The leader of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has demanded party leaders in the west of the country shape up and look to match their eastern colleagues after a string of poor results in state elections.
The party's mood has not been lifted by internal chatgroup messages published by broadcasters NDR and WDR this week. These showed dozens of its Bundestag members indulging in fantasies about seeing "the traitor" Angela Merkel behind bars, and hoping for an economic collapse that would bring down "the old regime." Co-leader Alice Weidel said such messages were unacceptable.
"I am utterly disappointed," the other co-leader Tino Chrupalla told reporters this week, after the latest election humiliation in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the AfD barely scraped over the 5%-hurdle that allows representation in the state parliament. "Of course in the next few days we're going to have to talk about to what extent we need an Initiative West," he told reporters.
But Chrupalla was vague about what policies such an initiative might entail. The success of the party in eastern Germany, where the AfD is still a significant force commanding over 20% of the vote in some regions, will be hard to replicate. The party is less of a political pariah in what was communist East Germany until 1990, with its members' reactionary, sometimes racist statements met more with indifference than outrage.
Ronald Gläser, a spokesman for the AfD in Berlin, said the party wouldn't be tailoring a special program for western Germany. "The AfD's issues are the same in the whole country: monetary stability, sovereignty, freedom, rule of law, and, of course, security," he told DW. "The AfD has to address social groups who still falsely feel represented by the CDU, FDP, or even the SPD, and educate them about the damaging policies of these parties."
A party of the east?
Sunday's result is part of a worrying trend for Germany's youngest major political party. Still not a decade old, the AfD spent several years spooking the center-right establishment with its anti-immigrant rhetoric, which caught on among a significant section of the German population. But the party has fought nine state elections and one general election since November 2019, and in each one, its percentage of the vote has dropped.
The latest results in North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, and especially Schleswig-Holstein, where it failed to enter parliament altogether, have only reinforced the impression that the AfD is retreating to its strongholds in the East. But Chrupalla claims the party's aim remains to score "two-figure results" everywhere, before warning that their fortunes could not be turned around quickly: "That takes time, that takes discipline, which I demand," he said.
Political analyst Manes Weisskircher explains that the AfD has failed to find effective strategies "to mobilize votes when the issue of immigration is not on the agenda." But he argues that predictions about the party sliding into irrelevance are premature. The party may have lost its core issue since the 2015 refugee influx subsided. But that could easily change over the next few months, believes Weisskircher. "For example, if there was a shift in public opinion on war refugees from Ukraine or ongoing economic problems."
In the meantime, the war in Ukraine appears to have divided the AfD, with some factions having made no secret of their pro-Russian sympathies in the past. Weisskircher argues that the war has opened new rifts in the party that are just now being exposed.
He adds that a similar internal conflict emerged in the last two years over the party's position on the fringe "Querdenker" movement, which fiercely opposed the government's coronavirus protection measures.
Gläser was confident his party would recover. "In times of crisis people rally around the government," he said. "The consequences of the Ukraine war and the failures of this and the last government will soon become obvious to everyone. That's when sensible alternatives, like those we offer, will see more demand."
The socialist Left Party should be regarded as a "cautionary" example for the AfD, according to Weisskircher. The far-left party has scored even worse results in recent elections, for a similar combination of reasons: public leadership battles and the perception that it harbors pro-Russian sentiment.
The king is under attack
Unifying the party line and keeping figures on the fringes quiet has been a challenge for Chrupalla, who has only been AfD chairman since 2019. A power struggle is expected again for the upcoming party conference in June.
Chrupalla recognizes that strife has turned voters away, though he garnered some criticism with a rather crude metaphor on the issue: "It's like going camping in the old days," he said. "People always used to complain that it was wet in the tent, but those who complained were actually the ones who peed in it. That has to stop."
Chrupalla has said he is determined to run for re-election as party leader, but his authority is already under public attack. Chrupalla has "ended the success story of the AfD," Bundestag member Joana Cotar declared in a joint statement with other members of the party leadership board. "He neither represents the whole party, nor does he convince voters. He must not run as federal spokesman again." She complained that voters had "fled in their droves" to other parties in the recent state elections.
"We need new issues and a new style with which we can bind voters to us in the long-term," added Norbert Kleinwächter, deputy leader of the party's Bundestag faction. "For that, the federal leadership desperately needs new heads with commanding presence and new ideas."
For his part, Chrupalla accused the federal leadership committee of failing to support him during his two-and-a-half-year tenure, claiming that, as the only one left on the committee from eastern Germany, he couldn't be solely to blame for the party's failures.
But there is an eastern German AfD politician with a national profile that would present himself as an alternative: Björn Höcke, party leader in Thuringia, where the AfD is the third-biggest force in the parliament.
Höcke, originally a history teacher from the western German state of Hesse, is the most extreme nationalist of the AfD's more prominent figures. He has gathered enough party loyalty to present a threat to Chrupalla.
But he is a highly controversial figure — in 2019 a German court ruled that it was not libelous to describe him as "fascist" — and for many observers, a Höcke leadership would indicate that the party had given up any hope of winning over voters outside its heartlands.
Edited by: Rina Goldenberg
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