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Alice Weidel: Populist trophy, PR curiosity

Kathleen Schuster
September 4, 2017

She’s young, she’s unflappable and she’s perhaps the savviest AfD politician when it comes to the media. DW looks at how the right-wing party’s co-candidate, Alice Weidel, has flummoxed Germany.

Deutschland Alice Weidel AfD
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Alice Weidel wants you to know that she is angry. She's angry about Germany's bailouts for Greece. She's angry about poverty among the elderly. But most of all, she's angry about the government's refugee policy.

"Of the 1.4 million asylum seekers in this country, only 0.5 percent qualifies for asylum under German law, which makes you wonder what is going on this country, ladies and gentlemen!" Weidel roars into the microphone.

"This," she emphasizes, "is scandalous."

Weidel's half-closed hand marks time as she lists each "breach of law" committed by the German government. She elicits applause again and again from the small audience gathered in the western city of Trier.

Read: What you need to know about Germany's political parties

High above the scene, several policemen peer down from arches of the city's ancient Roman gate - the Porta Nigra - to surveil the outraged protesters meters away from the event. Between the booing and the clapping, it's hard to say which side is angrier about the direction Germany has taken.

Weidel's speech is remarkable. Within 15 minutes, she shows the public a side apparently reserved only for AfD supporters. Germany at large knows her differently.

Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland
The 76-year-old Alexander Gauland and 38-year-old Alice Weidel, both of the AfD, are the oldest and youngest candidates, respectively, in this year's election Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

'Young, clever, lesbian'

Born in 1979 in the northwestern city of Gütersloh, Alice Weidel's early life was marked by academic achievement. She was one of the top in her class at the University of Bayreuth, where she received degrees in both business and economics. Weidel also spent six years in China - whose pension system was the focus of her doctoral thesis in 2011 - and reportedly speaks fluent Mandarin.

Weidel joined the AfD in 2013 during its founding as a euroskeptic party. In a recent interview, she admitted that her partner was so "annoyed" with her rants about what was wrong with German politics that she encouraged her to go into politics and do something about it.

Read: What the terms 'right' and 'left' mean in the German election

The 38-year-old resides with her Sri Lankan-born partner and two sons in Biel, Switzerland - a detail that has raised questions about where she pays taxes. Her second place of abode is in her southwestern constituency of Bodensee.

While her academic achievements - not to mention her consultancy work at Goldman Sachs and Allianz - lent her credibility in the AfD, the German press has boiled her down to a handful of attributes.

As the political magazine Cicero put it in their election edition: "Young, clever, lesbian."

Diagram of party ratings 25.08.2017 ENG
The AfD has inched forward in the polls since campaigning began, but must fight to guarantee seats in the Bundestag in September

Indeed, the biggest question on many critics' minds since the announcement of her candidacy in April is: How can Weidel, who is raising children with another woman, represent a homophobic party? The AfD is, after all, the party that wanted to sue the government over same-sex marriage.

A less confident public figure might become defensive, but not Weidel. During a press conference in May, she pointed out that Angela Merkel's CDU long opposed marriage for same-sex couples, but allows them to enter into civil unions. "There's nothing more to say on the topic," she told reporters.

The AfD's voice of reason

Weidel's poise and her knack for sidestepping the racist and xenophobic remarks by its leading politicians has led her critics to believe that her main role is to lure voters otherwise put off by rhetoric that smacks of the country's Nazi past.

"I have no use for nationalistic ranting," Weidel told the Südwest Presse in 2016. In subsequent interviews she has described the AfD's tendency toward far-right sentiments as problematic and a distraction from important discussions.

Instead of ranting about the refugee crisis or Islamist terrorists, Weidel opts for a calm tone. Photos of refugee suffering "broke her heart," she said on a national talk show in 2016 - but pointed out that Germany couldn't help everyone. In the same interview, she said Islam wasn't part of Germany because there wasn't any such thing as one religion of Islam.

In interview after interview, she smiles, relaxed and confident. No insult or accusation describing her party as populist, racist or xenophobic unnerves her.

When a local reporter asked her about right-wing radicals in the AfD, Weidel responded sunnily: "I don't want to step on your toes, but that's hogwash."

Frauke Petry and Björn Höcke
Frauke Petry (left) and Björn Höcke (right) are the most widely known AfD politicians - in part from their numerous missteps. Weidel was named co-candidate in April after Petry announced she would forego the positionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Even when defending her co-candidate, Alexander Gauland, she takes questions in stride. What did she think of his saying that Germany's integration commissioner, Aydan Özuguz, should be "disposed of" in her Turkish homeland for saying Germany had no recognizable culture? "It's a matter of taste."

Giving the crowd what it wants

Weidel shows a different side at the AfD rally in Trier, however, where she's introduced as a politician who thinks "political correctness belongs in the trash heap of history."

Her first words are an attack on Özuguz - a name she pronounces with mock exaggeration. The integration commissioner is a "stain" on the German government and a "disgrace" for Germany, Weidel says several times, as she reads aloud quotes from the integration commissioner off her phone.

Above her head, the AfD projects a red circle with "Take back your country!" and a blue circle "Alternative for Germany." They spin slowly against the facade of the Roman gate. The crowd cheers.

Afterward, undecided voters told DW they considered Weidel "the most competent" of the AfD politicians, while others remained uncertain about her political credibility given her inexperience.

AfD election results ENG
The AfD has stolen the support of disgruntled voters on both the right and the left of the political spectrum at the state level

Protesters who spoke to DW, on the other hand, noted that her style was less radical than other AfD politicians, but ultimately just as problematic in view of the fact that she supported "racist" and "homophobic" policies.

A rocky final stretch

But while Weidel's oratory has been her strength on the campaign trail and on German TV, her public appearances as of late have become even more cryptic. Her behavior has raised questions about whether her patience has finally worn thin or whether she is purposely playing the victim of establishment politics and the media in order to appeal to skeptical AfD supporters.

Just days after Trier, a remark from another politician about the AfD being "right-wing radical" prompts Weidel to leave a live debate in a huff. She repeats the move with a local reporter two days later.  

By the week's end, an email from 2013 emerges, rife with Nazi-era connotations. Her critics view the revelation as confirmation that she is just as radical as the more vocal AfD leaders she's been careful to keep at arm's length. 

The newspaper behind its release stands by the veracity of the affidavit given by the recipient of the 2013 message. Weidel wants to halt further publication of her correspondence, but has since stopped calling the email a fake.

Gaffes aside, support for the AfD continues to hold at around 10 percent, meaning the right-wing party could become the strongest opposition party in the Bundestag this fall. Indeed, the bigger concern awaiting Weidel and the AfD is yet to come: They must find a way function in a parliament full of parties that have already refused to work with them.

Read: A quick guide to German elections