The upstart Alternative for Germany party attracted voters in the last election with its tough anti-euro currency stance. Now, in a quest to enter the European Parliament, the party is embracing populist sentiments.
At their most recent political convention, members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were hoping to come up with a list of candidates for the upcoming European Parliament elections, but their plan didn't quite work out. Around 100 candidates had applied for the 10 available positions. Following a 12-hour session, only six candidates had been decided on - and the session has been extended to next weekend.
Nevertheless, AfD leader Bernd Lucke used the meeting as an opportunity to present the party's new slogan, "Mut zu Deutschland" (loosely translated: "Courage to be German") - which replaces the former slogan "Mut zur Wahrheit" ("Courage to Uphold Truth") that helped the AfD gain 4.7 percent of the votes in Germany's last federal election. The party members present welcomed the move.
Riding the anti-EU wave
New popularity-winning tactics are behind this transformation. The party's original core agenda, abandoning the euro currency, has not been enough to attract the support it had hoped for. So it is now embarking on a more national-conservative campaign, reflected by the new slogan.
Some of the speeches held at the convention were in tune with this shift in focus. Party members warned of the "loss of cultural identity" and of Germans being "absorbed by a European mush." They supported the idea of a Europe consisting of individual "fatherlands." Arch-conservative party member Beatrix von Storch stated that "democracy only functions at a national level." One candidate was also told off the record that "the German flag could now be hoisted" in Brussels.
The convention delegates were united in their criticism of the "undemocratic" EU institutions and an "overinflated civil servant system with princely retirement pensions." Lucke claimed that the EU bureaucracy had drifted far away from the European values of "democracy, solidarity and subsidiarity."
All this criticism, however, does not prevent the party from pitching its own candidates for the European Parliament. And while this seems contradictory, the AfD sees its position justified by the fact that its EU-skepticism is not all-encompassing. It is not opposed to the Single European Market, labor mobility or open borders - it simply rejects the idea of a centralized European state.
Seeking like-minded partners
The AfD has realistic chances of gaining over 3 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections in May - a threshold that would secure its entry into the assembly. Meanwhile, prominent party member Hans-Olaf Henkel has expressed the AfD's ambition to make it into the German parliament at the next federal election in four years' time.
Winning seats in the European Parliament would help the AfD gain more publicity and perhaps form a caucus of like-minded parties from other countries. Experts predict that the number of euroskeptics will be higher in the next European Parliament than in the current one. And Henkel has stated that the AfD will definitely seek a "dialogue with those like us." But there is a possible trap in this strategy: many similarly euroskeptic parties from countries such as France, the UK or the Netherlands are openly right-wing populist. The AfD would need to distance itself from such views in order to not lose voters in Germany.
At the party convention, Lucke attempted to draw clear boundaries with regard to this issue. When asked what he thought of the right-wing UK Independence Party, Lucke said he did not like the "aggressive" message it conveyed. However, he pointed out that concerns about immigration were justifiable. He also claimed that other parties could be persuaded to express these kinds of sentiments in a different way.
Need for defined voter base
In the German political landscape, the AfD sees itself as an outsider. Lucke has made references to the "battle against the alliance of established parties" and ridiculed some of the election campaign posters put up by Germany's major parties, criticizing their politicians for trying too hard to please everyone. At the same time, he pointed out that some positions originally advocated by the AfD have now been adopted by mainstream parties.
Lucke, a 51-year-old economics professor, remains the undisputed top figure within the AfD. Having received around 90% of delegate votes, he is the party's lead candidate for the European Parliament elections. However, he has also been accused by some of being power-hungry and dictatorial.
In a recent opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the contradicting ideologies among AfD supporters were presented as a threat to the party's integrity. It portrayed them as a mixture of "educated economic liberals" and "protest voters" from the conservative camp. Lucke is currently attempting to reconcile these two sides. At the same time, there is also a third group, largely ignored at the recent party convention: left-wingers, many of whom voted for the AfD at the last federal election. These could have, however, lost their enthusiasm for the AfD since industry giant Hans-Olaf Henkel, former president of The Federation of German Industries, became a member.
If the AfD manages to gain over 3 percent of the vote and get into the European Parliament, three or four of its members would represent its interests at the EU level.