The Alternative für Deutschland looks chaotic and divided, but beneath the surface, its neo-fascist wing seems to be gaining the upper hand. An analysis by Gerd Wiegel.
The war in Ukraine and rearmament, inflation and energy prices — the decisive issues of the last few months have provided the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) with very few opportunities to position itself as a right-wing populist candidate. The AfD’s regressive and contradictory proposals have found little appeal beyond their core constituency, since they fail to address most people’s main concerns. The results of the state elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia attest to the party’s current slump, especially in western Germany.
Repeated electoral losses
In Schleswig-Holstein, the party failed to make it into a state parliament for the first time after receiving just 4.4% of the vote in the state elections in May. That same month, in North Rhine-Westphalia, the party barely managed to re-enter the parliament with a mere 5.4% of the vote, even though it lost almost two percent there as well. Even in Saxony, where the AfD was anticipated to win one or more district councilor seats in the local elections, the party walked away empty-handed. The current losses are in keeping with a series of ongoing defeats suffered by the party since 2021, though these should not be seen as indicative of the party’s general decline.
According to recent polls, the AfD is close to or well above 20% in Brandenburg (19%), Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (18%), Saxony (27%), Saxony-Anhalt (20%), and Thuringia (23%). Despite this, the party is currently experiencing slight losses in all of these regions, with the exception of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The party’s stable standing in the east of the country contrasts sharply with its shortcomings in the west. This electoral split has been an ongoing and unresolved source of dispute within the party with regard to its future trajectory, although some preliminary decisions were made at the party congress in Riesa.
Party congress in Riesa: a clear shift to the right
The announcement of the “end of the era of Meuthen” (the party’s former leader) at the party congress in Riesa (17–19 June 2022), was a clear expression of the AfD’s shift to the right. The newly elected party executive is now controlled by völkisch figures, who will see that it becomes extremely difficult to enforce policies against these more radical right-wing elements within the party in the future.
With the election of Alice Weidel (67.3%) and Tino Chrupalla (53.4%), the two leaders of the Bundestag parliamentary group became party leaders as well. Although there was and still is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the leadership of the parliamentary group, the party lacks any feasible alternative candidates.
For years, the bourgeois wing of the AfD has been unable to counter the dominance of the party’s völkisch wing in terms of providing a source of compelling policies and personalities. In the end, the former nominated a largely unknown member of the Bundestag named Norbert Kleinwächter — who was not even able to win a delegation at the party congress in his state association in Brandenburg — to enter into a hopeless race against Chrupalla, with only 36.3% voting for the former. A similar situation occurred when it came to selecting Weidel’s opponent Nicolaus Fest, a member of parliament from Berlin who received a mere 20.3% of the vote.
The few remaining familiar faces from the party’s bourgeois wing did not want to risk defeat or were directly penalised at the party congress. For example, Beatrix von Storch, a member of the Bundestag from Berlin, lost her seat within the party executive, while Christina Baum, a supporter of the extreme-right fraction of the party, unexpectedly won a seat on the executive. Prior to this, Erika Steinbach had already been defeated by Peter Boehringer in the election of the party’s deputy chair.
Weidel and Chrupalla became chairpersons thanks to the party’s most adamantly right-wing elements, without which they would not have been able to secure a majority. Chrupalla’s poor performance in the elections attests to the fact that many people within the party are dissatisfied with him. Nonetheless, he has found his role by serving the party camp surrounding Björn Höcke, since the latter is expected not to take a stance against the party’s most radical right-wing elements in the future. As for Weidel, it remains to be seen whether she will succeed in establishing her own power base independent of the party’s far-right elements, which tend to tolerate rather than support her. Until now, her hostile relationship with the former figurehead of the bourgeois wing, Jörg Meuthen, has prevented her from doing so. But now, all of that could change. When it comes to her stance on particular issues, Weidel is actually not entirely in line with the extreme right. For example, as state chairperson in Baden-Württemberg, she ensured that the pseudo-trade union “Zentrum Automobil” — some of whose members are clearly involved with the neo-Nazi right — was put on the AfD’s incompatibility list. However, in Riesa, Björn Höcke succeeded removing this group, which Weidel has described as “toxic”, from this list. Weidel nonetheless stated after the party congress that she intended to rectify this.
