Germany’s Eurosceptic AfD party won handily in parliamentary elections in Brandenburg and Thuringia on Sunday (14 September), following successes in the European Parliament and Saxon elections. But other parties are appalled, with centre-right politicians calling for an urgent reassessment of how to deal with the party. EURACTIV Germany reports.
Germany’s Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is continuing on its path of success: with 12.2% in Brandenburg and 10.6% in Thuringia, the right-wing populists will move into two more German regional parliaments.
The AfD’s top candidate in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, spoke of a historic outcome.
“We are in the middle of a transformation for the federal republican party system. We will also reach double-digits at a federal level,” Höcke said on Monday (15 September) in Berlin.
Meanwhile, AfD party leader Bernd Lucke said he is certain his is no longer a party of protest. “We are a small people’s party”, he explained on Monday in Berlin. “A small people’s party that grew a bit larger after yesterday evening’s election results.“
Lucke was pleased, pointing out that results were even better than in Saxony. “If the established parties continue to ostracise us, we will gain even more momentum,” Lucke explained.
Left Party and centre-right biggest “losers”
According to a survey by infratest dimap, around 70% of the AfD’s voters chose the party based on the content of its platform – many more than supporters of other parties.
Lucke said the party won-over voters with its positions on the euro and bailout policies, but also on smaller issues like crime near the borders and support for a “multiple-child-policy”.
According to various analyses, the voters Lucke described came from a broad range of Germany’s parties.
In both Brandenburg and Thuringia combined, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Left Party (Die Linke) each lost 35,000 voters to the AfD compared to the last election. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) lost 28,000 and the SPD 23,000.
Only traditionally Green voters did not seem to identify with the AfD’s positions, according to trends. About 2,000 Green Party voters switched to the AfD in the latest election.
Most of the AfD’s supporters were former non-voters, at 37,000.
Total voter participation was low in both regions. In Brandenburg, only 48% went to the polls, and in Thuringia the rate was 53% – both historical lows. This also gave the AfD an advantage, analysts noted.
The search for a Eurosceptic antidote
But it seems the election results have caused other parties to budge on their approach to their Eurosceptic counterpart, hoping to regain confidence among voters.
In an internal strategy paper, centre-right CDU politicians call for a change of attitude. The document, obtained by Bild, argues that the centre-right alliance’s strategy of ignoring the AfD has failed.
“These election results will only be a surprise to those who have long contested the fact that the centre-right alliance has been losing traction among traditional conservatives,” says the document composed by high-profile CDU members.
In this context, if it seems that “only” 23% of the AfD’s electorate voted for the centre-right in the previous election, it should not be comforting, the CDU politicians write. “But, rather, discomforting. Especially because the centre-right lost the most voters due to migration to the AfD,” the document said.
The authors call on leaders in the centre-right alliance to programmatically address conservative voters within the AfD.
Experts call for open discussion
But right-wing populist expert Patrick Gensing is worried the other parties will not react effectively. He warns the CDU, in particular, against picking up issues like border criminality and immigration simply because the AfD has attracted voters with them.
“That does not work. Even if the conservative wing of the centre-right alliance hopes it will,” Gensing told EURACTIV.de.
The analyst said the AfD is held up by dissatisfaction among citizens.
“The AfD is an expression of an aggressive culture of debate on the Internet,” Gensing explained. The party has a loyal following of “angry digital bourgeoisie” online.
“There is a latent deficit among the established parties, as regards the political culture of debate. On euro bailout policy, for example, the opposition has completely missed the chance to offer alternatives,” Gensing opined.
All the parties must present clear counter-models to political decisions, he said. Saying the euro area bailout policy “has no alternative” as Angela Merkel did, does not go far enough, Gensing proffered.
Bonn-based political scientist Frank Decker called on the political establishment to finally recognise the AfD’s existence.
“The parties must seriously address the AfD’s arguments,” Decker said in an interview with EURACTIV.de.
According to the two experts, the AfD has the potential to anchor itself firmly in the political system.
“For at least 20 years, there has been a space for right-wing populist voices. The AfD is the long-awaited force that is filling this gap,” said Gensing. But the question remains, he stated, whether or not the AfD can levy this potential over the long-term.
Right-wing extremists could use the AfD as a springboard in the future, Decker warned. In that case, the Eurosceptic party may have difficulty dealing with such forces.
The AfD and a fight for identity
Already in the run-up to regional parliament elections, the top candidates in both states left room for right-wing extremist interpretation: “The AfD is the last evolutionary chance for our state,” said Höcke in Thuringia. There is a grave “danger that Europe could end up a continent dominated by Islam,” he argued.
Mosques with minarets are a “symbol of land-grabbing”, in Höcke’s description, saying the AfD must put a stop to the lack of German identity.
Decker explained that “identity” is one of the central concepts for Europe’s new right. The AfD uses values to argue in debates.
The same goes for euro bailout policy: “Here, it is also about identity for the AfD. The argument is about returning to the national level and not accepting responsibility for other countries’ debts,” Decker indicated. But under the guise of an identity concept, right-wing extremist ideologies are lurking, he said.
“In eastern Germany, right-wing extremist acts of violence are comparatively high, internationally. If these right-wing views gained a parliamentary vote through the AfD – and the threat exists because the AfD is railing xenophobic attitudes – then right-wing extremist acts of violence could gain legitimacy and support,” Decker indicated.
But examples in Europe indicated the opposite tendency, Decker explained. The success of France’s Front National was not accompanied by a rise in right-wing extremist violence. “Another possibility is that the AfD channels propensities to right-wing extremist violence, thereby absorbing it,” Decker said.
The Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) secured 7 seats in the European Parliament following the May 2014 EU election.
In Parliament, the AfD entered the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), led by the British Tories.
Joining the ECR positions the AfD as a relatively centrist and respectable party, according to German political analysts, who argue this could put Germany's ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under pressure domestically.
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