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Germany

Euroskeptic AfD cements place in German politics, for now

Germany's upstart euroskeptics have claimed significant representation in two more state parliaments. The key to the AfD's success has been expanding their policies beyond euroskepticism into popular conservatism.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, once called them "a bit academic, but very interesting." He might have to be more generous to his German counterparts after Sunday night (14.09.2014).

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), formed just 19 months ago in a small town in Hesse, has now won representation in three German states - all in the east of the country - at the expense of all the established parties, but particularly Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

The success has buried the mainstream parties' hope that the AfD's failure to secure seats in the federal parliament in the September 2013 general election had condemned the party to political oblivion. Back then, the AfD narrowly failed to clear the five-percent hurdle.

In European elections in May, however, the party took seven of Germany's 96 seats in European Parliament. Two weeks ago in Saxony, and on Sunday in Brandenburg and Thuringia, the AfD respectively snagged 9.7, 12.2 and 12.4 percent of the vote.

Much more than euroskeptics

Elections in Saxony

The AfD is in triumphant mood in eastern Germany

The most striking circumstance of their current success is the fact that Europe's financial crisis - the whole reason why the AfD exists at all - has long since stopped dominating the headlines. When they were formed, the AfD was made up largely of disgruntled conservative economists, like their leader Bernd Lucke, unhappy with Merkel's eurozone policies.

"The euro currency zone has proven to be unsustainable," an early policy statement read. "Southern European states are becoming impoverished under the pressure to compete. Whole states are on the verge of bankruptcy."

Though the media dismissed such views as simplistic, many Germans shared the AfD's basic view of Europe's economic calamity, encapsulated in one of their election slogans last year: "The Greeks are suffering. The Germans are paying. The banks are cleaning up."

The AfD's core policy on Europe was an ordered disbanding of the eurozone and a reintroduction of national currencies - or else "smaller, more stable currency unions." Unlike UKIP, the AfD is not overtly nationalistic - in fact, it shuns comparisons to UKIP and other conservative offshoots like the US Tea Party. It is also not against the European Union as such - but is against centralizing European powers any further.

New conservatives

Nigel Farage walks outside.

The AfD invites comparison with the British euroskeptics UKIP

And yet both the AfD's origins and development in the last year demonstrate that the AfD is essentially made up of a rebel conservative wing of the CDU, annoyed at Merkel's centrism. Like many upstart parties, the AfD loves to chip away at power of the mainstream parties, and wants to see a radical reform of Germany's democratic system - with a move towards more Swiss-style referendums.

Much like UKIP, the AfD also wants to see massive reforms to the immigration system - particularly to shut out "uneducated" immigrants by blocking them from the welfare system. Such people, Lucke said last year, were in danger of forming "a kind of societal sediment - a sediment that gets stuck in our benefit systems for life."

Those kinds of statements have naturally found an ear among far-right voters, and results in Saxony in particular showed that the AfD won votes from the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, who were tipped out of the state parliament.

The AfD's conservative populism has been evident elsewhere too. They oppose Germany's transition to renewable energy, on the grounds that it demands too much state-subsidization - "energy production must prove itself on the market," the party website says.

It's still too early to assess whether the AfD has established itself as a party that has permanently changed the political landscape in Germany, or whether, as the mainstream parties claim, the AfD is still just a protest party. Lucke claimed on Sunday night that the election results were a "proof of trust" from the electorate. Their leader in Brandenburg, Alexander Gauland, was more triumphant.

"We have arrived in German politics, and no one will push us out anymore."

The AfD's test now is to see how they handle the responsibility of real representation, and whether they can maintain their momentum for two more years - when the western German states go to the polls.

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