Germany’s rightwing populist AfD Party wants to continue to be whatever German voters wish them to be. But staying wide open to the extreme right may prove risky in September elections.
"The AfD now is like hanging a light bulb in the middle of the jungle, you attract all sorts of creatures.” That's how a medium ranking member of the Alternative for Germany once explained its appeal to far right voters to me.
The Party's co-leader Frauke Petry has just failed to pull the plug on that particular voter attraction device. Instead of closing itself to the right wing spectrum, the AfD has just elected a rather odd combination as its top team for September's general elections: Alexander Gauland, a 76-year former official of Angela Merkel's CDU party. Internally he's seen as leading the right wing party bloc, but Gauland is at least as interested in forcing German Chancellor Angela Merkel back towards his definition of a conservative course, as he is in establishing his AfD party as a long term political force.
Gauland will be campaigning alongside the AfD's rising star, Alice Weidel, a 38-year-old self-declared libertarian business consultant, who lives with her female partner and child. One would be pushed to find anyone who could be further down the other end of the party spectrum from Gauland, especially in a party renown for its homophobic views. The AfD may have just decided to stay wide open to the right, but nobody can accuse them of being boring.
So what happened to the AfD icon Frauke Petry? On Saturday some 600 AfD delegates taught their co-party-leader a lesson she is sure not to forget. A lesson very similar to the one Frauke Petry herself once inflicted on the Party's founder Bernd Lucke, who left after losing his battle to avoid a drift to the right to none other than Frauke Petry. Now Petry's own attempt to build a firewall to the far right wasn't even deemed worthy of discussion at the convention. A crushing and very public defeat, that she didn't see, but must have felt coming. Like Bernd Lucke two years ago, she overestimated her inner party power base.
Instead there were standing ovations for her AfD co-leader Jörg Meuthen when he called for delegates to take "their country” back after complaining that he could "hardly see any German faces” when he looks at the high street in his home town of Stuttgart, the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg. His party conference speech reaffirmed his own political mood swing from a conservative liberal to a right wing populist in his own right.
Frauke Petry will remain on as co-leader of the AfD after failing to rein in the more extreme elements in her party
Petry fights on
Despite her humiliation, Frauke Petry has vowed to stay on as co-leader of the AfD, keeping her place at the party leadership table. She will be hoping that some day before September's elections her colleagues at the top will share her fear that the failure to distance themselves from extreme right voices will cement the AfD's right wing image beyond the point of no return. Something she fears is toxic for potential voters in the middle classes who may rush back under the mainstream roof of the established parties in September's elections, once the AfD's shine of being anti-establishment has worn off.
Petry knows she may still be proved right. But delegates in Cologne's Maritim Hotel convention center simply didn't share her sense of urgency. They wanted "unity" at all cost instead of yet more draining party leadership confrontations. Large parts of the party have long started perceiving Petry's tireless attempts to get rid of extreme right voices like regional AfD Party Head in Thuringia State, Björn Höcke, as a witch hunt. Höcke made international headlines by describing Berlin's Holocaust memorial as a ‘monument of shame' and youtube is littered with his unapologetically racist speeches.
But the traumatic crash in public support down to 4% in the polls two years ago was not down to right wing extremists in the AfD, it was public punishment for the infighting that saw the party founder Bernd Lucke throw in the towel. In the end it was the so-called migration crisis, especially Chancellor Merkel's open border policy for migrants, that saved the AfD from the brink of insignificance.
It now holds seats in 11 regional parliaments but is feeling the pinch from the collective comeback of the big parties, the Social Democrat SPD and Chancellor Merkel's CDU Party. The AfD knew that the top polls of 16% last autumn may be hard to translate 1:1 into general election results. But the fact that the party is struggling to get into double digit figures at all should alarm its leadership.
Ultimately the party's plan to transform Germany's political landscape may not work out after all. And if the strategy of ‘unity' at all cost fails over the coming months, Frauke Petry is sure to be there to offer her help in – once again – rescuing the party from itself. It's a big gamble, but it would not be the first Shakespearian twist in the AfD's short history as the rising force on the right.