For over 11 years, Angela Merkel has held the position of German Chancellor. A member of the center right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she has been an enduring player in German politics. However, her stance on refugees has led to dissent within the German conservative movement, and it has contributed to the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) – a far-right, anti-immigrant party. Just recently, in fact, the AfD outperformed the CDU in local elections for the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and the AfD now has some degree of influence in nine of the 16 German Bundesländer (federal states) (1). Thus, it’s not surprising that many conservative Germans are growing concerned. They are worried that their party’s long reign might be coming to an end, and they feel that Merkel must change course or risk being swept out of power by the AfD (2). However, it appears unlikely that the AfD presents any immediate threat to the center right in Germany. Despite their recent successes, they simply do not possess sufficient unity or organization to engender a meaningful political realignment.
The AfD has existed for some time. Originally, it was an anti-EU party associated with the Euroskeptic movement. Merkel’s Flüchtlingspolitik (refugee politics) has led to a recalibration within the AfD, and the far right party is now organized primarily in opposition to Germany’s generous refugee policies (3). To some degree, this empowers the fringe party by linking it with a major and controversial issue in contemporary Germany. In much the same way that Donald Trump has been able to gain traction in the U.S. by exploiting controversies and pushing divisive agendas, the AfD is exploiting new divisions in German politics created by the large influx of Syrian refugees. However, this strategy also comes with significant disadvantages. In particular, it means that the AfD lacks any real message or coherent policy platform beyond halting large refugee flows. In other words, they have yet to provide any compelling reasons to vote AfD; at this stage, voting AfD is just a protest vote against current policies. Therefore, it is hard to envision the AfD generating any significant political momentum going into the 2017 Bundestag elections. They will likely perform better than in previous years, but it is hard to imagine them drawing large amounts of support without any positive, unifying message.
The AfD is hampered not only by its inability to craft a central message but also by its internal conflict. For example, in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, the AfD has been split over anti-Semitic comments made by local AfD politician Wolfgang Gedeon. Gedeon was asked to step down by the AfD’s party leader Frauke Petry, yet divisions linger. This controversy speaks to broader rifts within the party (4). In particular, it demonstrates that the AfD is not a unified coalition, but is instead a highly heterogeneous group with different policy preferences. As with all right-wing populist parties, the AfD has supporters from the center right as well as from the racist far right. Those in the middle are opposed to refugees for economic reasons, but those on the far right oppose them for far more pernicious reasons: They believe that refugees are racially inferior and represent a threat to German culture and society. This philosophical divide is only exacerbating internecine conflicts within the party’s base of support, and it portends future instability within the AfD.
The AfD also has a turnout problem. The Bundesländer in which it has witnessed the most success – Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt – have some of the lowest levels of turnout for federal elections in all of Germany (5). Thus, it is unclear whether the AfD’s regional successes will carry over to the national level. The problem of turnout is compounded by the fact that the AfD lacks a clear, unified base of support. As the Lowry Interpreter reveals, “While demonstrating a certain appeal to middle-aged male workers, it also receives high levels of support from the middle class, from women, from the young, and from the tertiary-educated.” Furthermore, “its vote was comprised in roughly equal thirds of previous right-leaning voters, previous centrist and left-leaning voters, and previous non-voters” (3). Given this highly diverse group of supporters, it will likely prove challenging for the AfD to develop a platform that successfully caters to such variegated preferences. These people are united in their frustration with the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) enduring hold on power, and they are concerned by refugee flows. Beyond that, however, there is very little that unites them. Therefore, it is far from clear that the AfD can craft a message that motivates its supporters to turn out en masse.
The AfD has a bigger problem, though: The CDU is deceptively strong. Despite what a number of commentators seem to believe, Merkel and her party are not nearly as weak as they might appear. For one, there simply aren’t any politicians in Germany as well-known and as powerful as Angela Merkel. No politician in the SPD – the only party with the numbers to threaten the CDU – is as influential as Merkel. Moreover, the CDU’s major political ally, the CSU, has very little political sway. Despite receiving sharp criticism from CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, Angela Merkel is not in any real danger (6). This is because the CSU is only a regional party and thus has a lot to lose from alienating its national patron. Finally, it is important to remember that Angela Merkel is still a very popular chancellor in spite of her controversial stance on refugees (7). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that she will see large defections from supporters. CDU supporters are frustrated with her, but they still support her and view her as the best person to lead Germany.
The rise of the AfD demonstrates that even Germany, a country renowned for its moderate and stable political system, is being forced to deal with the wave of populism now engulfing so many Western democracies. The AfD will continue to be a thorn in the side of Angela Merkel and the CDU, and if the refugee crisis is not resolved within the next year, the AfD may actually begin to pose a threat to the center-right in Germany. For now, however, they remain only a protest party that is unlikely to play any real role in the federal parliament. They are simply too divisive, too disorganized, and too weak to have an impact, and the AfD is too small to have any power over coalition formation. While they have made some impressive gains over the past year, the AfD still has a long way to go before becoming a serious player in the German Bundestag.
(1) Fischer, Sebastian. “AfD-Erfolg in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: Merkels böse Geister.” Der Spiegel. 5 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(2) Stelzenmüller, Constanze. “Merkel’s election woes are a warning to Berlin.” Brookings Institution. 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(3) Colla, Marcus. “'Alternativlos'? The future of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.” The Lowry Interpreter. 16 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(4) “Germany's right-wing AfD seeks to avert internal split.” Deutsche Welt. 5 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(5) “Wahlbeteiligung bei den Bundestagswahlen nach Bundesländern bis 2013.” Statista. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(6) Fried, Nico. “Merkel hat nur noch zwei Optionen.” Süddeutsche Zeitung. 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(7) “Merkel gewinnt an Zustimmung, die Union stagniert.” Stern. 7 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Yakub88 | Dreamstime.com - Angela Merkel
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.