Looking for an alternative to the Alternative for Germany

The right-wing and populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained 12.6% of the votes in Germany’s federal election, but much of the party’s euphoria evaporated within a day.

Frauke Petry, the AfD’s co-leader, surprised both party members and the public by announcing that she wouldn’t be a part of the AfD’s parliamentary team. Instead, she’d resign from the party and become an independent MP in the Bundestag.

Petry follows the path of her predecessor, Bernd Lucke, a founder of the initially anti-Euro party, who was voted out of the job two years ago. He’d tried to keep the party on a centre-right course, preventing it from drifting further right. After losing support, he left the AfD with some close allies and founded a new party.

Petry is taking similar steps. She’d tried to steer the AfD on a realpolitik course, aiming to prepare it to participate in a future coalition. But that option appeared to have vanished as the tone of leading AfD figures became more radical and racist tendencies emerged. Deputy national chair and co-chair of the Berlin branch, Beatrix von Storch, supported the use of firearms against refugees approaching the border (though she later backpedalled  on the issue). Björn Höcke, head of the AfD in Thuringia, gave a highly controversial speech in Dresden calling into question Germany’s commemorative culture regarding the Holocaust and World War II, and Alexander Gauland, a founding member of the AfD and leading candidate for the elections, urged his countrymen to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers during both world wars.

These more radical members weren’t amused by Petry’s attempts to control the party’s direction and her solo decisions, such as launching a bid to expel Höcke from the party. They claimed Petry’s behaviour was authoritarian. (Without Petry, the expulsion process has petered out.) The cracks in her leadership became obvious during a party convention in April 2017, when members refused to declare allegiance to her and ignored her proposal for a new party strategy. Soon after that, she announced that she wouldn’t serve as lead candidate for the elections.

Some speculate that Petry had planned to quit for a long time and delayed her resignation until after the elections to avoid harming ‘her’ party’s prospects. Now she’s launching a new party, as Lucke did before her. The new Blue Party will espouse a blend of conservative and liberal policies. Petry’s husband and former head of the North Rhine–Westphalia AfD, Marcus Pretzell, said that the policies of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) should be replaced across the nation with the views of its more conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. He suggested that Emmanuel Macron’s French movement, En Marche!, could serve as a model.

Other party members in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania, Thuringia, Saxony–Anhalt, Berlin, Brandenburg, Hamburg and Bremen have announced their intention to leave parliamentary working groups (teams of like-minded MPs who decide on specific policies), or to resign from the party altogether. Those leaving usually cite ‘unbridgeable ideological and political differences’, but that doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the ultra-right path.

So, is the AfD’s proclaimed wave of change collapsing? It’s important to acknowledge that despite a handful of members leaving working groups or the party itself, a mass exodus hasn’t occurred—yet. The AfD has entered 13 state parliaments since 2013, and now the Bundestag. In several electoral districts, it received more than 30% of the votes, mainly in former East German territory. Some of the party’s leaders are now attempting to soften their rhetoric. In a speech on 3 October, German Unification Day, von Storch stated that the AfD could only be successful if it had a national-conservative and a civil-liberal wing. She stressed that the AfD acknowledged Germany’s historical responsibility and would support close cooperation with Israel and said there was no room for right-wing-extremism or anti-Semitism in the party. Nevertheless, out of the 92 seats held by the AfD (excluding those held by Petry and Mario Mieruch, who announced on 4 October that he was leaving the parliamentary working group), many are occupied by members who hold extreme-right views.

The AfD has planned a convention for early December, and more decisions are expected on the leadership and direction of the party. Meanwhile, Petry’s new Blue Party rides a similar wave to the AfD, with its focus on immigration, national and border security, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. It hopes to attract voters from the AfD, CDU and the liberal Free Democratic Party.

However, neither the AfD nor the Blue Party is an alternative for Germany, and established parties need to consider their own failings, which have driven many voters to turn to populists and neo-Nazi-like movements in recent years. Mandatory political education and increased dialogue with citizens could be first steps, not only in Germany but in all nations dealing with similar trends.