5 Reasons For The Far Right Rising In Germany

Though Angela Merkel has secured a fourth term with Sunday's election, the populist party Alternative for Germany will be the first far-right party since 1961 to enter parliament. 

By Benedikt Peters

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party garnered some 13% of the vote in Sunday's national parliamentary election. Though the numbers could change slightly, the message is clear: AfD, a party founded only in 2013, is sending several dozen deputies to the Bundestag. For modern German politics, this is a watershed moment. For the first time since the 1961 ouster of the post-War German Party, a far-right party will once again sit in parliament. Germany and the rest of the world are asking what contributed to the AfD’s success. Here are five key factors:

1. Fear

In early September 2015, the German federal government decided to allow refugees, who were then trapped in Hungary, to journey on to Germany. In the months that followed, some 890,000 people applied for asylum. The AfD sharply criticized this new immigration policy, successfully positioning themselves as the voice of outrage. How closely linked the rise of the AfD is to the question of refugees is reflected in polling data: For a long time before September 2015, far-right parties claimed 2%-6% of the electorate. But since then, they have experienced a steep rise in popularity, achieving up to 16% nationwide. Time and again, the AfD has also used terror attacks committed by asylum applicants to gain support, holding Chancellor Angela Merkel responsible for these attacks.

2. political correctness

Shortly after she became a candidate for the AfD in the national election, Alice Weidel said at the party’s convention in Cologne, “As democrats and patriots, we will not keep quiet. 'Political correctness' belongs to the scrap heap of history.” In her remark lies another reason for the AfD’s success. The party included criticism of “political correctness” (albeit an exaggerated phenomenon) in their platform. At campaign rallies, AfD officials often mocked the use of gender-sensitive language and criticized academic fields that focus on gender roles. They demanded that Germans once again be able to articulate national pride openly — as if this were forbidden beforehand. Alongside the backlash against political correctness is a shared defense of the traditional family and criticism of same-sex marriage.

A lightning bolt strikes Berlin's Bundestag on the Sept. 25 front page of German daily Die Tageszeitung.

3. digital edge

No political party in German is as active on the Internet as the AfD. Since its founding in 2013, the party’s strategy has relied heavily on Facebook to spread its message. The platform is a “quicker, more direct, and more inexpensive gateway to people,” AfD spokesman Christian Luth recently told Süddeutsche Zeitung. The party sharpened its online methods during the parliamentary campaign. In the weeks leading up to the election, they hired the American agency Harris Media, known for its digital campaigning skills, and carried out “negative campaigning,” which had been frowned up in Germany in the past. A study by Oxford University found that the AfD was by far the most active German political party on Twitter.

4. playing the victim 

Some view the AfD as a threat to democracy. But the party’s strategists have managed to turn this around, stylizing the AfD as a victim of an establishment determined to prevent the party's members from exercising their democratic rights. Thus, for example, Alice Weidel walked out of a televised debate and later declared that the moderator had mistreated her.

And sometimes politicians, journalists and others unwittingly helped the AfD, like when the minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, Malu Dreyer, refused to participate in a televised debate alongside the AfD candidate before the 2016 state elections and the broadcaster rescinded the candidate's invitation. Denying the AfD accommodation for its events have had a similar effect, as have demonstrators' attempts to blockade such events.

5. calculated provocation 

Again and again, the AfD has drawn attention to itself by breaking rhetorical taboos. Party chairwoman Frauke Petry called for the use of firearms against refugees along the border in case of emergency. Her deputy Beatrix von Storch wrote that women and children should be allowed to bear arms. Petry’s life partner and fellow party member Marcus Pretzell said after the attack at the Berlin Christmas market last year that the individuals who had died there were “Merkel’s dead.” And another party member, Börn Höcke, called the National Holocaust Memorial the “Monument of Shame.” These remarks are calculated, and a leaked internal strategy report shows that they have won the party significant media attention. Many outlets, including Süddeutsche Zeitung, report whenever an AfD politician breaks a taboo, ultimately helping the party remain part of the national conversation.