For the first time in the modern history of the Federal Republic of Germany, voters have elected a far-right party to the country's parliament. But what does "far-right" mean and how will political culture change? The answers are both very complicated and really simple.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) promotes itself as a patriotic, democratic, conservative party. However, critics from across the political spectrum say it's an association of right-wing extremists. In a pointed reference to the AfD, Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel bemoaned the fact that "true Nazis" would once again be part of the Bundestag.
A complex identity
Speaking to foreign journalists, Germany's leading academic expert on political parties, Oskar Niedermayer, defined the AfD as follows: "The spectrum of positions represented in the AfD cannot be summed up by one word. I call them a nationalist-conservative party with increasing connections to right-wing extremism."
That's the complicated bit. The simple one is the AfD's lone effective issue. The official party platform may be 76 pages long and offers many positions on everything from taxes to public TV to animal rights, but a recent study by the respected Bertelsmann foundation found that the only topic upon which significant numbers of Germans believe the AfD had any expertise was immigration.
On election day, the party listed seven reasons to vote for the AfD on its website – the first four were about asylum seekers, immigration and Islam. Party platform notwithstanding, the AfD actually offers only one thing to many people: fear of and hostility toward those considered foreigners.
"The conglomerate of refugees, terrorism and Islamism is what the AfD has as a core brand right now,” Niedermayer said.
That doesn't mean that all AfD voters are would-be Nazis, but there is no overlooking the fact that the party sees the German people as not just one group equal in worth to all others, but as an ethnic-cultural unit that is superior to, for instance, people from Northern Africa. Nowhere is this more apparent than when one looks at the individuals the AfD put forward on lists of potential parliamentarians.
Read more: Anti-AfD protests break out across Germany
A parliamentary group full of right-wing extremists
As things stood on the evening of September 24, initial exit polls indicated that the AfD stood to win around 87 Bundestag seats. The vast majority of those — if not all — were to be filled from lists of candidates in each of Germany's 16 federal states. Those candidates reflect the character and views of the party nationwide. The controversial statements made by party leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel — some say intentionally — have been extensively reported on, but the party's parliamentary group is hardly likely to now temper its stances.
In the past, AfD party members — many of whom are now virtually assured of Bundestag seats — have declared that the "constitution is not written in stone," demanded an end to "the cult of guilt" surrounding the Holocaust, warned against "the creation of mixed peoples" (Mischvölker - also translatable as mongrel peoples) and called Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading mainstream politicians "traitors to their people."
Many have been linked to smaller right-wing extremist parties like the NPD and Die Republikaner (the Republicans) and are connected with the PEGIDA and Identitarian movements, which are both kept under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
There are, of course, relative moderates in the party, led by party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry, but as Gauland made clear after the first exit-poll prognosis when he vowed to "hunt down" the new government and Merkel, the election result is not going to encourage the AfD to back off its more radical positions. After examining the views of 94 candidates with a realistic chance of gaining a Bundestag mandate, Spiegel magazine's Bento platform deemed 35 of them "right-wing extremists."
Thus Germans can expect words, phrases and concepts which haven't been in currency since the Third Reich to be used in the Bundestag.
AfD likely to be political pariahs
Precisely what role the AfD will play in the 19th Bundestag of the Federal Republic won't be clear until a governing coalition is formed. With the SPD ruling out another coalition with the conservatives, the AfD likely won't be the largest opposition party. And in any case, lacking any allies in the Bundestag, the AfD will have little to no influence on any legislation passed in the coming four years.
New parties in parliament, as both the Greens and the Left Party experienced, usually have a difficult early time of it. And the particularly controversial AfD will hardly be an exception.
"They won't have any real effect at all on German politics," said Niedermayer. "No one will form a coalition with them. They'll be excluded. Their motions will be shot down. If they put forward reasonable motions that other parties might agree with, they will be voted down, and the other parties will put forward slightly modified motions."
For instance, the AfD vowed to initiate a parliamentary inquiry about what Weidel called Merkel's "illegal" decisions, but it is well-nigh unthinkable that they will be able to persuade any of the other parties to support that endeavor.
What the AfD will have is a soapbox beyond the considerable speaking time the party will enjoy in the next Bundestag. Political talk shows and other institutions of German political culture will now have no choice but to give spokespeople for the far-right party a platform. That will make the tone of German politics far less measured, far more coarse and cutting, than it is now.
It remains to be seen how Merkel, who is known for being absolutely unflappable, will fare in a new daggers-out environment.
Is the stage set for a power struggle?
Another open question is whether those who voted for the AfD will be satisfied with verbal barbs toward the chancellor without any concrete legislative results and whether the party leadership will rip itself apart in fights over the spoils of power.
For a long time, the "moderate” Petry was the party's most recognized and popular figure, but Gauland and Weidel have gained dramatically in stature by leading the successful campaign. On the morning after the election, Petry who won the Bundestag seat in her home district outright dropped a bombshell by declaring that she would not sit with the AfD group in parliament, essentially making herself an independent. Petry quit the party entirely shortly thereafter.
On the other hand, there is also possibility for tension between the 76-year-old hardliner
Gauland, who is more connected with extremists, and the 38-year-old Weidel, an economist who lives in a same-sex partnership and is considered more "moderate." The AfD's leaders could also represent the fault line along which the party breaks apart.
"I still think that the AfD only has a chance to establish itself in the long term in Germany, if they draw clear boundaries between themselves and right-wing extremism," Niedermayer said. "It's never happened in the history of the current Germany that such a party has established itself, and it's difficult under any circumstances for any party to establish itself. Because of our past, I don't see this happening.”
For the time being, though, AfD are celebrating a historical election result that redefines the parameters of German political culture — and not in a sense that promises to increase social harmony in the country.