DW looks at the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the third-largest group in the Bundestag. Its main appeal is its opposition to Angela Merkel's welcoming policy toward migrants.
From anti-EU to anti-immigration
When it was formed in 2013, the AfD's main thrust was its opposition to bailouts of indebted European Union member states like Greece. But over time, it has become, first and foremost, an anti-immigration party.
The AfD completely rejects Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy toward refugees, particularly from the Arab world, which saw more than 1.5 million migrants arrive in Germany since 2015. The party wants to change Germany’s constitution to get rid of the right to an individual hearing in asylum cases and would seek to immediately deport all those whose applications to remain in Germany are rejected, regardless of whether the countries to which deportees are sent back are safe or not. It also advocates foreigners who commit crimes in Germany being sentenced to prisons outside the country and treating minors as young as 12 as adults for certain offenses.
The AfD wants to seal the EU's borders, institute rigorous identity checks along Germany's national borders and set up holding camps abroad to prevent migrants from leaving for Germany in the first place. Although nominally favoring a targeted immigration policy along the Canadian model, lead candidate Alice Weidel has said the party wants to achieve "negative immigration" to Germany. It also argues that Germany is being "Islamified" and portrays itself as a bulwark for traditional Christian values.
The party is generally regarded to be split between "moderate" and "far-right" wings, the latter of which seem to be gaining ground, shading over into racist nationalism and anti-Semitism.
The party's lead candidates are a study in opposites. Representing the "far-right" faction is 76-year-old Alexander Gauland, a lawyer and journalist who was a member of Merkel's conservative CDU for 40 years. The "moderate" faction is personified by 38-year-old economist Alice Weidel, who lives at least part-time in Switzerland with her female partner, who comes from Sri Lanka, and two children.
Germany split on AfD support
The AfD is not only the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, it has managed to get into the European parliament and all the state parliaments
But it is the Eastern States, the former GDR which reunited with West Germany in 1990, where the party is performing the strongest, polling over 20%.
The AfD is often accused of pursuing a strategy whereby one of the "far-right" members breaks a social taboo with an outlandish, offensive statement only for a "moderate" member to qualify his or her colleague’s remarks.
Right-wing populism or a new home for neo-Nazism?
There is no absolute consensus about how to describe the AfD as a political phenomenon, other than as a party well to the right of the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, after Merkel moved the conservatives significantly toward the center.
It appeals both to the right-wing extremist fringe and to people dissatisfied with the status quo who may or may not have previously participated in the electoral system. Some experts have talked of a "radicalization of the center." Studies have suggested that the AfD has siphoned off supporters from all of Germany's established mainstream parties, and it currently boasts more than 23,000 members. Thus, some commentators see the rise of the party as part of the same populist international trend that saw voters in the UK approve the Brexit referendum and Americans elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.
The official AfD platform says that the party supports direct democracy, separation of state powers and the rule of law and order, but throughout its short history, critics have accused individual members, like Thuringia's partly leader Björn Höcke, of promoting neo-Nazi ideas and using neo-Nazi language. Detractors say that the party follows a strategy of targeted breaks with anti-Nazi taboos in an attempt to appeal to right-wing extremists.
The rise of the AfD has, in any case, coincided with the decline of far-right parties like the NPD into virtual insignificance. Nonetheless, the Interior Ministry has said it doesn't regard the AfD as unconstitutional, and the party is not kept under constant surveillance by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency.
Family, Pegida and the press
The AfD also sees itself as a defender of the traditional nuclear family model. It is anti-abortion and, despite Weidel's prominent role, hostile to "alternative" lifestyles. It favors a series of measures that would increase state financial support for traditional families and is, in this respect, not fiscally conservative.
Like Donald Trump or populist leaders in eastern Europe, the leaders of the AfD display a conspicuous hostility toward the mainstream media. The AfD favors doing away with the licensing fees that underwrite Germany's public television and radio stations, and journalists are regularly excluded from party events. Reporters who call the press hotline at the party's headquarters to request information often get a pre-recorded message telling them to "try again later."