Riding a wave of momentum after a strong showing in a regional election, Germany's new populist party said on Monday it was time for Chancellor Angela Merkel to wake up and accept it as a new conservative force in German politics. EurActiv Germany reports.
Like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has tapped into a vein of discontent with career politicians and bureaucrats, carving out a niche to the right of the mainstream parties.
On Sunday, it scored a surprise 9.7% in a state vote in Saxony, winning its first seats in a regional parliament and building domestic momentum following its entry into the European Parliament earlier this year.
Merkel's CDU has dismissed the AfD as a fringe party with far-right leanings, but if it builds on its Saxony success and enters two more eastern state parliaments in Thuringia and Brandenburg later this month, it could present a serious challenge for the chancellor.
Merkel's traditional partners on the right, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), have virtually vanished from the German political landscape over the past year, narrowing the coalition options for her Christian Democrats (CDU).
Some CDU conservatives have urged the party to reconsider its ban on cooperating with the AfD, but Merkel dismissed that out of hand on Monday. "My goal is to ensure they play a smaller role as soon as possible," she said.
Frauke Petry, the 39-year-old businesswoman who headed the AfD's election campaign in Saxony, hailed the vote as "a sign that Frau Merkel should finally take the AfD seriously".
The CDU won by a clear margin, with over 39% of votes, and Stanislaw Tillich is likely to remain state premier at the head of a right-left coalition. But it was the CDU's worst result since taking power in Saxony after German unification in 1990.
According to the polling institute Infratest dimap, the Eurosceptic party gained many supporters from a wide variety of German parties, but primarily the CDU.
Roughly 33,000 voters who voted for the CDU in the region’s 2009 elections cast their vote for the AfD on Sunday. 18,000 votes came from the FDP, 15,000 from the Left Party (Die Linke) and 13,000 from the radical right NPD. Eurosceptics won only 8,000 votes from former SPD voters and 3,000 from the Green Party, the Infratest’s poll showed.
© EurActiv with Infratest dimap
The AfD's result beat all forecasts and put it fourth, behind the CDU, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left party. Overtaking the Greens, it knocked the FDP - Tillich's coalition partner in the state capital Dresden - and the far-right German National Democrats (NPD) out of the state assembly.
Petry rejected suggestions by the CDU that her party had fished for NPD votes, saying its policies were "once classic CDU and FDP positions".
"It's not the AfD that should ask itself where it stands, but the CDU that needs to ask whether it hasn't become a left-wing party," she said, a reference to Merkel's leftward tilt on social and economic policies.
Never say never
Klaus Schroeder, a political analyst, said the AfD would not be fully established until it won national seats in the Bundestag, but added: "Any protest party is a risk if it takes away lots of voters - and nearly 10% is a lot of votes."
The AfD won nearly as many seats as the Social Democrats (SPD), Germany's oldest political party and Merkel's current coalition partner in Berlin.
It has a chance of winning seats in both Thuringia and Brandenburg in two weeks' time. In Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, the SPD should keep power in a coalition with the Left. But in Thuringia, Merkel's CDU risks being booted out of office despite a lead in polls.
Because of the FDP's weakness, some conservatives are wary of dismissing the AfD, which has joined the same parliamentary faction as Britain's Conservatives in the European Parliament.
"Parties change. You should never say 'never' when it comes to coalitions," said Erika Steinbach, a right-wing CDU lawmaker.
If CDU did warm to the AfD - unlikely for the time being - they might find common ground on issues such as immigration and crime.
On Europe, however, the AfD is staunchly opposed to the euro zone bailouts that Merkel has helped to engineer and finance. "The CDU has to admit that its euro bailout policy is not working," said Petry.
“We must disband the protest among voters and address such issues that concern people locally”, Merkel said. In Saxony that includes fears of border criminality, she indicated. While it is true that a part of the AfD’s voter base comes from former CDU supporters, Merkel explained that other parties are just as responsible.
AfD's success could lead to its decline
The fact that the CDU continues to play down the AfD's victory, is something right-wing populism researcher David Bebnowski sees as potentially dangerous: "A tactic like this might be successful in the short-term, But in the long run such behaviour only strengthens the AfD", the researcher from the Institute for Democracy Research in Göttingen said in a statement for EurActiv Germany.
Still, Bebnowski said the AfD's success in regional elections should also not be over-estimated.
"Saxony is the AfD's heartland. Voter attachment to established parties is weak here and susceptibility to right-wing extremist agitation is traditionally high", he explained.
Demands such as those for referenda against construction of mosques would be particularly well received there, the researcher said.
But Bebnowski is not certain whether the AfD will be able to continue its rise upward.
"Precisely because the AfD is taking a bigger and bigger stage, it must prove itself politically. It is not certain whether they can continue to embody the nimbus of 'the alternative' so flawlessly", Bebnowski said.
The agitation caused by their move into the European Parliament showed just how fragile the AfD is, he reminded.
In a recent vote, MEPs from the AfD voted in favour of sanctions against Russia, contradicting widespread resistance to the policy within the party's own ranks.
The party's vice president Alexander Gauland spoke of a "divide within the AfD".
Björn Höcke, AfD leader in Thuringia, believes such conflicts are to be expected in a newly-founded party. "The Greens were also split for many years", Höcke pointed out.
But the Greens were able to solve their internal conflicts by clearly delineating the difference between realists and fundamentalists, he explained.
"But something like that is hardly maintainable for the AfD within the right political spectrum," Bebnowski argued. In that case the AfD would quickly be relegated to right-wing extremist status.
Something that could establish the AfD in the long-term would be a political alliance with the CDU, Bebnowski said, adding that this could occur quite soon.
"The CDU is doing a lot to secure its power. A coalition with the AfD would definitely fall into this category," he said.
NPD fails to return to regional parliament
Winning only 4.9% of the vote, the right-wing extremist NPD just barely missed the threshold needed to move back into Saxony's state parliament.
"With its exit from the Saxonian state parliament, (the) party’s decline is likely to continue without interruption - just as its rise was initiated by the move into the parliament in 2004", said right-wing extremism expert Patrick Gensing.
Almost 5% of voters chose the neo-Nazi party, Gensing emphasised. But the AfD is a "new right-wing party".