She studied law and worked for eight years at a large business consulting firm. A mother of three, she started her own law firm two years ago together with colleagues.

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But since the end of 2015, there has been a refugee hostel here too and many of them can regularly be seen out and about in the town. In her speech, Harder-Kühnel speaks of women who no longer feel safe on the streets because of the migrants. “We are gambling away all of the achievements for women that we have fought for in the last decades,” she says.

Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration? “Recently, when I went out in a normal, Central European summer dress, a veiled woman spat on the street in front of me,” Harder-Kühnel says the next day in a café in Frankfurt. “I laughed about it, but a 14-year-old girl might decide to wear pants the next time she goes out.” She says she finds it aggravating that Germany’s establishment parties don’t address such issues at all.

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Diverse Backgrounds

It is popular to claim that the AfD is made up of those who have been left behind by society, those who have no work and limited education. That, though, does not reflect reality. AfD supporters are less interested in money than in the feeling that their opinions are no longer being respected.

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The typical AfD voter, is middle-aged, has a mid-level education and a mid-level income.

Kai Fegers, from the town of Grevenbroich in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, recently attended his first AfD meeting at a local bar. Fegers works for the supermarket chain Real in the pharmacy/cleaning supplies department. “You see a lot,” he says. There are Germans, he says, who pack their carts full of discount products because it’s the only thing they can afford. “And refugees who fill up their pockets and then run out without paying as though it were nothing.”

Everything Is Getting Worse

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Many voters seem to have the feeling that everything is getting worse.

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Miaka, a 39-year-old elderly care nurse, is one of those who came to the anti-Merkel demonstration in Torgau. Why did she and her boyfriend turn up? “We finally want to be heard and to be taken seriously,” she says. She is carrying an AfD poster reading: “A woman’s freedom cannot be negotiated.” She actually lives together with her boyfriend and two teenage children in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, but she is currently visiting family in Saxony, where she grew up.

In two weeks, she plans to cast her ballot for the AfD. Why? She no longer wants to accept a situation whereby “night after night, black Africans” come across the border. She says that ever since so many refugees are in the country, she no longer feels safe. She also no longer goes home alone at night out of fear of being insulted as a “German whore” — something she says actually happened to her once in the Saxon town where she comes from.

And in southwestern Germany, where she now lives, two people were recently robbed, Maika says. When asked if the perpetrators had been caught, she responds in the negative. Could they then perhaps have been German? Maika grins derisively. “Yeah sure. In theory.”

A Diffuse Feeling of Fear

The fear of criminality is higher among AfD supporters than among voters of any other party.

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Perhaps that also helps explain the anger harbored by AfD supporters. Surveys show that rarely have there been so many people in Germany who were so satisfied with their personal situation than today, both from an economic point of view and in general. The status quo campaign being run by Merkel’s CDU reflects that satisfaction. But the AfD clientele has a completely opposite feeling. They seem to feel that Germany is currently rushing toward the abyss.

The Böckler Foundation study also found a deep mistrust of democracy. Around 70 percent of respondents to their survey agreed with the statement: “Political and media leaders live in their own world.”

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At the recent campaign event in Fulda, Klaus Peege clapped every time a speaker said that Merkel was pursuing politics “in opposition to her own people.” It is something they say a lot. Peege is sitting at a table in the middle of the hall, not far from the stage. The 70-year-old says he was a member of the CDU until 2014 and had spent 20 years in the SPD before that. If people like former chancellor Helmut Schmidt still led the Social Democrats, Peege says, he probably would have remained an SPD member. But he has now joined the AfD, a decision, he says, that he made primarily because of Merkel.

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“I made a list of 15 things that I didn’t like about Merkel,” he says. The list included items such as the abandonment of traditional values, Merkel’s sudden about-face on nuclear energy and her leftward drift. “Then the refugee story came along,” Peege says.

He considers the CDU representative of his electoral district to be a “wet noodle” and has now thrown his support behind Martin Hohmann. Peege has even become a municipal representative again, only this time for the AfD. The 120 AfD members in and around Fulda are almost all “completely normal people,” he says, meaning middle class and Catholic — essentially the profile of the classic CDU voter. But they are all disappointed with Merkel. “She is responsible for the fact that the AfD is on the way to becoming a large party here.”

Particularly Unhinged

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Political rhetoric has become particularly unhinged in eastern Germany, where PEGIDA held its 124th event last week. At the demonstration, a young woman from the Identitarian Movement warns that “when you start worrying about your wife and children every day, when the street dictates your daily life, when you are afraid of attending summer parties,” then it is already too late for the fight. But in Dresden, they have been fighting for quite some time. As he always does, PEGIDA founder Lutz Bachmann riles up the crowd and rants about the “pseudo-debate” between Merkel and Schulz. If 32 percent are in favor of Merkel, he rages, and 29 percent are for Schulz, “then 39 percent are for us!” The crowd begins chanting “AfD! AfD! AfD!”

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Only 38 percent of AfD voters believe that there is such a thing as freedom of opinion in Germany — although that doesn’t seem to prevent them from becoming belligerent when they hear views that are contrary to their own.

But the AfD isn’t solely to blame for the polarization of German society either, writes Oskar Niedermayer, a political science professor at Berlin’s Free University. He believes that “many of the ‘reputable people'” were also guilty because of their tendency to equate “every critical comment on the refugee question, even those that were later revealed to have been justified, with right-wing extremism.”

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What, then, should be done about the anger felt by many voters and about the party that represents them?

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Simply ignoring the party will no longer work, and the politicians will realize that the AfD world isn’t only black and white. Along with the nationalist-chauvinist Gauland, the “attorney for the people” Jürgen Pohl and the historical revisionist Jens Maier, there will be some lawmakers who will actually be able to contribute ideas to tax reform or infrastructure debates.

Simply excluding them as right-wing radicals could ultimately push even more people to vote for the AfD in the future. It would feed the party’s victim myth, reinforce their complaints about the lack of freedom of opinion and buttress their gripes that the country is turning into a dictatorship. It would strengthen conspiracy theories and intensify the hatred of elites.

The Bundestag faces a tough task. Parliamentarians will have to make clear to moderate AfD lawmakers that they bear some responsibility for the incitement and baiting of their more radical fellow party members. Claims that racist and xenophobic statements just slipped out by accident cannot be tolerated. Tepid condemnations won’t be enough.

In the most recent U.S. presidential campaign, former first lady Michelle Obama demonstrated one way of dealing with right-wing populists. In a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, she said that she and her husband continuously told their daughters not to stoop to the level of the bullies. “Our motto is: When they go low, we go high.”

The AfD will remain part of the political system for the foreseeable future. Those who think that the party will disappear once the euro bailouts are finally a thing of the past, once the inflow of refugees has ceased and once all our schools have been renovated are likely to be mistaken. The party’s success is an expression of discomfort with representative democracy, of a fear of the future and a frantic yearning to be heard. Even if all of the problems were to disappear, which would be a major achievement, that wouldn’t mean that these feelings would disappear as well.

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