Höcke demonstrates his power
The AfD party congresses reliably generate negative headlines, and this most recent iteration is no exception: on the last day of the congress, the far-right elements of the party made sure that the desired image of renewed sense of unity within the party was destroyed. A resolution concerning Europe, which was introduced by a cross-wing coalition headed by Björn Höcke and was intended to outline an alternative European policy for the AfD, caused a heated, hour-long debate. In both its style and orientation, the resolution takes up positions found on the New Right. In terms of content, the group formed around Höcke and Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, member of the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament, concerned itself with substantiating the “D-Exit” position, which advocates for Germany’s exit from the EU, as formulated by the party’s right wing in the Bundestag election programme. Under the slogan “Rethinking Europe”, the motion contains the set pieces of a new right-wing criticism of the EU and globalisation. Its logic argues that “globalists” have robbed individual nation states of their sovereignty and identity, and that their populations are being subjected to an “education programme” that forces them to renounce their ability to assert and defend themselves. The goal is the formation of a “Europe of fatherlands” that sets itself apart from the USA, defines itself as “Fortress Europe”, pursues a balance of power with Russia, and seeks cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union.
The criticisms of this proposal that were levelled by the chairpersons and individual delegates from the national associations in the country’s west were concerned less with its content than with the fact that it borrows language from the New Right. It was only with a great deal of difficulty and following two failed attempts that the party leadership managed to prevent the resolution from going to a vote, instead referring it to various committees. At this point, it was plain for all to see that the authority of the new party leadership had already been undermined on its first day in office. Afterwards it became known that in the run-up to the party congress, Höcke had reached a deal with the party leadership stipulating that if Höcke relinquished his position within the party’s executive, then he would in return be awarded leadership over a commission for dealing with structural reform within the party. However, this commission was not set up because the party congress ended prematurely.
Political consequences of the party congress
The right-wing radicalisation within the AfD, which has been underway since 2015, was also formally implemented in Riesa. The party executive no longer permits policies against its völkisch right. The proposal to implement a single party leader, also introduced by Höcke and passed by the party congress, makes the prospects for Höcke’s takeover of the party more likely than ever. It is evident that the völkisch right has come to the conclusion that it will be able to tolerate the election losses resulting from its open dominance within the party. In fact, the elections in the eastern German states demonstrate that this has not led to losses, but has instead brought the party 20–27% of the vote in Saxony, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt. In the country’s west, it is assumed that the party will do well enough to comfortably enter the Bundestag — at the cost of possible losses on the part of individual parliamentary groups in the individual states.
The völkisch right within the AfD has a long-term strategic orientation and is more interested in the permanent establishment of a party consolidated around fascist ideology than in a short-term share of power in coalitions. The more right-wing elements of the party in the west see things differently.
It is possible that Höcke could attempt to seize the party leadership by 2024 at the latest. With successes in the state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia and the losses that can be expected in the elections in the west by that time, he could be appointed as the saviour of the party in its entirety.
At the federal level, coalitions or other forms of collaboration between the CDU/CSU and the AfD seem out of the question in the medium term. The ongoing evolution of the AfD further to the right, its monitoring by the domestic intelligence service, and its presence in the nationwide media render coalitions such as these untenable for the foreseeable future.
The picture looks different in the federal states, where there are still key figures in some of the CDU’s individual east German state associations that do not want to rule out cooperation with the AfD, which is firmly entrenched here, and even favour it over forging unpopular forced alliances with the Greens. In Thuringia, where the CDU and AfD have already elected an FDP prime minister, for a short time at the beginning of June it seemed that the CDU would seek to use votes from the AfD to push through motions pertaining to the distance between wind turbines.
AfD in the Bundestag
In the Bundestag, the AfD is calling for a return to coal and nuclear power as a means of countering increases in the price of energy, a proposal that is in keeping with its general denial of anthropogenic climate change. In contrast to this, the parliamentary group has firmly sided with the coalition and the CDU/CSU with regard to the massive rearmament programme proposed by the Scholz government. Unlike Die Linke, the AfD did not vote against providing the 100 billion euros for the German armed forces in the Bundestag, since it was only opposed to fact that this would be financed by special assets beyond the scope of the federal government’s budget. If the AfD had its way, the rearmament would have been passed at the expense of other budget items and would have resulted in an orgy of cuts in other areas.
Bernd Baumann, the leader of the parliamentary group, spouted the falsehoods as almost every other parliamentary group apart from Die Linke: “Our army, our soldiers have been neglected, underfunded, been subject to destructive cost-cutting for decades” (German Bundestag, 20th WP, Minutes 42nd Session, p. 4160). In view of the annual increases in the defence budget, and with a current sum of 50.4 billion euros allocated to the German armed forces, this is obviously nonsense. But if it were up to the AfD, the German armed forces could receive even more than the 100 billion euros envisaged. Their budgetary spokesman Peter Boehringer gave his assurance that the AfD would immediately agree to the 100 billion euros if this sum were integrated into the normal budget rather than being allocated in a special budget. “You just have to start cutting costs in areas dealing with social and climate transformation, then it will work” (ibid., p. 4226), Boehringer said in the debate, making it clear that the AfD intends to finance rearmament at the expense of the much-needed socio-ecological transformation.