The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is riding high in the polls to the alarm of mainstream parties and is on track to win three state votes in the east of the country with calls to stop migration and curb what it sees as a costly green agenda.
AfD is polling 17-19% nationwide, around a record high for the party that now vies with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats for second place in some surveys, up from fifth in the 2021 election when it secured 10.3% of the vote.
It was last at such highs in 2018 after Europe’s migrant crisis. This time, the nationalist, anti-immigrant party has also benefited from infighting in Scholz’s three-way coalition.
Far-right parties have gained ground across Europe. In France, the far-right has become a stronger rival at the ballot box, while in Italy and Sweden, they are now in government.
But the rise of the AfD, which lambasts the German government for high immigration levels, surging inflation and a costly green transition, touches a particularly sensitive nerve in Germany because of the country’s Nazi past.
Germany’s domestic spy agency has branded the AfD’s youth wing “extremist”, saying it propagated “a racial concept of society”. The spy agency’s head has also accused the AfD, which opposes sanctions on Russia, of helping spread Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war.
Germany’s main parties have ruled out cooperating with the AfD to keep it out of government, but the AfD’s critics worry that it is dragging mainstream politics further right.
“We are seeing the rhetoric on topics like migration get shriller,” said Stefan Marschall, a political scientist at the University of Duesseldorf.
Migration is moving up Germany’s political agenda. Michael Kretschmer, the premier of the east German state of Saxony and who is from the right of centre Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said last week that the number of migrants was “too big”, calling for limits on refugees allowed in and cuts to benefits.
THE COST OF TRANSITION
The CDU’s national leader, Friederich Merz, has however dismissed any comparisons with the AfD, saying in comments on Sunday that his party’s language was “nothing like” the AfD’s.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has partly blamed the AfD for stoking anti-immigrant attitudes that have fuelled a rise in attacks on refugees. The AfD denies this.
The AfD, which disputes that human activity is a cause of climate change, has also tapped into concerns among some voters about the cost of the transition away from fossil fuels.
AfD leader Tino Chrupalla said more voters appreciated that the policies of the Greens, Scholz’s junior coalition partner which wants a swifter shift away from hydrocarbons, brought “economic war, inflation and de-industrialisation.”
“We are the only party that would not form a coalition with these dangerous Greens,” he said.
In Thueringen, Saxony and Brandenburg, the east German states that are holding state elections in 2024, the AfD is on track to top voting for the first time, with surveys showing its support at 23%-28%.
Analysts say voters in the east, where party loyalties are less well-established, have been more receptive to the AfD in part because they blame mainstream parties that have rotated through various governments over the years for lower incomes that persist in the east, three decades after reunification.
Even if the AfD’s is kept out of power, its rise has sucked votes from other parties, forcing them into more unwieldy coalitions at state and national levels, particularly in the east where the AfD is strongest.
WAVE OF DISCONTENT
Marc Debus, a political scientist at Mannheim University, said it could bolster calls among some voters for conservatives in particular to work more closely with the AfD, even if not in a formal coalition, rather than aligning with the left.
Some AfD initiatives have won backing from mainstream voters on the more local level. In December, members of the CDU in the small town of Bautzen in Saxony voted in favour of an AfD proposal to cut some benefits, such as language courses for migrants whose asylum applications had been rejected.
“This dogmatic way in Berlin of excluding the AfD, saying they are all Nazis, is wrong,” said Matthias Grahl, head of the CDU in the Bautzen district council.
Others say the AfD is riding a wave of discontent because of a confluence of crises that will not last. Inflation has already dipped from its peak and sky-high energy prices over the winter, fuelled by the Ukraine war, have eased.
Wolfgang Buechner, a Scholz government spokesman, said he was confident the coalition could whittle away at AfD support.
“The chancellor is optimistic that if we do good work and solve the problems of this country … then we will not need to worry much longer about this topic,” he said.
Key moments in the rise of the Alternative for Germany
2013 – The Alternative for Germany is founded by a group of academics, journalists, and businessmen as an anti-euro party during the eurozone crisis. The party wants Germany to quit the euro and reintroduce the Deutsche Mark.
2015 – The party shifts right during Europe’s migration crisis, causing some of the original founders to quit. As the only party to criticise Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy that let in hundreds of thousands of migrants, it sees support rise steadily.
A co-leader says the then-integration minister should be “disposed of” in Turkey, the country of origin of her parents.
2017 – In January, regional AfD leader Bjoern Hoecke in January attacks the Holocaust Memorial as “monument of shame”, saying history books should focus more on German victims of World War Two.
In September, the AfD becomes the first far-right party to enter the national parliament for more than half a century, winning 12% of the vote and becoming the official parliamentary opposition. Other parties still refuse to cooperate with it.
2018 – The AfD achieves 16-18% support in the polls, which remains its highest level until 2023.
2019 – The AfD comes second in a vote in the state of Thueringen, demonstrating the party’s attraction in the former Communist east of the country.
At a national level, support falls after a string of controversies related to AfD members and amid divisions over policy.
2020 – During the COVID-19 pandemic, the AfD wins back some supporters by backing anti-lockdown campaigns.
2021 – Germany’s BfV domestic spy agency service places the AfD under surveillance on suspicion of trying to undermine Germany’s democratic constitution. It becomes the first party to be monitored in this way since the Nazi era ended in 1945.
2023 – In April, the BfV classifies the youth organisation of the AfD as an extremist entity that threatens democracy.
In May, the BfV says parts of the AfD are spreading Russian propaganda. AfD leaders call for an end to sanctions on Russia.
In June, support for the party rises to 17-19%, in joint second place with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in some polls, as it taps into worries about inflation, the cost of the Green transition and a new surge in migration.