As the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gets its congress underway, protesters gathered outside the Stuttgart venue. The party's popularity in Germany is growing as it meets to set out its policies.
Alternative for Germany (AfD) seems to be thriving right now. Founded in 2013, the party is represented in half of Germany's state legislatures. Polls put AfD at 20 percent in the east, trailing behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, which means that the party is challenging the Social Democrats. The AfD's popularity has climbed to 13 percent overall in Germany.
According to the Allensbach Institute in Berlin, the AfD's success can be attributed to the stance taken by establishment parties when refugees were arriving in Germany in large numbers. "The concerns of many citizens were not perceived in parliament," said Renate Köcher, the head of the institute.
The AfD's sudden strength has allowed it to shed any reservations about associating with Europe's other right-wing populist parties. Now, AfD maintains contacts with the Freedom Party of Austria, Marine Le Pen's Popular Front in France and the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. The AfD's youth organization has even sought an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Internal party disputes have not been heard in public recently, and the AfD's unity obviously goes over well with voters.
What does the AfD stand for?
This weekend's AfD congress in Stuttgart will focus on policies. Right now, the outline of the party platform is 74 pages long.
The AfD has taken on all topics. Policies include the desire to ditch the euro currency, to deport foreigners convicted of crimes and to reinstate military service for young men. AfD members also feel that gender-mainstreaming has undermined family values, that a national culture must prevail and that no "special rights" should be granted to Muslim students. Gender quotas for businesses are unwanted.
Furthermore, proposals stipulate that asylum requests must be made outside the Schengen Area and taxes and levies curtailed. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will not be supported. The AfD would like to eliminate energy subsidies and get the nuclear power plants running again. The party would promote increased respect for farmers and help the environment by promoting village life. In foreign affairs, the AfD would like to build a better relationship with Russia.
'Party of social peace'
The AfD's platform was developed in several working groups and with the participation of 1,000 members. The first draft statement contained proposals for the elimination of accident insurance and commercial and inheritance taxes. The draft advocated the privatization of unemployment insurance and public service broadcasting.
In the final draft, however, some of these measures have been scratched, or at least watered down. The AfD probably does not want to alienate salaried workers.
In March, party leader Frauke Petry referred to the AfD as a "party of social peace." The preamble of the party platform claims, "We are liberals and conservatives."
Some experts say there's no contradiction in these different statements, given that the AfD is currently a "heterogeneous protest party" that functions as a collective movement and strives to appeal to a wide range of voters. This strategy will come to end when the party commits itself to a platform.
"The AfD will have to decide where it wants to go," Petry said in an interview with Germany's "Stern" magazine. "Does it want to be conservative-liberal party or a nationalist conservative-social party?" The AfD's latent conflicts may surface and become the decisive factor in the search for an answer.
But not Islam
Ahead of the AfD's congress, party leaders have put Islam on their media agenda. Like refugees, Islam has the potential to hold public interest for years - this is good for populists such as the AfD.
"Islam does not belong to Germany" is stated in the draft of the AfD's platform. Minarets have been rejected as an "Islamic symbol of authority" as has the muezzin call to prayer. Furthermore, the AfD has called for a general ban on burqas and for forbidding headscarves for teachers and students in schools. Other regulations are still being contemplated, but generally AfD leaders claim that they would like to initiate a debate on "political Islam" and its compatibility with the German constitution.
That debate is already in progress: Even the German president has had his say. Joachim Gauck believes that there is nothing to criticize about religious freedom. He affirmed the statement made in 2010 by his predecessor, Christian Wulff: "Islam belongs to Germany."